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  • Roshni Kannan

10 most influential architects of the 21st century (Part-1)

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” - Mies van der Rohe

People have always built and shaped their environment. And as long as people have been building, there have been architects. As the quality of the built environment evolved, so did the public’s appreciation for good design and function, and it was most definitely the architects overseeing them who were responsible for this new-found observation and appreciation of the built environment.

Architecture is arguably the very fabric that clads our society. Architecture begins with an idea – the role architecture plays in our everyday lives is astronomical. The maestros of architecture as we know them today did not start out to change the world, but their approaches, ideologies and philosophies have set them on radical journeys that have shaped the world and society as is visible to us today.

Famous architects yield influence, inspire their peers and shape the architecture of the world. As a result, this presence can heavily influence our lives and society. These are architects who are celebrated for being good, innovative, or different in what they have done through their professional life. We call them “star architects”, because their fame and celebrity is akin to that of movie/music stars.

Although it is difficult to name the world’s greatest architect, there are several master architects who are strong contenders for the title. This article will take a look at some of the most famous and influential architects of the 21st century and their built legacies.

1. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal

“Good architecture is a space where something special happens, where you want to smile, just because you are there. It is also a relationship with the city, a relationship with what you see, and a place where you are happy, where people feel well and comfortable—a space that gives emotions and pleasures.” - Jean-Philippe Vassal

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, photo courtesy of Laurent Chalet

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met in the late 1970s during their formal architecture training at Bordeaux. While Lacaton went on to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning, Vassal relocated to Niger, West Africa to practice urban planning. Profoundly influenced by the sparing resources within the Niger’s desert landscapes, they began their architectural doctrine, and built their first joint project here as well. They vowed to never demolish what could be redeemed and instead, make sustainable what already exists, thereby extending through addition, respecting the luxury of simplicity, and proposing new possibilities.

Throughout their careers, the architects have rejected city plans calling for the demolition of social housing. They proposed to focus instead on designing from the “inside out” to prioritize the welfare of a building’s inhabitants and their desires for larger spaces. Through both new construction and the transformation of buildings, honoring the pre-existing is authentic to their work. In a collaborative project with two other architects, they transformed 530 units within three buildings at Grand Parc in Bordeaux, France (2017). The main aim of this project was not just to upgrade technical functions but more notably, to add generous flexible spaces to each unit without displacing its residents during construction.

FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault

53 Units, Low-Rise Apartments, Social Housing, photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault

For over three decades, they have designed private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public space, and urban strategies. The duo’s architecture reflects their advocacy of social justice and sustainability - prioritizing generous space and freedom of spatial occupation through economical and ecological materials. This enables the architects to build larger living spaces affordably, as demonstrated by the construction of 14 single-family residences for a social housing development (2005), and 59 units within low-rise apartment buildings at Neppert Gardens (2015), both in Mulhouse, France; and in adjoining mid-rise buildings consisting of 96 units in Chalon-sur-Saône, France (2016); among others.

Transformation of G, H, I Buildings, Grand Parc, 530 Units, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin), photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault

Transformation of 100 Units, Tour Bois le Prêtre, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot), photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault

Current works in progress include:

  • Housing transformations of a former hospital into a 138-unit, mid-rise apartment building in Paris, France

  • An 80-unit, mid-rise building in Anderlecht, Belgium

  • Transformation of an office building in Paris, France

  • Mixed-use buildings offering hotel and commercial space in Toulouse, France

  • A 40-unit, private housing, mid-rise building in Hamburg, Germany.

They teach, have many publications to their credit, and among many past laurels, were awarded the Pritzker prize for Architecture for the year 2021.

They work and reside in Paris, France.

2. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, photo courtesy of Alice Clancy

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara met at the School of Architecture at University College Dublin (UCD). They studied under rationalist architects who challenged preexisting thoughts and cultures of society. Shortly after graduating, they and three others established Grafton Architects. As the years passed, only Farrell and McNamara stayed with the practice.

McNamara attributes her awakening to the experience of architecture to her childhood, and the sense and experience of what a house could be to different people. She recalls the sensation of space and light manifesting in the house, and calls it “an absolute revelation”. Farrell, on the other hand, attributes her affinity to architectural experience to music and her childhood. Stone warehouses, crafted houses and a canal neighbouring streets and squares that cut wonderfully into the landscapes of Offaly, Ireland brought her close to nature, and she states that this has had a profound effect on how she sees the built environment around her.

Having done several projects of varying typologies in their native country of Ireland, their first international commission transpired 25 years later. They collaborated with Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan (2008) to build the Grafton Building, which was awarded World Building of the Year at the 2008 inaugural World Architectural Festival in Barcelona. This was the first of their many international projects, all of which have received critical acclaim from the international architectural community. They were also the recipient of the 2012 Biennale di Venezia Silver Lion Award for the exhibition, Architecture as New Geography.

Universita Luigi Bocconi, photo courtesy of Federico Brunetti

Farrell and McNamara were appointed as 2018 co-curators for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia. They have previously held the Kenzo Tange chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (2010) and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University (2011).

They are Fellows of The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and International Honorary Fellows of RIBA. They were awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture by the RIAI in 2019 and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2020. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were the recipients of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture for the year 2020. They have taught and lectured internationally.

Significant projects include:

  • North King Street Housing (Dublin, Ireland 2000)

  • Urban Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland 2002)

  • Loreto Community School (Milford, Ireland 2006)

  • Solstice Arts Centre (Navan, Ireland 2007)

  • Offices for the Department of Finance (Dublin, Ireland 2009)

  • Medical School, University of Limerick (Limerick, Ireland 2012)

  • University Campus UTEC Lima (Lima, Peru 2015)

  • Institut Mines Télécom (recently completed, Paris, France 2019)

  • Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics (recently completed, Toulouse, France 2019)

Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics, photo courtesy of Dennis Gilbert