Two Optimistic Architecture Yearbooks: a comparative analysis

[originally published in Annuel optimiste d’architecture 2008 / Optimistic Architecture Yearbook 2008, Les Éditions de la French Touch. Book can be purchased online here]

One of the interesting things about architectural yearbooks is that they provide a snapshot, or to use a more appropriate metaphor, a cross-section of the architectural scene of a part of the world in a given period in time. Comprising a selection that has been vetted from a much larger body of work, a yearbook can be likened loosely to a musical compilation of “greatest hits”, or a “best of” literature collection. These kinds of collections usually contain a number of works that, although adhering to a certain artistic style or genre, are nevertheless highly diverse, precisely to display the range of possibilities or the dynamism of that style or genre. A compilation defines a community without establishing hierarchy. The same goes for a yearbook, which is quite different from a juried awards programme in which a pecking order is established. While the latter is about who is better than whom, the former is about a cultural scene and its activity.

But, a year is not a lot of time to see what is happening on a cultural scene, especially one that is dedicated to architecture. As Richard Scoffier remarks in the 2007 Optimistic Yearbook, “a single year is rarely meaningful in architecture, given that even the smallest construction usually takes years to reach completion.” Moreover, modern architecture, just like fashion, political ideology, or rock and roll, tends to be broadly categorized according to decades. It is a commonplace to employ prefixes such as “1920s—” or “60s—” when we want to convey the architectural Zeitgeist of a period, even when the period doesn’t conform very exactly within the frame of a decade. If we go further back in history, the prefix suddenly becomes a century. The mere mention of a certain decade or century is capable of conjuring a plethora of imagery in the mind. So what about the year? Why do we celebrate the end of a year, read year-end reviews, and collect yearbooks? A given year does not constitute a “period” in the way a decade or century does. Would it not make more sense to publish decade-books?

It takes the passing of a year, that seasonal cycle that ends with a void in the western calendar, for (at least most of) us to be provoked into reflecting. When a year goes by, we are prompted to look back, take stock, and maybe do some spring-cleaning. This is the essential service that a yearbook provides. It is an annual reflection that results in a selection. In order to come to meaningful conclusions, yearbooks have to be looked at in multiples, not individually.

In the meantime, we must do with only two Optimistic yearbooks: 2007 and 2008. Probably not enough to analyze the emergence of a new school or “ism”, or to characterize the decade that is coming to a close, but nevertheless enough to get a snapshot of what happened during these two years. Coincidentally, these happen to be the two years which bracket the onset of a global economic crisis, a record high in the price of oil, and the bursting of what turns out to have been an artifically inflated real estate bubble. Fortunately, France seems to be one of the few countries to have avoided entering into recession in 2008. So while two yearbooks may not serve to paint a definitive picture of the architecture of the 00s in France—though they certainly help in this regard—they can still perhaps provide us with some comparative insight.

It is noteworthy that while the 2007 yearbook included 67 entries by 50 different architectural firms, this year’s includes only 61 entries, but by 55 architectural firms. Could this be a sign of harder times in which there is less work to go around, or is it merely that 2008 is not as good a vintage as the year before?

Of the 67 works in the 2007 edition yearbook, 10 are housing, while in the 2008 edition that number rises to 12, a significant increase considering there are fewer entries in the latter edition. It is encouraging that housing—especially social housing projects—is on the rise in architecturally qualitative terms. If only the same could be said for other countries! Housing, the largest sector of the construction industry and usually the worst-built and most ill-considered building type is, in theory at least, the most primordial and humane form of architecture, and so it is an important indicator of the level of social commitment on the part of commissioners and architects.

Another indicator that is of interest here is the adaptive reuse of older buildings, as this speaks volumes about the degree to which architecture is seen as a contributor to the health of existing communities and to ecological sustainability in general. In the 2007 yearbook, around 27% of the projects involved the adaptive reuse of buildings, while in 2008 that figure declines to only 12%. Hopefully this is only a blip in the longer term, as the adaptive reuse of buildings is an architectural specialization that has been steadily growing in Europe. It is well-known that a building that is upgraded or remodeled instead of demolished and converted into landfill does more to reduce carbon emissions than a comparable building that is built anew no matter how “green” or “ecological” it may be.

Similarly, we could analyze the number of brownfield projects. In the same way that adaptive reuse recycles buildings, brownfield construction recycles land. In the 2007 yearbook, a full two-thirds of the projects occupy brownfield sites, several of which are urban infill projects, while in 2008 this is the case for only around half the projects. The lower proportion of brownfield projects in 2008 is, again, hopefully only a blip in the longer term picture, as brownfield development is an effective way of combating urban sprawl. Nevertheless, if we compare with yearbooks (or national awards programs) of other countries, especially in faster growing economies such as Asia, France shows a far greater commitment to brownfield development in its most representational projects.

The size of a project, as well as its cost, are also significant factors. If a yearbook is a sampling of “best of” architecture, then it might be interesting to compare what the best costs. In the 2007 yearbook, the cost per square meter of the projects ranged from € 367 for a smart and economical residential renovation to € 5588 for a transportable luxury hotel room by an artist team. The average cost per square meter of all the projects selected in 2007 (for which data is available) is € 1830. In 2008, the cost ranges from € 681 for a covered boulodrome to € 10077 for a mixed-use complex. The average cost per square meter in 2008 is just slightly higher at € 1942. Interestingly, the cost per square meter of yearbook-quality architecture turns out to be only slightly higher than that of standard construction in the end. But what is most significant is the wide range of budgets with which the works included in both yearbooks have been built, clearly a reflection of the broad diversity of project-types that have been selected.

Of course, it is understood that architecture yearbooks such as this one do not purport to represent an accurate cross-section of the overall building production taking place in the country, and so this analysis makes no pretense whatsoever at providing across-the-board conclusions. It only looks at the crème-de-la-crème of building production. Another shortcoming is that with only two yearbooks having been published to date, the numbers are not statistically very reliable. An analysis such as this one should really be done with more samples from a longer timespan. Therefore, it is important to understand the outcome as being somewhat aleatory and my conclusions as being highly personal speculation. In a way, this is an exercise in pata-physics more than it is one of serious statistical analysis. If this experiment provides any useful insight at all, it might be interesting to repeat it in a few years to see what has changed, hopefully without the mistakes and shortcomings of this one.


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