Martha Thorne is the dean of the architecture school at IE University in Madrid and has served as the executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize—dubbed "the Nobel Prize for Architecture"—since 2005. From a vertical forest rising in a busy metropolis, to a power plant city dwellers can ski down, here are her top picks for the game-changers of the last decade.
Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects (2009)
Location: Berlin, Germany
The Neues Museum was originally built between 1841 and 1859, but was extensively damaged in bombings during World War II, leaving it ruined. It reopened in 2009 after being restored and rebuilt by David Chipperfield Architects in collaboration with Julian Harrap Architects.
Thorne picks the Neues Museum for how the project "understands restoration as a process of uncovering the essence of an historic building, respecting it yet giving it a voice. Not only in terms of function, but giving it a voice in terms of contemporary architecture….It [marked] a new way of understanding historic restoration and reuse."
The High Line by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf (2009-2019)
Location: New York, New York
In 2003, the Friends of the High Line hosted an open "ideas competition," which asked designers and architects how they would transform an "eyesore" of an abandoned, elevated rail line into a public park. They received 720 proposals across 36 countries, with the winning team consisting of landscape architects and urban designers James Corner Field Operations, design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf.
The most recent spur opened in 2019, and the project is hailed for its reinvention of industrial infrastructure. "It was able to bring open space into an area that was desperately in need of it, in a high-density city, and allow anybody to use that space," says Thorne.
Aqua Tower by Studio Gang Architects (2010)
Location: Chicago, Illinois
When Thorne first heard about the Aqua Tower project led by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, she admits to wondering how the Chicago-based architect could improve on an "uninspired, developer-built high-rise." "[Gang] took a risk, and it turned out extremely well," says Thorne. "Not only is it a beautiful building at the edge of Millennium Park; she has a very thoughtful concept about light and wind and the climate around it as she designed the terraces that curve around the building."
The 82-story, 876-foot-high tower stands out on the Chicago skyline, thanks to undulating outdoor terraces that seem to ripple across the facade and facilitate interaction between the building’s occupants and sightlines across the city. "It was very influential because it seems to give a message that developer buildings don't have to be horrible," says Thorne. "They can also be a good neighbor in the city where they are."
Bosco Verticale by Boeri Studio (2014)
Location: Milan, Italy
Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, comprises two residential towers in the Porta Nuova district of Milan. In addition to providing homes for humans, the project fosters enough vegetation to equal 30,000-square-meters of forest and undergrowth, says the firm. This plant-based exterior "curtain" filters the sun, regulates humidity, produces oxygen, and absorbs CO2 and microparticles.
"It’s quite ambitious because the plants create a microclimate for the buildings," says Thorne. "It’s trying to find harmony between the built and natural environments. And clearly, that's going to be more and more important in the future."
Universidad de Ingeniería & Tecnologia (UTEC) by Grafton Architects (2015)
Location: Lima, Peru
For this "vertical campus" for an engineering university in Lima, Peru, the Dublin-based Grafton Architects conceived of a reinforced concrete structure that evokes a cliff on one side, and scales down to the residential quarter of the Barranco district on the other.
"It's a very robust building made of concrete on a very, very difficult site," says Thorne. "The back side…slopes down to the highway. And the front is a much more residential scale. Grafton did a masterful job with the site, making a building with one material but it has an enormous variety of open spaces."
The architects stacked university functions vertically, starting with larger laboratories on the lower levels, and teaching spaces and administration above that, with the library at the top.
The project won the RIBA International Prize for world’s best new building in 2016. "Grafton Architects have created a new way to think about a university campus, with a distinctive vertical campus structure responding to the temperate climatic conditions and referencing Peru's terrain and heritage," said the jury panel.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture by Adjaye Associates (2016)
Location: Washington, D.C.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture rises on the National Mall in a three-tiered "corona" shape that was inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid, a traditionalWest African figure with a crown.
Exhibits are both below and above grade. "That you start at below ground level and you work your way up meant I left the building feeling enormously hopeful," says Thorne. "I could feel like an individual in the building, and I also felt part of something larger."
Incremental Housing by Alejandro Aravena/Elemental (2016)
In 2016, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena said, "We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life." That same year, the Pritzker Prize–winner’s firm Elemental released four residential designs as part of his incremental housing concept, a means to make well-designed housing easily available to people in poverty.
The open-source plans allow residents to finish and customize the house to their liking. "Aravena has revolutionized how we understand low-income housing. It's not just shelter," says Thorne.
The Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2019)
Location: New York, New York
The team of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group, designed a building that can expand and contract thanks to a telescoping shell on rails. The base building of the Shed contains two levels of gallery space, the Griffin Theater, and the Tisch Skylights, which has a rehearsal space, a creative lab for local artists, and an event space. When the outer shell is deployed, it forms the McCourt, a light-, sound-, and temperature-controlled hall that can host large-scale performances, installations, and events.
Thorne appreciates how the project celebrates cultural activities and can be used for so many different functions—all within a city where space is at a premium. "To realize the importance of culture and the need for space in the city, and then do it with a movable building: I think they took a huge risk, and good for them," says Thorne. "My hat's off to them."
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhill, also known as Amager Bakke, is a waste-to-energy power plant that doubles as a recreation destination. In addition to providing city residents with electricity and radiant heating, the 41,000-square-meter plant sports a ski slope, hiking trail, and climbing wall. The project supports Copenhagen’s goal to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025.
"I think [the project] represents those qualities of architects or designers that we all talk about, which is solving multiple problems at one time and seeing opportunities where others see challenges," says Thorne.
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