To accurately assess trends in architecture and urbanism one needs a time horizon longer than 365 days. Just to design a building often takes longer than that. Even so, 2008 may come to be seen as a watershed year for contemporary architecture. The electrifying campaign for the U.S. presidency, the sputtering housing market and the global economy's free fall, the ever-more chilling and urgent need to slow the pace of global warming: these developments and more awakened architects to the realization that they've more important things to design than monolithic, high-end goodie bags. 2008 just may be the year in which doing the right thing, or at least thinking about how one might go about doing the right thing, became cool. Many of the year's most important developments were in arenas where architecture met social need: environmental responsibility, urban design, and infrastructure.
Buildings and their construction account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumed in the United States every year; some industrial countries are better (Germany), others worse (guess). For many years--for as long as they could, actually--most architects neglected the need to revamp their practices to address their own contributions to global warming. But in 2008, the blinkered approach became passé. Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which, from its exterior, looks like a piece of unusually pliable synthetic turf slung atop a bumpy white box, garnered ecstatic reviews. Whether the building is good or bad is irrelevant; the point is threefold: the building looks nothing like what we've seen before in architecture, environmental concerns shaped its design, and people applauded the result. Two less-highly touted, extremely impressive attempts to marry ecological concerns with progressive design were Kieran Timberlake's pavilion for the "Home Delivery" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a transparent, five-story townhouse prototype constructed largely off-site and from off-the-shelf materials, and Francisco Mangado's Spanish Pavilion for Water Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain, a dense thicket of fluted ceramic columns set in a shallow reflecting pool that offered a poetic reinterpretation of the proverbial primitive hut. No longer will sustainability and aesthetics be considered contradictory terms.
Various large-scale projects in Singapore, Dubai, Toronto, and elsewhere underscored the importance of urban infrastructure to economic development. For last summer's Olympics, Beijing's densely knit, low rise hutongs were razed to make way for a new ring road, an expanded and upgraded rail system, an enormous grass-covered park, a Claes-Oldenburg-sized Bird's Nest, and a translucent box filled with Mr. Bubble. Reached via a new international airport terminal (the largest in the world) by Foster + Partners, Ove Arup and PTW's National Aquatics Center, the Water Cube, and Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, permanently replaced the dated image of communist China from a country peopled with gray-clad workers on bicycles and overseen by a smiling Chairman Mao to a pulsating, global metropolis filled with come-hither architectural icons. Well-done or not, Beijing's multi-billion-dollar spending spree, along with other large-scale projects, have helped to put the word "infrastructure" on every politician's lips. Promisingly, Barack Obama appears to be ready to put our money where his mouth is.
Finally, in 2008, two of our greatest living architects received just recognition, and we lost a third. Jean Nouvel, master of the night, won the Pritzker Prize, and Peter Zumthor, master of the sublime, won the equally prestigious Japan Art Association's Praemium Imperiale award. Both architects, especially Zumthor, owe an aesthetic debt to Jørn Utzon, who died in late November. Testimony to architecture's ability to fend off mortality, Utzon left behind him not only the world-famous Sydney Opera House, but also, in his native Denmark, his wonderfully humane estate for the elderly in Fredensborg, and the inspiring, exquisite Church at Bagsvaerd, a building that can move even the most ardent unbeliever to capture, if momentarily, the meaning of transported souls.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.