Plenty of buildings: From a pile of books, you can read about the state of architecture in different European countries.

In Austria it smells of wood, in Belgium it is brick

Architecture year books gather buildings and bundle themes. Is a national performance show of building still up-to-date? Examples from all over Europe show - the format remains alive.
by Florian Heilmeyer | 2/27/2017

Not a lot is written about architecture annuals. The main problem in general seems to be that they present a somewhat too predictable selection of buildings in one country, chosen by a committee or jury as “exemplary,” and somewhat too slowly at that. Each featured edifice comes with a following description of its many merits usually in an altogether toothless manner. If you are looking for controversial, radical, contradictory discussions and positions on the built environment, design and the general state of architecture, then, sorry, look elsewhere. But is this really true?

Some countries have it, others do not

Annuals have a long-established tradition in Germany, Spain, Austria and the Netherlands. The “Swiss Building Documentary Service” was introduced only a few years ago in Switzerland and turns out to have a strong commercial focus with a barely comprehensible selection of projects and lots of advertising. In Norway the second edition of “Made In Norway” has just been published, no fewer than six years after the first. Yet this proves to be a thoroughly positive deceleration, manifested in incredibly slender form with a good range of projects and few essays. In Finland, in contrast, we find the perhaps least known of all European annuals, lovingly self-published by the Museum of Finnish Architecture and only available from the museum store. Yet in the UK, France, Denmark, Portugal and Italy, where we could think such a tradition exists and where the quality of architecture would arguably justify such a collection, it turns out there are no architecture annuals at all.

The books extend the view beyond the architecture: yearbooks from Hamburg, Spain and Norway.

If we lay the books next to one another the national straightjacket for each selection suddenly seems strangely old fashioned. As we would expect, there are hardly any specific differences noticeable in terms of construction in European countries; Spanish architecture seems no less German than German Spanish or Dutch, even if the Flemish annual does have a stronger whiff of clinker and the Austrian one of wood. Yet what is remarkable is that questions of national or regional architectural particularities are only very rarely pondered in the books – despite the fact that in each selection national borders are a fundamental criterion and are only crossed in reports on the work of local architects abroad, for instance.

Be smart, do not make a performance show

The Austrians go all out every other year to produce a particularly massive tome of an annual, entitled “Best of Austria,” which addresses the question of Austrian architecture as a series. Indeed, for each edition a non-Austrian author is invited to examine Austrian architecture in the year in question through an outsider’s eyes. This has produced a collection of highly readable essays by, among others, Vera Grimmer, Hans Ibelings and Kaye Geipel, which together may possibly constitute a worthwhile publication project in their own right one day. Otherwise, the topic of “national showcasing” is addressed in remarkably few of the annuals available; most are content with a pure show of architecture, with a flyover, in which little or no attempt is made to find a common thread that could perhaps reveal similarities in the collection of projects.

One for Wallonia, one for Flanders: Belgium has two separate yearbooks.

In Belgium the country’s special political structure alone precludes the national element –here the language barrier is more important than the external state border. As such, there are two entirely independent annuals, namely “Inventories” for Wallonia and Brussels, and the “Flanders Architectural Review” for the Flemish-speaking north of the country. “Inventories” attracts attention with an extra feature: Nine illustrators were each given five pages to create a story on one of the buildings featured. This approach breaks up the otherwise overly dry, staid architectural instruction of most annuals with humor and esprit, and at the same time the buildings are presented in a sophisticated yet easily understandable manner. The Flemish edition on the other hand goes to the trouble of distilling an annual theme from the buildings. In 2016 it was “Tailored Architecture,” meaning architecture that, against the background of the current economic conditions of austerity, seeks to be not only economical, but also robust and of consistent high quality and to find a “customized solution” for the task at hand. Precisely in their being diametrically opposed – in format, approach, selection and publication schedule – the two Belgian annuals say a great deal about the country and its architecture.

An archive that would be worthwhile to bundle

The Spanish almanac thrives on the forceful political essays of its editor Luis Fernández-Galiano, which anchor the 20 selected projects in the political, economic, social and ecological changes of today. At most the buildings only partially withstand the socio-political demands on architecture as can be extrapolated from Galiano’s essays, yet precisely this makes the annual one of the ones most worth reading. The volume brought out by Hamburg’s Architektenkammer also belongs in this category. It presents, in detailed essays, 19 selected structures ranging from a penthouse to a day-care center less as successful design objects and more as prime examples attesting to specific changes in society. Nine essays comprising the “Hamburg Feuilleton” in the second half of the book address overarching themes of urban development and architecture, for instance Hamburg as “Arrival City” or monument protection for major Modernist buildings. With these essays the book provides, retrospectively, the architecture review that has been lacking in this quality in the cultural sections of daily newspapers all year.

One thing is two: From 2017, the German Architecture Yearbook is published every year as an "architectural guide", in which almost 100 buildings of the year are gathered.

And indeed, we would like to see many of the essays in the architectural annuals enjoy greater readership and availability. As such it is all the more surprising that none of them has developed a serious online presence – even just to make the periodically compiled projects permanently available in future as a continually growing archive. Deutsches Architekturmuseum has now started out down this road with the latest edition of its annual and launched a website featuring not only the 20 projects selected for the exhibition and publication, but all the just under 100 buildings that the museum researches every year anyway for the DAM Award. Regularly updated and with a useful navigation, it will quickly grow into an impressive online archive of new architecture in Germany, which would be even more worth reading if it included the essays from the annual – perhaps after a certain fixed period of time. Perhaps it would then also be a place where people can reflect meaningfully on interconnected trends and topics in architecture, in Germany and beyond. In any case, this project is a step towards an architecture annual 2.0, which is actually long overdue.