2016 in 20 Buildings

Our editors weigh in on the projects that defined the year in architecture.

Our editors weigh in on the projects that defined the year in architecture.

This is not a typical “best of” post, in which we enumerate the year’s most praise-worthy design projects. While that would be a long and diverse roster, the buildings that will define 2016 are not necessarily the best, but rather the most prominent and the most viral—the projects whose images circulated to far more people than will ever set foot inside them.

We asked four Surface editors to look back at some of the year’s most-shared projects and to tell us why they think these buildings will—for better or worse—come to characterize the year in architecture.

(Photo: Courtesy NMAAHC)

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group
Washington, D.C.

No building captures our current political moment more than this masterpiece from Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye and his team. Likely the last building to be constructed on the National Mall, it has filled a physical void on the five-acre site, but also an emotional one for all of its visitors. Architecture can and should do more to help bridge historical and cultural gaps, and this is a prime example. —Spencer Bailey, Editor-in-Chief
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(Photo: Hufton + Crow)

World Trade Center Transportation Hub Oculus
Santiago Calatrava
New York City

How do you say “Murphy’s law” in Spanish? Whatever it is would have been a more apt name for this transit hub-cum-mega-mall that, from the outside, resembles a dinosaur skeleton. Plagued by delays and with a price tag of more than $4 billion, it is one of the most expensive and overwrought eyesores ever built in the United States. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the repellent exterior of the Oculus by Spain’s Santiago Calatrava that is most jarring, but the acoustics within. Through the excruciating din of its vastness, the words “take the bus” can clearly be heard. —Charles Curkin, Senior Editor

(Photo: Nic Lehoux)

Via 57 West
Bjarke Ingels Group
New York City

For his first big commission in the U.S., Bjarke Ingels built a pyramid on the West Side of New York City. (Wouldn’t you?) Conceptually reminiscent of his Mountain House in Copenhagen, the pointed slice of apartments overlooking the Hudson River centers around a landscaped courtyard. I’m not sure how much a shared yard can bring together the people who inhabit the building’s luxury rentals with those in its 142 “affordable” apartments. But it’s a nice thought, at least. —Lily Wan, Assistant Managing Editor

(Photo: Rafael Gamo)

Speed Art Museum
Why Architecture
Louisville, Kentucky

Kulapat Yantrasast and his firm, Why, designed an addition to the Speed in Louisville that doesn’t try, like too many museums, to will the city onto the global cultural map with some bombastic form. Instead it uses a few elegant moves to grab attention on the ground. The designers wrapped an offset, three-story stack of rectangular boxes in fritted glass and corrugated metal, giving the building a soft shimmer as you move around it. The addition’s cantilevered stair creates another touch of drama as it steps up from a squat neoclassical building next door. —William Hanley, Digital Director
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(Photo: Luc Boegly + Sergio Grazia)

Design Museum
John Pawson and OMA

Finally, a building worthy of the Design Museum’s ambitions under director Deyan Sudjic. John Pawson has skillfully inserted more than 29,000 square feet of Dinesen oak planks into this unforgettably ethereal interior, situated inside the former Commonwealth Institute building. —SB

(Photo: Ruedi Walti)

Musée Unterlinden
Herzog & de Meuron
Colmar, France

It’s safe to say Herzog & de Meuron came close to architectural world domination again this year. The firm’s partially underground, all-brick extension to Musée Unterlinden is starkly contemporary, while respecting the medieval architecture of the original building and surrounding structures. On the street level, the mostly subterranean expansion has the silhouette of a modestly scaled, gable-roofed house. But the best part of the project is tucked away inside: a colossal cast-concrete spiral staircase that bridges the old gallery spaces with the new. —LW

(Photo: Courtesy Allied Works Architecture, Jeremy Bittermann)

National Music Centre
Allied Works Architecture
Calgary, Canada

Allied Works Architecture’s National Music Centre of Canada wears its influences on its sleeve. Brad Cloepfil and his firm channeled rock formations in the nearby Canadian Rockies with its massing, terra-cotta cladding and curving skybridge, drawing comparisons to Louis Kahn for their efforts. —WH

(Photo: Iwan Baan)

Estonian National Museum
DGT Architects
Tartu, Estonia

It’s rare that a young architecture office wins a project of this scale, but that’s exactly what happened to to DGT—the firm hadn’t even officially formed when its three partners received the commission to design this museum in an open competition. The result, located on a former Soviet military base, offers an ingenious solution to placing a museum on an unusual site: Its gargantuan form melds seamlessly into a decommissioned runway. —SB
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(Photo: Adam Mørk)

Harbin Opera House
MAD Architects
Harbin, China

This silly building seems to have little going for it other than being photogenic. I’ve used this very line to describe work by the late Zaha Hadid, and now we’re presented with another version of giant, spiraling, gelatinous forms. I’m not sure if anatomy was an inspiration here, but if the photographs are any indication, MAD seems to have envisioned the main auditorium as a human pelvis. —CC
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(Photo: Iwan Baan)

Faena Forum

The Guggenheim-inspired Faena Forum is a “Whoa, what’s that?” moment on Collins Avenue. The cultural component of the $1.2 billion Faena District, the art and performance center’s perforated, sculptural structure encloses underwhelming interiors, but that may be the point. The subdividable, flexible spaces inside should work well for the Forum’s performance-focused programming. —LW

(Photo: Courtesy Kent State Center for Architecture and Environmental Design)

Kent State Center for Architecture and Environmental Design
Weiss Manfredi
Kent, Ohio

Designing a building for an architecture school means taking on not only the usual considerations of site and program, but also the self-conscious task of delivering a facility that will embody architecture as a discipline. Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi met that challenge with a building at Kent State notable for its layered facade, which follows the interior circulation, and its pinstriped brickwork. —WH

(Photo: Lester Ali)

Public Safety Answering Center II
New York City

Up in the Bronx, at the PSAC, which stands for Public Safety Answering Center, distress calls are received in excess of 11 million each year. This hulking block of a building is bereft of humor, but makes up for it in strength and security. Its purpose and the important work done between its four walls have rightfully diminished the need for spectacle. —CC
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(Photo: Iwan Baan)

Switch House at Tate Modern
Herzog & de Meuron

As if the Tate Modern wasn’t already incredible enough, now there’s this twisting, torquing force of brick and concrete. Though the interior spaces feel, for the most part, a bit too capacious, empty, and cold, Switch House on the whole brings extra oomph to the institution. —SB

(Photo: Via 432 Park Avenue)

432 Park Avenue
Rafael Viñoly Architects
New York City

Rafael Viñoly’s tribute to the blandness of ultra-wealth has immutably altered the Manhattan skyline like no other development since the original World Trade Center. Viñoly famously lost the competition to rebuild the WTC to Daniel Libeskind, so perhaps it’s not a coincidence that 432 Park Ave, for now the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere, looks like a Mannerist middle finger to the city. —CC

(Photo: Courtesy Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art)

Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
SO-IL and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Davis, California

New York-based SO-IL and the San Francisco office of BCJ designed the first purpose-built art museum at UC Davis (and one of only a few institutions of its kind in California’s Central Valley). The building turns on a single idea: A canopy composed of triangular, white aluminum dowels seems to float on top of single-story structure and shades a plaza in front of the entry. With its patchwork inspired by surrounding fields, the canopy gives the otherwise modest museum an unforgettable identity. —WH
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(Photo: Justin Kaneps/Surface)

San Francisco

Snøhetta continues to impress with its knack for knowing how people filter through space. With the same know-how the firm brought to New York’s ongoing Times Square reconstruction, here they’ve tweaked the flow of visitors through SFMoMA’s 1995 Mario Botta-designed building with their addition. It’s not a perfect fix. The site is cramped to begin with—and Snøhetta’s going higher doesn’t necessarily make it better—but it’s a smart one, and one that makes the museum experience extremely pleasurable. For the most part, Snøhetta’s work disappears, as it should in an institution with such an impressive permanent collection. —SB
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(Photo: Stefano Graziani)

Kunstmuseum Basel
Christ & Gantenbein
Basel, Switzerland

Proving that Herzog & de Meuron isn’t the only game in town when it comes to museum design, Basel-based Christ & Gantenbein completed a duo of projects this year: a severe concrete addition to the National Museum Zurich and the equally hard-edged but comparatively yielding Kunstmuseum Basel. The latter adds to the museum’s 1936 building, a fairly fascist structure mixing modernism with classical motifs, designed in part by Rudolf Christ, great uncle of Christ & Gantenbein’s Emanuel. Connected to the existing structure beneath a street, the addition matches the older building’s roof height and blends well with the neighborhood. Its facade of grey brick bands is handsome but stingy when it comes to windows. Inside, an imposing marble stair shows that monumentality still runs in the family. —WH

(Photo: Courtesy WXY Architecture + Urban Design)

Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Salt Shed
Dattner Architects
WXY Architecture + Urban Design
New York City

This is one of the cheekier offerings from this year, an architectural double act with the garage as the Hardy to the salt shed’s Laurel. Designed by Dattner Architects with WXY Architecture + Urban Design and commissioned by the Department of Sanitation, the sensibly rectilinear garage and its expressionistic companion are perfect foils for one another. —CC

(Photo: Iwan Baan)

Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa
Steven Holl Architects
Iowa City, Iowa

In 2008, historic flooding caused severe damage to the University of Iowa’s campus, its arts buildings in particular. This year saw the completion of major components of the rebuilding effort, including a new music school by LMN Architects and Pelli Clarke Pelli and a performing arts space by OPN Architects. A visual arts building by Steven Holl Architects, which opened in the fall, follows the designer’s signature strategy of cubes and cutaways to bring daylight into the structure. On the interior, a series of stairs connects studios, classrooms, and social spaces. Of all the new architecture on campus in 2016, Holl’s porous project stole the show. —WH

(Photo: Iwan Baan)

Herzog & de Meuron
Hamburg, Germany

The roofline of the Elbphilharmonie reminds me of the peaks of whipped egg whites. And after nearly 13 years of delays due to cost overruns and legal hiccups, Herzog & de Meuron’s glassy confection enclosing two concert halls finally sits firmly on top of a former warehouse near Hamburg’s port. The addition’s biggest success is how its rectilinear envelope respects the footprint of the existing structure, creating harmony in the contrast between new and old. —LW

(Top photo: Courtesy BIG, Iwan Baan)

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