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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Book Review: Contemporary European Architecture ATLAS

Contemporary European Architecture ATLAS: European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture Mies van der Rohe Award 1988-2015, edited by Celia Marín Vega, Marina Romero
Fundació Mies van der Rohe, 2016
Hardcover, 864 pages

[All photos © Adrian Pedrazas, courtesy of Fundació Mies van der Rohe]

In the course of the EU Mies Award's 27-year history – from 1988 to 2015 – 2,881 projects have been nominated from 38 countries. Juries of the biennial award have selected fourteen prize winners since its impetus shortly after Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion was reconstructed in 1986, as well as selecting eight emerging architect prize winners since 2001. Catalogs have accompanied each of the fourteen cycles, highlighting the winner, the finalists, and shortlisted works, but nothing to date has attempted to tackle the whole archive – all 2,881 projects. Perhaps spurred by the 2013 book and 2014 exhibition that celebrated the EU Mies Award's 25th anniversary, the Fundació Mies van der Rohe has published Contemporary European Architecture ATLAS. The huge volume presents all of the projects, but it does it in a way that attempts to make sense of the geographies, typologies, and chronology of the prize.

[The 864-page book's colorful fore edge]

The task of organizing the thousands of projects into a coherent presentation (done by graphic designer Núria Saban Prat) is hinted at by the cover and the book's fore edge; the former is a rainbow of colors overlapping each other in apparently random curves, while the latter reveals stacked blocks of colors: green, red, orange, etc. Color is used to express a project's typology, which means that the book is arranged in terms of type: 22 building types (e.g. culture, health, mixed use, infrastructure, and office) grouped into four thematic sections: Housing, Society, Structure, and Production & Consumption.

["Order of things" spread showing the color-coded typologies at top grouped into the four thematic sections at bottom.]

The projects are then further defined in terms of keywords, such that the culture typology consists of cultural centers, museums, and so forth. These keywords combine with the chronology of the cycles to determine precisely where a project is located within the book. To distinguish between nominees, shortlisted works, finalists, and winners, the projects have a set amount of real estate: 1/8 page for nominees (1/4 page for featured nominees), 1/2 page for shortlisted works, single pages for finalists, and two-page spreads for winners. Only winners and finalists include descriptive text, such is the large number of projects and thrift of space even in a book this size.

[A project spread showing two shortlisted works on the left and the bookmark key on the right]

A few graphic elements layer some information over what's on the page: running across the top of each page are black bars that correspond with the years projects on that page were nominated; and running up and down the side of the pages with their colored edges are black bars that correspond to the country and white circles whose size relates to the quantity of projects per program per country. Large amounts of information like this would otherwise lead to a cluttered page, but to remove text from the page the book comes with large bookmark key, where one side is for the left page and the other side is for the right page. After figuring out where exactly to place the bookmark (about a 1/4 inch from the edge), it's easy enough to use though not always necessary – sometimes only to decipher the code of the ever-present black bars and white circles.

[Spread with 2015 winner of the EU Mies Prize: Barozzi / Veiga's Philharmonic Hall]

Accompanying the projects are a few essays, none more helpful than Dietmar Steiner's "My Barcelona and the EU Mies Award." Having served on the jury multiple times, the Austrian architect is in good position to give some personal insight into the prize. At one point he relates: "The best choice for 2001 would have undoubtedly been Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron, or the Lucern Cultural Centre by Jean Nouvel. But Switzerland prevented this." They prevented it by refusing to ratify a cultural agreement with the EU, a move that disqualified the country from participating after the 1998 cycle, when Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's Art Museum of Bregenz won. In 2001 the Mies van der Rohe Award became the official architecture prize of the European Union, locking in the cultural agreement that has meant no Zumthor or Herzog & de Meuron buildings (among others) have been in the running since. While this means the EU Mies Award is as much political as it is architectural, the creativity of the architects and the buildings they produced in the continent's cities is undeniable. The ATLAS provides a taste of this while piquing interest in the award's future cycles.

European Contemporary European ATLAS is available for purchase at


  1. Hey have you had a chance to go through the book itself ? Is it an interesting read or just a jumble of many disparate ideas without a coherent argument to read the projects all together ?

    Thanks !

    1. Yes, I only review books that I've gone through. Not sure why your second question has to be an either/or, but I'd say that the essays offer various lenses for looking at the projects that make up the bulk of the book. I don't think it's possible for one coherent argument to rise to the fore, though I found Steiner's essay mentioned in my review to be most helpful. Additionally, the many graphic illustrations (maps, charts, etc.) offer ways of navigating the projects. Theoretically there could be a book as big as this one that collects essays about the prize; but here there isn't enough room to do that.


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