With the Advent of Edge Architecture, the Old Boys Are Making Way for Newcomers From Mumbai and Burkina Faso

Move over Foster and Stern: tomorrow’s design stars are the ones building schools and community shelters in their native countries.

If the dozen most famous architects had gathered for a group portrait five years ago it would have looked like a fraternity of pasty white men from New York, Los Angeles and London. Picture the clubby assembly smiling for the Leica: Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, and Robert A.M. Stern, seated in the front row with Norman Foster, Steven Holl and Richard Rogers standing behind.

Simmons Hall

That group bagged the lion’s share of high-profile institutional projects–museums, libraries, federal courthouses–over the past few decades in part because they delivered a predictable level of design with minimal risk to the institution. Who could object to a museum by Gehry or a library by Graves? Simmons Hall at MIT (above) by Steven Holl, for example, was beset with lighting and circulation problems, but the architect’s name inoculated it against any sever criticism of its performance.

kere school

After their long domination, architecture’s lily-white cohort may finally e edging off the stage, at least for now. As the focus of design shifts from high-budget icons to the needs of less privileged communities around the world, a diverse group of young architects like Carin Smuts from South Africa and Diébédo Francis Kéré from the West African country of Burkina Faso are gaining notice. (The school Kéré designed for his hometown of Gando is above.) Though many were trained in Harvard or Yale, the newcomers are based in India, the Far East, South America and other archipelagos of design, and they are more concerned with problem-solving and sustainability than making iconic forms for powerful clients.


A sampling of this scattered group convened this month at a villa in Jyväskylä, Finland, for a symposium on what organizers at the Alvar Aalto Academy called “Edge-Paracentric Architecture”, or architecture that lies outside the mainstream. So what are the characteristics of the new Edge architecture? Many of its partisans use contemporary design in a ways that supports craft and locally sourced materials. Bijoy Bain of Studio Mumbai, for example, created the house shown above on the Arabian Sea using Ain, a local hardwood, and traditional Indian interlocking joinery.



Unlike the museums and other institutional buildings the old boys imposed on communities–often with scant relationship to the surroundings–the new Edge architecture is designed from the ground up. In fact, the line between architect and citizenry can be almost indistinguishable. Patama Roonrakwit of Thailand, for example, invites locals to help her map the site and develop schemes for the structures in that country’s poorest neighborhoods, like the temporary shelter in Chianmai shown above.