Mipim, the annual property summit in the South of France, returns as developers and city mayors gather to map out the future.
It’s noon on a windy day in Cannes and two prospecting seagulls hang in the air over Caffé Roma – the institution that caters to whichever crowd happens to be treading the Palais des Festivals’ famous red carpet. The restaurant’s rows of outdoor tables are teeming with real-estate men, some of whom are already well on the way to their third pint of the day. In a brief moment of sunshine, they peel off their navy blazers in order to shed the gilets underneath. The men – and they are almost exclusively men – are clearly happy to be back at Le Marché International des Professionnels de L’immobilier, or Mipim, the world’s leading property fair.
Each March, shiny-suited representatives from the property industry descend on the Côte d’Azur’s Promenade de la Croisette with a unity of purpose: to fund, design and develop buildings and make money doing so. Or at least this happened each March until 2020. But after two years of tinny video calls for most Mipim goers, in-person meetings are back, and what better way to herald their return than over seafood and champagne in the South of France? “Here you can meet people, which is so difficult to do over the phone. I see more Danish people here than I could in a year of trying to meet in Denmark,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner at Bjarke Ingels Group. Normally, “people are guarded… but here, those guards are down,” says Bergmann, whose Copenhagen-headquartered architectural firm took home an award for designing Audemars Piguet’s spiralling museum near Switzerland’s French border. Photos evoke a Viennese whirl covered in grass.
This year’s Mipim is a return to the scenes of 2019 and before – the lubricated backslapping bonhomie aboard marina-bound yachts, lunchtime boules in the nearby square and the warren of stands and pavilions in the bowels of the Palais des Festivals – but anyone hoping that the pandemic would simply be forgotten is in for a disappointment. The crosswinds of coronavirus, environmental issues and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine are difficult to ignore. Mipim is normally a global affair but the majority of representatives are from Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Egypt’s hulking tent was practically the size of its new administrative capital). There are decidedly fewer delegates than usual from further afield.
“The pandemic, but also travel restrictions were still important until a few weeks ago, and you do not decide to come from Singapore or Hong Kong to Mipim last minute. You need to prepare your stay,” says Ronan Vaspart, Mipim’s managing director. Vaspart says that some of the absent Asian investors were represented by their London colleagues.
For those who make it, the conference’s 2022 iteration is not exactly a dry affair – photos from sweaty nightclubs filter through on social media and the thudding bass of developer Linkcity’s Tuesday-night bash at the Majestic Hotel can be heard from the beach. But even so, the festivities are not quite as raucous as in recent years.
“I know a few people who haven’t come or firms that have sent a smaller contingent this time – now feels like a moment for taking stock,” says Gavin Diamond, the bridging finance director at London’s United Trust Bank, with the sizable caveat that a moment for taking stock hardly means a pause in dealmaking. Partly thanks to government support that may soon dry up, there’s “a very healthy demand for property right now and it’s very much a sellers’ market”, says the South African, whose bank has a little under €2.5bn in managed assets.
Down in the frenzied, stuffy aisles of the Palais’s basement, a few countries’ stalls are still in the throes of coronavirus. Japan’s sparsely attended lounge promises an electrifying programme of speeches focused on the pandemic and “proptech” – the ubiquitous portmanteau fusing “property” and “technology”. For those wanting to move on, there are new opportunities to be had. The pandemic has weakened the demarcations that have traditionally separated offices from hotels and suburbs from city centres. Few people here want to be working from home but office workers and the parameters of what constitutes an office are now up for grabs.
Maud Bailly, Accor’s ceo of Southern Europe, is here to bang the drum for her company’s bet on luring the patrons of co-working spaces into her company’s buildings. “Hotels can be new spaces to work from,” she says. “We had already developed this plan together with co-working spaces in many hotel lobbies before the crisis. coronavirus has just accelerated the trend. It’s a business opportunity.” Lower down the food chain, UK start-up Spacemade is applying hotels’ business models to offices and partners with landlords to design and operate co-working spaces to capitalise on reinvigorated high streets. “We’re now competing with people’s homes – somewhere people are very comfortable being – and you have to make the office into a destination,” says Dan Silverman, Spacemade’s co-founder. “If there are amenities, varied spaces for collaboration and a food and drink element, it’s so much more compelling.”
Politicians are also emphasising making their cities more liveable. At Porto’s stall, which is lined with charming hand-painted tiles, Mayor Rui Moreira says that second-tier cities will shine in the post-pandemic economy. Increasingly, large companies want to spread their bases, the mayor says, so he’s here seeking an initial €700m in private money to rehabilitate the city’s east side with offices and homes. “We want it to be like Canary Wharf without the problems of Canary Wharf. We don’t want an island,” he says. A new transit hub and a renovated train line between Porto’s riverside and upper-side districts will help to retain the feel of a 15-minute city, avoiding the isolation more common in big cities, says Moreira.
Lisbon’s mayor, Carlos Moedas, returns Moreira’s serve. He’s here to invite tenders for a huge homebuilding and affordable-rent programme that will make the city more manageable for younger and middle-class workers. “You have a lot of companies that go to Portugal just for the talent,” he says, “and there’s not a lot of places where you can go and surf in the morning before you go to work and head to the beach on the weekend basically all year round.”
There are plenty of signs of a world that has spent two years readying itself for celebrations. At the Budapest stand, a giant model of the city’s park displays the new 9,000 sq m and otherworldly (its appearance can best be described as fungal) House of Hungarian Music that has won plaudits at the conference.
But if the property industry can’t avoid talking about the pandemic, it would much prefer to talk about the environment and social and corporate governance, commonly known as esg – the acronym that launched a thousand credulous press releases. Still, mitigating climate change is an era-defining challenge designers are taking on with relish. Italian architect and mit professor Carlo Ratti’s firm is behind Helsinki’s Hot Heart. The huge offshore project uses excess renewable energy to heat tanks water that is then piped through the city. The tropical forests that sit on top of the tanks are an eyecatching example of what can be done when a city takes a “moonshot” approach, Ratti says. “If you want cities to innovate, you need to stop using ‘best practices’, which lock the future into the past,” he adds.
But a different story has emerged from the alphabet soup to punctuate this year’s Mipim. Russia, usually a conference stalwart, has stayed away given that participants would violate crippling Western sanctions by doing business with the world’s latest pariah state. Ukraine’s stand is boarded up, displaying a message explaining that the cities that had planned to attend are instead too busy defending their freedom from Russian shelling.
Events in Ukraine throw architecture and real estate into perspective for Russia’s neighbours. Tallinn’s stand features a half-a-billion-euro plan to renovate the city’s port. While the geopolitical situation may yet affect investment in the region, the risk of being next to Russia “is something we’ve always been aware of and we’ve been more cautious [as a result],” says Kadi Metsmaa, the ceo of Estonian design firm Esplan. “Our investment strategy hasn’t changed because we have [used our] discretion.”
That the dance of patronage and expertise is picking up pace as a war rages across Europe makes for some dissonant, awkward scenes. One waiter picks his moment to pop a champagne cork mere seconds after an understandably emotional speech from Kyiv mayoral adviser Olga Balytska, in which she has just pleaded with Europe’s mayors for support and a no-fly zone.
In most rooms at Mipim, though, Ukraine was a topic to be avoided, lest it kills the buzz. “People aren’t really talking about it here – we’re in a bit of a bubble,” said one American architect at the Linkcity party. “But,” he immediately added, “I did put my foot in my mouth with a client who I’ve known for two years because I didn’t recognise him without a mask."
Building the future
Mipim offers a chance to see some truly transformative design projects. Here are Monocle’s favourites:
East Porto: Porto’s government has a 10 sq km masterplan to redevelop 23 per cent of the city. It involves converting Porto’s old slaughterhouse, building a new transport hub and a bridge over the Douro river, as well as a new business district in Freixo.
House of Music, Budapest: Designed by Sou Fujimoto, Budapest’s music museum and concert hall has an undulating, cratered roof. The 9,000 sq m building, part of the government’s controversial plan to transform the city’s park into a museum district, won Mipim’s special jury award.
Hot Heart, Helsinki: Carlo Ratti Associati led the proposal that won Helsinki’s energy challenge in 2021. Ten cylindrical basins off Helsinki’s coast will hold 10 million cubic metres of water, acting as an energy store and providing low-emissions heating to the city’s homes. Biodomes will be erected over the basins and filled with tropical plants. Completion is expected in 2028.
Port of Tallinn: Zaha Hadid Architects is leading the master plan to redevelop the city’s port, linking it with the city and its public spaces. The redevelopment will cement Estonia as a regional player in tourism and trade.