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Architecture competitions are risky … but we can build on that

Do architectural competitions lead to unrealistic design directions? AAP/ Paul Miller

There’s a perverse irony in the apocryphal tale of the design competition for the Sydney Opera House in 1956. The story goes that, after the selection of the group of finalist designs for the competition, the Finnish-American architect on the jury, Eero Saarinen, re-examined the pile of rejected entries, and reinstated the scheme of the Danish architect Jørn Utzon.

Danish architect Jorn Utzon. EPA/Ulf Nilsen

This design, as we all know, won and the contentious project, built over 16 difficult years, has become an iconic image of Sydney and Australia. The fact the architect acrimoniously departed Australia before the completion of the project, never to return, only adds to the poignancy of the story.

The Sydney Opera House story defines the capricious, conflicted nature of architectural design competitions. Are they opportunities for unique, unexpected design propositions, or unnecessary risks that lead to unrealistic, unproven design directions?

Historical winners and losers

Design competitions play a fascinating role in the history of architecture, with losing entries often as important in defining the progress of architectural thought and theory as the actual winning and built projects: the projects that might have been built becoming as influential as those that perhaps should never have been built.

Chicago Tribune Tower. Penn State University Library

The Chicago Tribune Tower competition of 1922 for “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world” generated tremendous publicity for the American newspaper and the design options from some of the 260 entries helped to define the new direction of “modernism” in architecture and the American skyline for the coming generations (even if the winning design was neo-Gothic).

The selection of the then-young partners Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano for the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1971 (from 681 entries), gave these untested architects the opportunity to establish a new direction in architecture with “high-tech” and over the next six years to complete one of the most visited buildings in Paris.

“Open design competitions” have also determined many influential works of the last 100 years, often establishing the careers of their architects, including the Parc de la Villette in Paris, Jewish Museum Berlin, Yokohama Ferry Terminal, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and Federation Square in Melbourne (designed by LAB Architecture Studio, of which I’m director).

The recent design competitions for both the Australian Pavilion in Venice and for Flinders Street Station have re-ignited debate as to role of design competitions within Australia.

Yokohama Ferry Terminal, Yokohama, Japan. Marco Capitanio

Design competition structure

Added to this capricious uncertainty are the many junctures at which it can all go wrong. The potential operating structure of a design competition is varied, with each component, each incarnation, contributing to different outcomes and vastly different agendas.

“Open”, “anonymous”, “pre-selected”, “pre-qualified”, “multi-staged”, “ideas-based”, “selection of a design or selection of an architect” – these are but a few of the competition formats that are readily employed, and each implies a position relative to the ambition and purpose of the competition itself.

The selection, the status and the influence of the jury add to the determination not just of a winning design, but also to the very likelihood and breadth of submissions and entries. The quality (and often lack of quality) of the design brief and the required deliverables for the submitting architects greatly influences the final designs.

And finally, of course, there is the alignment, or lack of alignment, between the selected design and the final built project – for whatever reason.

Does Australia need more design competitions?

Australian architects (at least younger architects) often stand in envy of European counterparts, as many EU countries legislate the use of the design competition process to commission and award most public buildings, large and small.

It is a system that promotes and develops new talent. Numerous commercial projects across Europe are also the results of design competitions, usually by means of slightly more restricted selection and adjudication processes, but by design competitions nonetheless.

Federation Square, Melbourne. margaretes

In Australia, the norm is for selection to be based on an EOI (expressions of interest) or RFP (request for proposals) – with portfolios of similar work and bureaucratic selection criteria much more determining of selection than a design proposal.

Does Australia need more competitions, and specifically more “open” competitions? Does the current system perpetuate a small cadre of major, multi-disciplinary practices winning the vast majority of work?

If you have to prove you have “done it before” to win the chance to undertake a project, what possibility is there for new, emergent architects to get on the list of approved applicants? Do the restrictions protect government expenditure or simply direct the work to the same corporate powerhouses?

Many argue that the vast resources and efforts of tens, if not hundreds, of architects working on the singular opportunity to gain a commission is a waste of time and money.

Nonetheless, the lasting legacy of many competitions of the last 100 years suggests the accounting needs to at least give value to the unexpected, unpredictable opportunity afforded to both the project and the history of architectural thought.

Professor Donald Bates is chairing a panel debate on Competing Ideas: the role and relevancy of architectural competitions at the Carrillo Gantner Theatre, Sidney Myer Asia Centre on July 30.

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