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Editorial View: Competitions

Competitions are frustrating and wasteful of resources: but they are vital to architectural creativity

Combining glamour and ruthlessness, architectural competitions are the profession’s beauty contests. Yet they have shaped architecture to a profound and often surprising degree. An imaginative competition can catalyse a paradigm shift in architectural culture, allowing something totally new and unexpected to break through, whether or not the winning entry is eventually built.

As Farshid Moussavi writes: ‘Competitions are driven by the desire to go beyond what already exists − unthought-of architecture − whereas commissions are mostly demand-driven and often by those
of the market’. Moussavi’s Yokohama Port Terminal (AR January 2003) is a case in point, a physical manifestation of hitherto conceptual propositions about a new form of topographic architecture that came about as the result of an open, international competition.

But they can also descend into farce. The wrong brief, wrong winner, rethinks, redesigns, secrecy, scandal, corruption and worse. History is full of missed chances. As Niall Hobhouse recalls, the competition for Napoleon’s Tomb, the defining commission of the age, fell by default to a middling architect because the jury could not decide between the rival heavyweight proposals of Victor Baltard and Henri Labrouste. The more recent saga of Zaha Hadid’s Cardiff Bay Opera House, repeatedly redesigned and then rejected, is especially shameful, although Hadid has since claimed that  the experience only made her more determined to succeed.

Architects have become wearily resigned to the frustration and expense of producing work that goes nowhere. Moussavi notes that in 20 years she has taken part in 218 competitions, with a success rate well below the supposed average of one in 10. But contestants still keep hoping for that elusive tiara. The 1983 competition for the Bastille Opera attracted 750 entries, and today, even the most modest brief is hotly contested. All of the buildings published in this issue were the outcome of competition processes, some more convoluted than others, such as Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-Jose van Hee’s scheme for Ghent’s new market hall . Their original entry won on the second time round after being disqualified from the initial competition.

What can be done to improve such an admittedly imperfect yet frequently inspired way of making buildings? For Farshid Moussavi, the answer lies in an active opening up of the competition process which would involve publishing all entries more widely, a common enough practice in Europe and Japan, but less so in the UK and America. ‘This not only fosters a richer professional culture where we learn from each other’,she writes, ‘but it also generates publicity and public engagement.’ Disseminating a greater range of thought processes would add to the depth and diversity of discourse and restore at least some dignity to the brittle world of the architectural beauty contest. As Moussavi rightly remarks, what have architects got to lose?

Catherine Slessor, Editor

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