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Competitive Streak

In New York, a recent exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture challenges the architectural competition’s prevalence in professional practice

The design competition is a key mechanism in architectural production and progress. Its prevalence in contemporary design has put some of this generation’s most revered designers on the map but it has also become synonymous with the rise of celebrity architects and signature architecture.

Though directives and regulations shift, architecture competitions have changed little since their revival in the Renaissance, and they have weathered controversy for just as long.

Criticised for favouring larger, wealthier practices over the smaller ones they originally sought to include, there has been a level of acceptance that the competition, however biased, is part of professional practice. After all, subjectivity and scrutiny are architecture’s cultural norms.

In Think Space: The Competitive Hypothesis, this normality is challenged. The curators begin with the distinction between two trades: ‘material’ capital (design and engineering conglomerates whose names are less visible and are less discursive, but who monopolise new construction) and ‘symbolic’ capital (a reference to the images and ideas generated by practices that rely on an army of interns). To illustrate these positions, the show is divided into four sections.

The first section presents a variety of powerful statements, curated by Carmelo Rodríguez Cedillo and Daniel Fernández Pascual. At the entrance to the show, hanging in front of a sparsely adorned wall, is a white sphere with peepholes, inside which stands a golden replica of Michelangelo’s David.

The submission is accompanied with a letter to judge Arata Isozaki from Piero Frassinelli of Superstudio, describing its entry for the 1976 Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competition themed ‘House for a Superstar’. As the visitor learns that the image of David has been planted in the mind of Isozaki on a previous meeting with Frassinelli’s colleague, the problematic notion of influence − however insidious or subtle − highlights the subjective, fallible nature of competitions.

Indeed, the parallel question of how valuable authorship and autonomy are to architecture and what impact this has on the outcome of competitions is boldly dealt with in Archizoom’s 1970 rubber stamp declaring: ‘Projects Must Be Signed’ (‘Il Progetti Si Firmano’).

jaWhile the grandfathers of architecture enjoy the currency of recognition, neither invited competitions nor the assumed level playing field of anonymous competitions can promise equality. At the risk of disqualification, the practice signed and titled its entry for the Università degli Studi in Florence as a comment on the hypocrisy of anonymity.

Before entering the second section the visitor is presented with the RIBA’s 1872 Survey on the Guidelines for Competitions. Its questions, conducted at the behest of a new commission to investigate corruption and deception in architectural competitions, are frank and surprisingly relevant, raising contemporary concerns about favouritism and financial and professional merit.

One rather wordy question stands out: ‘Whether in your opinion the condition frequently laid down by committees, requiring the successful architect to let the premium merge in his ordinary professional commission, is justified by the idea that the labour  expended upon the premiated design materially diminishes his subsequent labour.’

Mounted along a darkened corridor is a non-specific, backlit diorama of a man looking out over a rural landscape. Titled The Habitat of Homo Economicus, this section is intended to present the empty visuals that accompany proposals for large-scale development, as well as desirable scenes for sensual-savvy clients. Curators Ross Exo Adams and Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco stress a contemporary tendency to accept a reality built on ‘figurelessness and interchangeability’.

Yokohama Port Terminal FOA

Another competition-winning design, Yokohama Port Building by Foreign Office Architects.

What seems like a direct contrast to this, the third section, Think Space Past Forward presents the winners and honourable mentions of three pivotal architectural competitions: The Peak Leisure Club, Yokohama Port Terminal and The Blur Building.

As part of a wider project of the Past Forward competition series, the designs pinpoint singular moments in history that changed the discipline and, for the practices that won, mark a crystallisation of architectural ideologies. Though only a small cross-section, the examples demonstrate the positive impact of competitions and their potential to transform our environment.

It is interesting to see the context of the winning proposals and to look back at the moment of genesis for the practices. The iconic, Suprematist-inspired proposal by Zaha Hadid; the moment that Foreign Office Architects crafted a signature style, to which it never returned; and the possibility-bending, materially stimulating Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The final section, Mind The Gap, presents a hall of fame for the unnamed interns who make the competition process possible. This represents an ongoing criticism of contemporary practice. Born out of the disjuncture between the fast-paced productivity and accelerated urbanisation of a post-Fordist era and the sluggishness of the building process, this section forms the core of the exhibition’s concept.

To realise the Storefront’s aspirations to stage diabolic provocation and open dialogue, the wedge-shaped gallery doubles as a confessional space. Highlighting the other aspect of competitions − that of individual gain − in its exposed party wall, one anonymous scribe proclaims: ‘I stole the contracts from my boss and quit’.

While the exhibition explores aspects of the complex system behind architectural production and eschews the temptation to show a singular, historic perspective, it doesn’t speak to the role of public consultation.

Perhaps Andreas Papadakis, AD’s editor at the time, got it right in 1981 when he sought the expert opinion of children for his Doll’s House competition. Architectural competitions were originally established to engage the public, the patrons and the users of buildings. Like the gallery, they must re-engage with this purpose.

Think Space: Competitive Hypothesis 

Where: Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, USA

When: Ended 15 February

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