Creative leaps in the arena of architectural competitions
Taking part in architectural competitions is like taking part in competitive sport. I have participated in 218 since my first in 1993 − roughly one every month. While it is said that the success rate is around one in 10, in my experience it is much less − producing a regular sense of disappointment (and financial loss). Being an architect, then, requires being thick-skinned, or at least learning to be a good sport. And, as in sport, losing can have less to do with your performance than with the theatre of unpredictability within which competitions unfold.
I remember once being disqualified because the courier company did not deliver our entry on time; on another occasion, just as we were about to submit our scheme, the country in question broke out in civil war. Then there is the assortment of (not always well-chosen) judges and therefore decision-making politics. Eventually follows the painful period of waiting for the results, keeping you forever in suspense; or the awkwardsituation when the announcement ‘and the winner is …’ unfolds right in front of you; or, worse, when the client doesn’t let you know the results and you read them in the papers. It all sounds terrible, doesn’t it? So why do architects still participate?
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. We could say that competitions are to everyday architecture what competitive sport is to everyday fitness training. Competitive sports break existing human boundaries and set records for bodily capacities. Similarly, architectural competitions are invitations to make conceptual leaps and to open new frames, speeds and scales through which we perceive space and time.
In my own experience, the Yokohama Port Terminal would never have happened without the openness of an international competition. By inviting ideas from any practising architect, rather than directly commissioning a transport specialist or established architect, the client demonstrated commitment to innovation and our scheme broke away from the typical port terminal.
There are then the countless ground-breaking yet competition-losing entries that − like NASA’s space exploration positively influencing everyday life − go on to inspire other projects. In 1921 a more conservative design triumphed over Mies van der Rohe’s skyscraper proposal for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse. But his depiction of a glacial skyscraper contained the unprecedented idea that a steel skeleton could free the exterior walls from their loadbearing function. His vision of a glass curtain wall has gone on to inspire legions of architects all over the world.
Similarly, OMA’s unrealised proposal for the site of two Yokohama markets in 1992 envisioned a 24-hour destination that reframed the whole idea of a masterplan away from definitions of fixed space into space that remains continuously active by changing use over time. The space-time section invented by OMA for this project inspired the work of countless other architects.
There are far too many of these cases to mention here. The real argument for undertaking competitions is exploration: of those ways − as yet-unknown − that maintain architecture as a creative, rather than stagnating, field. But, like in competitive sport, it is best when spectators have an open view. In many parts of Europe and Japan, there is a long-standing culture of open, public competitions with all entries being published. But in the UK and the USA, open, public competitions are rare, and the limited type of competition (or ‘selection process’) is increasingly used by the private sector. In these cases, the entries − and even the competitors’ names − are almost always kept secret.
But who benefits from all this secrecy? Strategising ahead of meeting planners is no easy task for clients whose speculations are often riddled with complex politics. However, in an unprecedented show of confidence the recent competition for New York’s 425 Park Avenue tower published all the architects’ presentations online. This not only fosters a richer professional culture where we learn from each other, but it also generates publicity and public engagement well in advance of even breaking ground. Clients and architects wondering about the process of keeping competitions behind closed doors should take a look at this example online and ask themselves what they have to lose … or perhaps win.
Farshid Moussavi wrote also in AR’s Viewpoints about ‘Agenda bender: the case for the abolition of female role models’, ‘Architecture and activism should be as closely linked as the problems we need to solve’ and ‘Parametric software is no substitute for parametric thinking’