COMPETITIONS — PAST
In a Rome deserted by tourists I had the chance to sit on a small empty bench on the Piazza Navona right next to the ’ Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) — usually hidden from view by other tourists — which was designed and executed by the sculptor Cavaliere Bernini in 1651.
Rome was empty and we had all the time in the world to look at every detail carved in marble: toes, horses, robes, fish, emblems and hair on the famous baroque fountain. Our smart phone with Wikepedia was our guide.[i]
The fountains were designed for Pope Innocent X, whose palace overlooked the piazza. The fountain also was the result of a design competition for architects and artists for which Bernini was initially not invited to participate. It was suggested the sculptor had enemies because of his popularity and success. After all the Borghese family were his patron. Filippe Baldunicci, Bernini’s biographer writes in 1823:
‘[..] the Pope had designs made by the leading architects of Rome without an order for one to Bernini. Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, whose wife was niece to the pope, persuaded Bernini to prepare a model, and arrange for it to be secretly installed in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili that the Pope had to pass. When the meal was finished, seeing such a noble creation, he stopped almost in ecstasy. Being prince of the keenest judgment and the loftiest ideas, after admiring it, said: “This is a trick … It will be necessary to employ Bernini in spite of those who do not wish it, for he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.”[ii]
The reaction of the pope to Bernini’s model is one we all hope to illicit from jury members when we submit a competition. For them to stop in ecstasy and to only succeed in denying its beauty by not seeing it.
When I searched more I found Architectural competitions have a long history. The first competition being held in 448 BC for the design of the Parthenon.[iii]
Other buildings that were the result of architectural competitions: the White house by James Holden, in 1792 chosen from 9 entries and the houses of parliament, in 1835 by Charles Barry chosen from 98 entries.
Jaques Cabanieu from the MIQCP [iv] , France’s body for quality of construction, writes that competitions in France serve two purposes: the client gets to choose a design rather than an architect, so is not being forced into something by the architect and it breaks the grip of what he calls the ‘star practices’ of the profession by opening up the opportunity to bid to a wider range of practices. It also gives a practice and its staff a chance to think differently about a project and push boundaries. The competition sets the level of the building that is aspired by both the architect and client which makes developing the proposal into something tangible easier. At the same time Cabanieu acknowledges that competitions are a waste of creative energy and pleads that architects should be reimbursed for their work.
Not clients in all countries are equally serious about realising the competition result which means that the competition process and aftermath can be costly and wasteful for architects. Especially if more than 200 practices enter competitions and the process of choosing itself becomes a lottery. The Architects Journal held in May 2018 a panel discussion on the merits of competitions in ‘What’s wrong with architectural competitions’. The points Cabanieu makes are acknowledges but the overall criticism is that more and more of open ideas competitions are a cheap way for clients to get many ideas and a lot of publicity.[v] Doing competitions is expensive and labour intensive for practices. As the fountain story showed, the presentation has to stir the jury members even after they see 250 other presentations.
During COVID my practice participated in many tenders and competitions and for several reasons: First of all there has been little work during COVID19 for a recently established practice without a clear identity such as mine. It is difficult to meet new clients over zoom and during lockdown: Clients who do have work will probably go with the practices they know as zoom is not the easiest platform to meet people for the first time.
The second reason is that during the early days of the lockdown, everyone was speculating on the future: the economy, communities, the workplace and the relation between the three. Doing competitions was a good way to develop ideas about the future and giving us the feeling we were equipping ourselves for a future yet unknown. Look at the amount of playful social distance proposals that have been made and ways of shielding and wearing masks. This has now turned into jobs for practices who can turn offices into safe spaces. A third reason, which builds on the second one: competitions, whether won or lost, provide a way of building up a portfolio and create a sense of direction for the practice.
COMPETITIONS — PRESENT
Competitions were all submitted electronically, times have changed since Bernini, and while making lastminute drawings for the think 2025 competition I missed the deadline by 1 minute.
The idea for think 2025 (the idea of a new future was in the names of many competitions), a ‘thinking shed’, continued on the submission for another competition, Homes 2030, which we participating in. Despite being critical of its purpose: the solution to the housing shortage isn’t one prefab method that can be replicated forever. We therefor proposed a hybrid construction method in order for architects and communities to be able to adapt a construction system to a specific site, in a relatively short time, where small amounts of houses at the time can be built, involving communities and creating jobs.
The factories in which the houses would be constructed would also double up as ‘Carbon Free and Low Energy information centres’, providing information and guidance on the latest climate research, to invite people to contribute to the debates and to teach people in how to live carbon neutral and how to achieve it in their homes and gardens In the 1960s ‘good living’ exhibitions were held all over Europe (some countries gave even classes) to show people how to live in apartments and how to use modern bedrooms, bathrooms and furniture.
[iv] Mission interministérielle pour la qualité des constructions publiques. https://web.archive.org/web/20110709014736/http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/France_ – _Comp_217.pdf
[v] See also AJ 10/03/2020 Maria Smith: Boycott this phoney home of 2030 competition.