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.
After spending years and years on my own, writing a PhD and looking after children, house, dog and cats, I am working in a team again. It is fantastic but it does bruise my private bubble almost hourly.
First of all, the idea that you have to know everything is superseded. Let alone that you do know anything. Having been out of practice for almost 15 years (apart from small conversions and bathrooms and the like), I notice that practice has evolved. There are many more consultants and the architect is much kinder to the client. When I worked in practice (it may have been the offices I worked in), we would never use reference images: that would mean that we were suggesting something that existed already. Now we use them all the time. This is much kinder to the client, who is not asked to take a leap of faith, but who is properly informed about what they can expect.
These may be issues that existed in practice before. There are two things that make it hard to return: first of all, to understand there has been a cultural shift form with work colleagues. Second it is hard to gauge what has changed and what has stayed the same. For example talks about structure and building processes have not changed as much as I thought. Whereas the admin side for organising files, drawings and their links have changed considerably. I find myself overconfident and capable one moment, to be utterly despairing the next.
I discussed this with a friend, a former editor at a well-known glossy magazine. She said she would never want to get back into her old work environment: everyone will be so much more on the ball, so much quicker. Solutions you would not think about for a minute now cost hours. She set up on her own. Taking her time.
The kitchen island represents on the one hand a great love for cooking, gathering and eating. In the private environment its perfection lends some cachet to the home and therefore its owners, perhaps, a sense of control. However, on the other hand the pristine cleanliness of the island raises questions about its maintenance and the space it occupies.
It takes a good amount of cleaning and tidying up to keep up appearances. The bigger the island, the more there is to become dirty, but also the more space it occupies; as much as a medium to large sized room. Whereas this amount of storage space makes it easier to keep the modern interior clean and clutter-less, the island itself becomes populated with the clutter that is now out of sight. Does the island become a Pandora’s Box containing harmful clutter and unwanted imperfections? Or can it be used in a more constructive manner?
The Kitchen Island and its presence in the middle of a room is perhaps to the 21st century what the four poster bed must have been to the 17th century. Both define through their presence the surrounding space in the room and both represent a mixture of status, a need to display and a practical use. The largest difference between the two is that the kitchen island is used for its exterior and the four poster bed was used for its interior.
The writer Walter Benjamin criticized the bourgeois individual in Berlin and Paris, at the turn of the 20th century. This bourgeois individual could only relax and be content, be himself, in his own interior among his beloved objects in which he saw him-self reﬂected.
Cushioned by his objects, and therefore protected from the real world outside his room he was, ef- fectively, shutting it out. The interior and all its nostalgic objects were seen, by Benjamin, to keep the bourgeois individual captive among his possessions, preventing him from engaging with the real world and its people with its problems and challenges. The 21st century bourgeois individual, now perhaps part of the middle classes, inhabits a pristine and clutter-less interior that reﬂects the perfection of the life of its owners. Again the individual escapes from an engagement with the real world and the problems facing the earth and society ‑even though these enter his world on a continuous basis through handheld de- vices- hiding all clutter and waste inside a kitchen island. In fact, the kitchen island grows at the expense of the world outside it and becomes a symbol of outwards perfection only.
It was always thought that people would prefer to work from home. However, it seems that the workplace is increasingly becoming more like a home with the colleagues as family.
Business trips which can be days or weeks at a time, with colleagues, often including bonding activities. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Innocent Smoothies, create a home-like relaxed layout, trying their best to distance themselves from a traditional workplace environment. In large companies the workplace provides pilates, dry cleaning, massage, GP services, formerly associated with the home. Many have showers and cafes, including the ability to make your own meals.
Hotel chains, this has been noted a long time ago, create an interior that is familiar, so again people feel at home away from home. As people, however, are always away from home, what will in the end constitute the home. The home becomes a series of notions and ideas, smells perhaps, and routines, many established in childhood, but not necessarily a physical space in which one spends one’s best moments.
One can, of course also be away from home at home. Work at home, bring the laundry away, use the home as an office and have meetings at home. Basically, we can conclude that home and work have merged?
So why are their no spaces for the homelessness at night? Can’t the homely workplaces contribute beds at night?