How to torpedo a sinking ship

Dear Mette Mogensen  and Lars Autrup

I understand you have reservations about open architecture competitions. So do I, because they are in very bad shape indeed. In my view this is not because an inherent failure in open competitions or their lack of adjustment to modern times. The truth is that in the last years open competitions in Denmark are under constant attack from many fronts.

Let me start by mentioning one, too often forgotten. Realdania, Supreme Pontiff of Danish architecture, does a wonderful work as promoter or benefactor of architecture, a labour that has however a significant ”twist”.  The ecumenical reach of its philanthropy has a precise limit, that of reserving themselves the right to choose consultants. This papal right is exercised directly or through the increasingly inelegant tool of the invited competitions or prequalifications, and the mobilization of public -spirited citizens, the ” ildsjæle” campaigns.

Call me unnuanced, but I think this is quite obvious. It stands to reason that no municipality in Denmark is willing to make a decent open competition on their own, when an economic fund pays half of the whole building project, provided the above mentioned ”twist” is respected.

Further more, these economic funds bypass our Arkitektforeningen, the traditional promoter and quality safe guarder of  open competitions, by offering the organization of invited competitions to new agents. Doing this they torpedo not only open competitions, but the influence and raison d'être of our architects association.

The very celebrated formula of public-private collaboration must have limits, in order to avoid the complete withdrawal of public responsibilities and duties, and the appearance of clientelism. One obvious limit to me, would be that, when public money is involved, public administrations (through Arkitektforeningen) should be the ones to select consultants: precisely via an open competition.

You dialogue while I choose

I smell a rat whenever I hear the insistence on dialogue-based competition processes, two (or three) phase competitions, public “layman” polls, etc. These models all break anonymity, opening the game to influences, favours, fidelities, black lists, etc.

The sweet thing about an open competition is that you cannot control the outcome. If we can gather a professional, prestigious, trusted jury, the result of the open competition has already won consensus and, we could say, objective ”goodness”. And if we could add one international member to the juries to avoid the inbreed (sammenspisthed) character of our small architecture community, even better.

Under the benevolent name of dialogue, lurks an efficient tool for influencing the outcome of the competition, regardless of the quality of the project.

In my opinion, broad dialogue must nurture the making of the competition brief, and then let architects do their work. After the competition, we will need a good deal of dialogue, with all possible collaborators, to build the winning project with all guaranties. After the competition, dialogue will not float in mid-air, it will be anchored on a winning project that must remain the ”gold standard”, the touchstone for the rest of the process, which now has become common goal for all parts involved.

Let’s talk waste

Lately I hear all the time the argument about the unsustainability of open competitions, the waste of efforts, the unpaid working hours. Curiously, these worries never come from small offices.

The dedication, the struggle to achieve the best project, the field of experimentation that an open competition gives to the architect, requires a commitment no different than the one expected from any other artist. And it is too easy, insulting even, to call it masochism or waste. Go tell a passionate musician not to practice several hours a day, a painter to leave the studio, an elite sportsman to abandon the tracks. Go and tell them all to, instead, dedicate to PR, to sharpen their “professional profile”, to find their ”competitive niche”.

What is really unsustainable is the shameless bootlicking, the endless networking picnics which, while pretending to celebrate say, ”Nordic Greenness” or any other holy specificity, actually seek to romance the political agendas of these ruling economic funds, turning us architects into a servilist lot, eternally busy in a gregarious game of clientelism.

Open competitions advance architecture culture

If we believe in a certain continuity and autonomy of our profession, open competitions are vital. They allow deep reflection, creative risk, visionary thinking. They are like drawn essays, explorations of things to come: they advance our discipline.

In the mind of the educated architect, winning proposals coexists with other projects, the ” losers” from the same competition, often more influential to architecture. That is what I mean by continuity and autonomy.

We have forgotten the winner proposal for the 1922 Chicago Tribune competition, (a neo-gothic affair by Hood and Mead), but we remember the Adolf Loos project, shaped as a classic column, and a few others. From the La Villette Park competition, Paris 1982, Bernard Tschumi´s winning (and built) “follies” have gathered less critical interest through the years than OMA´s provocative contribution. In Copenhagen, the very stylish and miesian Langelinie Pavilion from Eva and Nils Koppel, will forever coexist with the oriental fantasy of Utzon´s tower, sent to the same competition in 1954.

Matters of faith

A private client might show concern about the dangers of hiring inexperienced architects. It is their money and their privilege. But public clients, municipalities, should show some faith in the education of our architects, or change that education. You will never get the same level of commitment, not to mention talent, from the big multidisciplinary corporations our municipalities favour these days.

At the end, I think that the deep reason open architectural competitions are questioned now, is the same reason old architectural drawings are burned by Copenhagen’s municipality, masterpieces like Hans Chr. Hansen Ringbo are in danger, or atrocious prefab balconies are encouraged to deface the old Copenhagen streetscape: lack of faith in architecture.

It is increasingly hard for some people to accept that architecture is a service but also an art, a practical art. They don’t understand it, why should they respect it? In the world of quantities that decision takers move these days, a concert hall from any big engineer-builder corporation, travestied into architecture in the last hour, and thousand employees strong, will always do better, (”levere varen”, deliver the good, as if dealing in sausages!), than any untried talent, or “boutique” architect, the likes of Utzon, Fehn, Zumthor, Siza, Moneo, who, make no mistake, made all their mark in open competitions.

I have written repeatedly about this (for instance here and here) and I’m by no means the only one. Still sometimes it feels a bit hopeless. Because what we need now is not questioning the idoneity of open competitions. It is a bizarre and strangely timed enquiry, since there is hardly any open competition anymore. We simply need more of them. And for that, we need a strong, influential architects association, we need daring politicians, a public administration that doesn’t back off when someone offers to pay half of the tab.

The always acid and often frivolous Philip Johnson famously said that the most important thing needed to become an architect was the possession of a rich aunt.
Although Realdania´s  love, (deep and broad, but certainly not unconditional), might do for the happy few, it is precisely because we do not have a rich aunt that we need open competitions.

Temporary pavilions and two-day competitions are all right, handouts to placate rebellions and save AA´s shirt, but we need a renewed faith in the project of architecture to bring back the influential, open, anonymous, international competitions to Denmark. If that wave should come back, (and if we are alive by then), some of us, aunt-less but able and passionate, will try and ride it.

Proposals for the 1922 Chicago Tribune competition.

Originally published on ARKITEKTEN.DK