What do Coventry Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre have in common? They are all well-loved buildings, landmarks for their cities, dare one say “iconic”? Their architects hadn’t designed a cathedral, a parliament, an opera house or a major arts centre before. They were all the result of architectural competitions that attracted dozens or hundreds of entries.
The architectural competition is an appealing concept – that designs and ideas can be offered up and the best chosen without prejudice – and the fudging of the competition for the defunct Garden Bridge project shows what can happen when they are disrespected. Its backers might have found a more viable and sensitive design if they had looked harder.
In the past, competitions launched careers and gave opportunities to young architects, such as 28-year-old Charles Rennie Mackintosh with Glasgow School of Art, and 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott with Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, or indeed Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, 34 and 38, with the Pompidou.
Competitions worked for everyday buildings as well as monuments – some of the best postwar housing, such as the Golden Lane estate in the City of London, and Churchill Gardens and Lillington Gardens in Westminster, was the result of competitions won by architects often in their 20s. They could crystallise a debate, generate ideas or mark a change in direction – the one for the Chicago Tribune tower in 1922 was famous more for the entries that didn’t win, for example by Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, than the good-looking but conventional one that did.
Times have changed. There are still plenty of competitions – under European Union law, some sort of competitive process is required for public buildings. A lot of the time they work well. One outfit in particular, called Malcolm Reading Consultants, has done well by organising them professionally and thoughtfully, to the extent that the consultancy now manages the majority of high-profile competitions. It has nudged the processes of selection so that younger practices have a bit more of a chance than they might have done otherwise. But the chances have shrunk of a Mackintosh, a Pompidou or a Golden Lane emerging, or of changing the direction of architecture. Competitions have become managerialised, encased in regulation, procedure and risk-avoidance, and varnished in PR.
Take, for example, the shortlist for the Centre for Music, proposed in response to Simon Rattle’s urging for an acoustically outstanding concert hall in London. Half the six shortlisted practices are led by the octogenarians Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, and Renzo Piano, who turns 80 this month, and all are well established. You can see that when they really, really want an auditorium that works, the Centre for Music would go for experience, and it would be good to see what Gehry – whose New World Center in Miami shows him to be someone who really thinks about music and performance – would come up with. But could they really not have found one or two younger practices, who might have brought some new thinking to the subject? They couldn’t, because the competition brief demanded impossibly high levels of previous experience.
I’ve written before about the competition for Olympicopolis, a cultural project of astonishing scale and ambition in east London, a potential Pompidou or Sydney Opera House, whose talented and perfectly reasonable winning team nonetheless failed to match the scale of the opportunity. Here the problem was that Olympicopolis, if it is to happen at all, needs a chunk of property development to help pay its bills, so that commercial considerations come before cultural, to create a typically British combination of madcappery and caution.
There’s also the ongoing competition for the Holocaust memorial next to Parliament, where an ill-considered brief that is badly adapted to its site makes it hard for any of the glittering line-up of practices to do a good job. There’s the competition for the Museum of London’s new location in Smithfield market, where an intriguing shortlist ended up – and, granted, this is a personal opinion – with the most middle-of-the-road choice. It happens often: bets are hedged, and everybody’s second choice wins.
In the end, the most important issues are about the value given to architecture. That is, how seriously is it asked what is at stake with a project and what a design team can contribute to it. This is more than a question of problem-solving and adding a stylish gloss. For example, in the recent Illuminated River competition for lighting 17 Thames Bridges, the identity of central London was at stake – is it for tourists or locals, homogeneous or diverse, managed or spontaneous – yet the briefs for such competitions tend to speak in generalities: “world-class”, “outstanding”, “distinctive”, “exciting”, perhaps “sensitive” where historic buildings are concerned.
It’s also a matter of the makeup of the jury. In countries like Germany and Switzerland, as used to happen in Britain, there are at least two architects sitting alongside clients and other interested or expert parties. In Britain you get grandees, media figures, politicians, celebrities and intermediaries, many of whom will not be able to read an architectural drawing. The 14-strong jury for the Holocaust memorial competition has three people from the media and one architect.
Malcolm Reading, responsible for the memorial, Illuminated River, Museum of London and Olympicopolis competitions, says you have to “represent all the different factors”, and of course you want to balance lay and professional views, but set-ups like the memorial jury are not balanced. If jurors don’t fully understand what they are judging, they tend to choose lower-risk, more consensual options, or at least those that appear so.
Mention of the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou could be taken as justification for caution. These were famous for their fraught and expensive gestations, even though the almost unanimous view is now that they were worth it. But thoughtful, informed competitions don’t have to lead to a white-knuckle masterpiece. In many European countries they enable architects to grow by designing public buildings. They don’t have to have designed the same type of building several times previously to be considered. And everyone, especially those who use and experience those buildings, benefits.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010