Entering architectural competitions

What is it?

Charles Holland in his blog, Fantastic Journal, recently submitted this entry imploring architects to stop entering competitions. He points out that architectural competitions are wasteful of time and resources; give away for free the architect’s most valuable possession, his or her ideas; are stressful to enter; and are very unlikely to ever be built. He concludes by suggesting that taking one’s staff down to the pub for a drink would be cheaper and more fun.

What do we think?

There are certainly architectural studios around the world that make a living off entering competitions, but in Australia, this is rare. Bread and butter projects for architects interested in good design are houses, or renovations to houses. They are shop fitouts, bars, cafes and other small interventions. Whilst these projects are exciting and their construction is extremely fulfilling, they are often very limited in scope and budget.

Competitions permit an architect to test out new ideas, experiment, let loose a little. Entering a competition is like a car manufacturer showing a bizarre prototype model at the Geneva motor show – the car is never intended to go into production, rather it tests out ideas for future models that will be built.

Whilst we agree with all of Holland’s very good arguments, they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose in entering a competition.

The purpose is not to win but to enter.

The Toaster Project

What is it?

A 2009 final year art / design / science project by Thomas Thwaites, an alumnus of the Royal College of Art, Design Interactions department, London. His aim was to construct a toaster from scratch, starting by mining the raw materials and finishing with a product that resembled an off-the-shelf toaster available from the british equivalent of K-Mart for £3.99. We highly recommend you watch the videos at the dedicated Toaster Project site.

What do we think?

After following the progress of the Toaster Project, from acquiring iron ore, through various attempts at smelting it, to final assembly, we share Thwaites’ incredulity at the K-Mart pricetag for a toaster – how can so much mining, smelting, fabricating, moulding, assembling and shipping possibly cost so little? On the one hand, the project is a celebration of the efficiencies of mass production; on the other, it is an alarming account of how thoroughly we take for granted the enormous machine of production that supports our daily lifestyle.

What did we learn?

The Toaster Project project is an accomplished bit of creativity that speaks volumes about Thwaites’ preparedness to engage hands-on with his subject matter. It is also an inspiration to more deeply investigate the origins and processes extant within the materials of our own work.

The art of Piranesi

Entering this exhibition is like walking into one of Piranesi’s works. Dark, moody, extravagant – I am not really sure where to look first or what I will discover. Walls upon walls of his etchings hang in soft pools of light. They draw me in close, into Piranesi’s world of antiquities and what a place it is. Ruined and overrun, it is still beautiful, fragile yet enduring. Piranesi’s works capture my imagination because he has taken the fragments of great and wondrous civilizations and extrapolated upon them to create a body of work that can be viewed both as documentary evidence and artistic creation.

At the centre of the first room, I sit in front of an animation of Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’ series. It is like entering the mind of Piranesi. It is an exhilarating experience. Continuing into the second room I discover a selection of Piranesi’s more elaborate and creative design objects realised to his exact specifications. A fireplace, teapot, candelabra… The technology used to create these works is worthy of an exhibition of its own.

The upper level of the exhibition finishes with a series of photographic works by Gabriele Basilico. Iconic images of Rome are contrasted with those created by Piranesi. Images of the same iconic ruins, one created now and one 250 years ago – not only does this allow me to see the simultaneous creativity and realism of Piranesi’s work but forces me to contemplate how time is inconsequential for the great structures of humanity.

More often than not, recent exhibitions I have visited have left me feeling like I have not been satisfied – I am hungry for more and disappointed that the exhibition did not go to that next level, whatever that might be. To see such a complete collection of works from one artist is inspiring. Piranesi was extremely prolific and each one of his works is worth investigating. This exhibition gave me the opportunity to explore his works through numerous means and left me feeling like I had actually inhabited Piranesi’s world for an hour or two.

Exhibition location: Sale del Convitto, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venezia 2010.

Calatrava Bridge

What and where is it?

A bridge by Santiago Calatrava that crosses the Grand Canal near Santa Lucia Station in Venice, completed in 2008.

What do we think?

It is a beautiful bridge, in both macro form and micro detail. It is connected to the history of Venetian bridge-building through its stone paving, yet is still recognisably the work of the Spanish structural master. Its arch is both sophisticated and graceful. Its progression of increasingly-gentle steps and hill-like crest are generous, and its cool bronze balustrade is pleasant to the touch. Its frosted-glass steps filter light and shadow both up and down, connecting the flow of people moving from one side of the canal to the other with the world on the water underneath.

There are, however, two important and widely-known problems with this bridge: first, it does not provide disability access, and; second, its aforementioned glass steps become intolerably slippery in the wet, so much so that it is closed whenever it rains (a fact we discovered first hand when blocked by the local carabinieri so far along the canal from the bridge that we could not yet even see it).

We can accept that the disability access may not have been Calatrava’s fault – after all, the briefing requirements for the bridge would likely have been the responsibilty of the city of Venice. And in any event, a lift is being bolted onto the superstructure as we speak, spoiling the lines of the steel perhaps, but resolving access for the disabled. Unfortunately, the slippery steps are not so easy to forgive, nor resolve – a beautiful gesture the glass steps may be, but a fundamental flaw they are also.

What is still on our minds?

We like the bridge, no doubt. Think of it as a flawed masterpiece if you like. The only question that remains is this: do we accept the poorly-specified step material as an isolated error that architects all over the world sometimes make, or is it the egotistical transgression of an international starchitect, prioritising the boldness of his idea over the practicalities of implementation?

Mies van der Rohe Award 2009

Where is it?

La Triennale di Milano, Design Museum. Viale Alemagna 6, 20121 Milano.

What is it?

An exhibition of around 30 buildings shortlisted for the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Award, including 5 finalists and 1 winner. Each project comprises an A1 board with text, plans and photos, and a physical model.

What do we think?

Whilst some of the exhibited projects are dull, most display a high level of investment in design, and a few stand out that really grab our attention. The winner, the Oslo Opera House by Snohetta, is an excellent building that we visited in August this year. It is a pleasure to look at, be in and walk on. It also does very good things for a section of the Oslo waterfront currently at the front end of a major regeneration. One of the finalists, and probably our favourite, the Luigi Bocconi University by Grafton Architects, is another worthy contender that we have visited a number of times this year. It is a subtle but powerful addition to the Milan streetscape and, as we know from experience, performs in exactly the way intended by the architects – the public is drawn into the street level of the complex, with lecturing spaces opening up below and office spaces hovering above.

One of the questions we asked ourselves as we walked around the exhibition was: “Would we put energy into visiting this building?” A few other projects who earn a “Yes” to this question are: the simming pool complex in Le Havre, France, by Jean Nouvel, that seems to contain the same exciting presence of water as the Vals baths by Peter Zumthor; the Selexyz bookstore in Maastricht, the Netherlands, by Merkx + Girod; and the beautiful though probably outrageously expensive Bell-Lloc winery in Girona, Spain by RCR Arquitectes.

What did we learn?

It is impressive to recognise that such a large number of high-quality projects have been built in only the last few years in a geographical area as small as Europe. Countries like Spain, France and the Netherlands are particularly well-represented in the exhibition. It is clear that the density of good architects and clients interested in good architecture is high in this part of the world.