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THE ARCHITECTURE COMPETITION THEN AND NOW

THE ARCHITECTURE COMPETITION

THEN AND NOW

text: Ana Maria ZAHARIADE

This is also the purpose of the entire international practice, as it was reflected by two recent meetings on the theme of competitions, organized by the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) and the International Union of Architects (UIA), which I had the chance to attend in October this year. Some countries managed to reach this target (usually, those where the competition was already a well established routine, but also a number of countries where it had been disrupted by Communism, such as Poland). The professional organizations in many other countries are still striving to reach it (Romania included).

The competition was mistrusted and criticized in different countries and some of its results did not prove to have the same level of sustainability. Moreover, economic liberalism tried to replace the competition by the Design & Build procedure (which is rejected by professional organizations), and the practice of the invited competitions became more frequent (which is more comfortable for the purchasers, but not encouraged by professional associations, as it prevents a high level of competitive spirit). Nevertheless, the project competition proved to be the best way to achieve a quality-based architectural solution, validated by a jury formed of professionals, the same as the open competition proved to be the best professional way to offer emergent architects the opportunity to distinguish themselves.  Both desiderata generated remarkable results[ii]. Thus, the sine qua non to obtain them is to carefully prepare and organize competitions. Therefore, the international organizations (UIA, UNESCO and ACE) developed standards which guarantee the competitions’ quality and fairness[iii]. These documents recommend synthetically the principles promoted by the profession, unequivocally pursuing the architects’ interests and those of clients as well. They became tools for measuring the equity of a competition, which are adapted by the professional organizations to their national regulations.

Today, the design competition is defined worldwide as “a procedure of architectural services procurement”. The formula has probably lost some of its romantic spirit, yet, it still retains its purpose. Hence, architects around the world try to include the competition in their national architectural policies and strategies and to recommend it for important investments.

Nevertheless, their steps came to an end there. The times when all architects worked in the design institutes broke down both the continuity and the usefulness of these initiatives. In fact, the competitions – although they were still held – could no longer represent project awarding procedures, as long as the investment (exclusively public) followed another awarding logic, either  through centralized planning or “occult” ways, staged by the party apparatus.

In the Arhitectura magazine issues published after 1952, I found 81 pieces of information about competitions: 7 of them presented photo, graphic art, water colour and student contests, and 24 were related to international competitions (some of them with Romanian participations).  49 other competitions had various themes, ranging from standardized projects (especially during the 1950s) to spatial planning (quite many during the 1960s and early 1970s). In fact, competitions represented merely design exercises, safety valves of creativity and informal recognition of worth, which were gladly embraced by architects. However, they did not have any other expected results, as winning a competition did not necessarily entail the execution of the project. As far as I know, since there is no necessary thorough research in this regard, only some of them were followed by the realization of the winning project. In exchange, there were well known flagrant cases when the procedure following the competition was not observed. The competition could no longer guarantee anything, neither the project, nor the architects’ copyright, which had disappeared anyway. I even wonder why competitions were still organized and how the decision to hold a contest was made. Nonetheless, this is a research that needs to be carried out, for two reasons – historic restitution and moral hygiene.

The major expected outcome of a competition, which has always been to win the commission for the design services professionally, had disappeared under the new way of organizing the investment and the professional practice during Communism.  Similarly, the institution of the competition itself became a simulation after 1977, with the destructive charade around the new civic centre of Bucharest and the House of the People.

Today, this is still the mission which is the most difficult to restore for the”institution” of the architecture competition; this is its most important goal for the future of what we call indifferently – “our built environment”; after all, it concerns our every-day life.  This is the aim of all the competitions organized by the Union of Architects in Romania (UAR) and the Order of Architects in Romania (OAR) since 1990 to date.

This is also the purpose of the entire international practice, as it was reflected by two recent meetings on the theme of competitions, organized by the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE) and the International Union of Architects (UIA), which I had the chance to attend in October this year. Some countries managed to reach this target (usually, those where the competition was already a well established routine, but also a number of countries where it had been disrupted by Communism, such as Poland). The professional organizations in many other countries are still striving to reach it (Romania included).

The competition was mistrusted and criticized in different countries and some of its results did not prove to have the same level of sustainability. Moreover, economic liberalism tried to replace the competition by the Design & Build procedure (which is rejected by professional organizations), and the practice of the invited competitions became more frequent (which is more comfortable for the purchasers, but not encouraged by professional associations, as it prevents a high level of competitive spirit). Nevertheless, the project competition proved to be the best way to achieve a quality-based architectural solution, validated by a jury formed of professionals, the same as the open competition proved to be the best professional way to offer emergent architects the opportunity to distinguish themselves.  Both desiderata generated remarkable results[ii]. Thus, the sine qua non to obtain them is to carefully prepare and organize competitions. Therefore, the international organizations (UIA, UNESCO and ACE) developed standards which guarantee the competitions’ quality and fairness[iii]. These documents recommend synthetically the principles promoted by the profession, unequivocally pursuing the architects’ interests and those of clients as well. They became tools for measuring the equity of a competition, which are adapted by the professional organizations to their national regulations.

Today, the design competition is defined worldwide as “a procedure of architectural services procurement”. The formula has probably lost some of its romantic spirit, yet, it still retains its purpose. Hence, architects around the world try to include the competition in their national architectural policies and strategies and to recommend it for important investments.

The core of the competition in the international contemporary debate is the same as the one expressed by the Romanian architects before the war. Though, where do we, contemporary Romanian architects, stand?

We could believe that we returned to the 1942 moment.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we are there yet!

It may seem paradoxical for the revival impetus of our profession after 1989, but the organization of competitions has not improved significantly. There are lots of reasons, ranging from objective circumstances to strange subjectivities or inertia. I will mention some of them, which I have encountered in the last six years since I have been dealing with competitions at the Order of Architects in Romania (OAR).

I put aside the fact that public investment is still very low. Even when it exists, few authorities understand why they should bother with a competition instead of awarding the design services for the project by tender, Design & Build or even by”occult” means. From the latter point of view, the Law on Public Procurement (98/2016), as intricate as it is, marks a step forward, since although the competition is not enforced, it is accepted as a recommended alternative for the architecture and urban planning fields. Even when authorities decide to organize a competition, they do not understand why its organization requires money and takes more time than a tender. Least of all they are able to understand why prize-money is needed and why the decision of the professional jury must be observed. Moreover, they cannot understand why the competitors’ copyright must be respected (why they cannot take parts of different projects and use them for another one) and why they need to provide for the funds required by the future project (which they consider too expensive anyway). In addition, there are many other reasons which should be widely discussed.

I am aware that any bureaucracy has a high degree of sluggishness, yet I can hardly understand that some architects – in principle, the successors of the 1942 generation – are not in favour of competitions, as they like “other means” of contract awarding and they fear an open professional competition. And it is equally hard for me to realize why some of my colleagues undermine the fair competition procedures, out of pride or without being aware of the carefulness, as well as the professional and judicial assistance required by the organization of a competition. There are many examples of this kind, as there are other architects who legally dispute the evaluation of the competition’s jury. Thus, they hinder awarding the commission to the winner and risk compromising the procurement.

For all these architects, I will quote the same Horia Creangă who asserted, despite having lost against Henrieta Delavrancea-Gibory in the competition for the Hygiene Institute:   ”Full of the spirit of health architecture and through well selected competitions, the state will have to build, despite any material sacrifices, entire modern districts, based on artistic simplicity rules, […] as this is the only way to shape the taste of general public”.

Under these circumstances of inertia (and even bad will), the results of the few accomplished competitions must be welcomed not only for the value itself of these achievements, but also because they could be completed. These are just some of them: the headquarters of the Union of Architects in Romania (UAR) located in the Revolution Square (the first competition held after 1989), the headquarters of ARCUB  – The Cultural Centre of Bucharest Municipality, The Firemen’s Watch Tower in Cluj (which is almost ready to be brought into service) and the whole series of projects that are implemented as a result of the competitions promoted by the City-Hall and the County Council of Cluj-Napoca in the last four years (www.oar.archi/concursuri), Romania’s Pavilion at the Expo Dubai, the design of Romania’s Pavilion at the Venice Biennale etc. Nevertheless, they are overshadowed  by the failure of the major international competitions Bucharest 2000 (which was crucial for the development of the Capital), The Revolution Square (the only result of which was to prevent the execution of the underground project promoted by the City-Hall) or The New Museum of National History of Romania (MNIR). Although all of them were organized with great sacrifices, they became failed opportunities because of political reasons, stupid vanities or other unknown and incomprehensible causes.

Despite the reinvigorating momentum coming from Cluj, it does not mean that “the institution of the competition” is well established in Romania. We are still behind the interwar state of affairs. We could restore the situation, as long as we desire it with responsibility and confidence.

Today, organizing a competition has become more complicated in terms of procedures, but all “technical” matters can be managed – only if we want to manage them and if we all understand – authorities and architects alike – that, irrespective of the competition’s goal, we are not allowed to play with public (or private) money, the future of our cities, the author’s rights or the time of competitors.

I am mentioning Horia Creangă again.  He became “the great interwar modernist” due to the ARO Company which realized the value of the selection made by a professional jury and the importance to observe this selection both for its prestige and for the image of the city – actually, for all of us. This is the major difficulty we still need to overcome –with coherence, persuasion and patience.

[1] L’Architecture magazine 2/1930, Le nouvel immeuble de l’Assurance Roumaine et de l’Assurance Paysanne à Bucarest, p.39-44. The articles on the ARO competition are to be found especially in Vestitorul Asiguratului magazine. The only Romanian architecture magazine which published information about the competition was Căminul. It was not the first Romanian competition to be known abroad. I have accidentally found, in the archives of the Orsay Museum, the EBA magazine, which issued a review of the first two awards for the stock exchange building (Burcuș and Petculescu).

[1] R.U., Despre ultimele concursuri și expoziții de arhitectură (On the last architectural competitions and exhibitions), Căminul magazine 1/1929, p. 17.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Analele arhitecturei și ale artelor cu care se leagă (The annals of architecture and related arts), 1/anul II/1891, p. 1-7, publishes information on the international competition for the Chamber of Deputies, held in December 1890, which concluded with the establishment of the Society of Romanian Architects, the first professional association of architects.

[1] Scrisoarea domnului Julien Guadet (The letter of Mr. Julien Guadet), ibid., p. 14.

[1] For instance, the ARO competition is missing. However, it is a topic worthy of an in-depth research.

[1] ARHITECTURA magazine 2/1916, Secțiunea II: Importanța concursurilor publice în lucrările de arhitectură și reglementarea lor (The importance of public competitions in architectural works and their regulation), p.71-84.

[1] ARHITECTURA magazine 1-2/1942, În jurul legiferării concursului public (About the enactment of public competition), p. 37.

[1] I should not mention more than the competition for the National Theatre of Bucharest, whose winners were Anton and Margareta Dâmboianu, the project being achieved by Horia Maicu’s team (based on his own design). 

[1] The Conference on International Design Competitions, organized by UIA and ACE at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, on 25th October 2019.

[1] These are just a few examples of open competitions: the Library of Alexandria (which made famous the Snøhetta Studio, unknown until then), the Pompidou Centre (the launch moment of the young – at the time – Piano and Rogers), La Grande Arche (due to which Otto von Spreckelsen became famous), the Grand Egyptian Museum (which brought renown to the Henegan Peng studio), etc. Most of the great competitions were actually open ones; I can also add, from memory, a few old competitions, such as: the Dome of Florence Cathedral, the White House, the Houses of Parliament in London, the Paris Opera House, etc.; among the modern ones, it is worth mentioning the Sydney Opera House, Potsdamer Platz and the Philharmonie de Paris. 

[1] UIA Guide for International Competitions in Architecture and Town Planning, 2017, based on the International Regulations for Competitions in Architecture and Town Planning, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1956 and revised on 27th November 1978.

[1] The activity was first carried out by arch. Monica Lotreanu and then continued, to date, by arch. Mirona Crăciun from OAR.

[1] The regulations of any competition, which the competitor agrees to through his participation, provides that only procedural matters can be contested; in fact, this principle is stipulated in the national and international jurisprudence.

[1] Răspunsul domnului arhitect Horia Creangă (The reply of Mr. arch. Horia Creangă [following the survey  conducted by the magazine’s editorial office concerning prominent personalities of the Romanian art during the 1930s] in Arta și Omul (Art and Man), III, nr. 19-22, p. 333-337.

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