In recent years, public contests have been used for everything from the New York ‘Dryline’ to a new Guggenheim. But do these competitions just encourage gimmicky ideas – or are they a better way to prepare cities for a changing world?
Just as musicians can build their year around festival appearances, architects can now fill their calendar with deadlines for design competitions. The international contest is an increasingly fashionable way of generating new ideas, forging reputations and getting some interesting things built.
We have competitions to thank for New York’s 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial and Manhattan’s High Line. Thomas Heatherwick’s controversial plan for a Garden Bridge across the Thames was commissioned by Transport for London after a design contest. And more than 1,700 entrants sought the chance to create Helsinki’s Guggenheim museum before the bid by Paris-based architects Moreau Kusunoki was eventually selected.
Not everyone is happy about the growth of these “prestige” design challenges, mind. Critics suggest they encourage a tendency toward gimmicky, unworkable ideas. The winning entry in this year’s eVolo Skyscraper Competition, for example, involves a plan to dig up New York’s Central Park to expose its sunken bedrock, then create a giant wall of mirrored glass around the park’s perimeter.
Entitled New York Horizon, it was condemned by the architecture critic Kriston Capps as “the worst idea in history”, part of a “contestism” trend that rewards provocative but impractical schemes that will never actually happen. Another architecture writer, Alexandra Lange, refers to “meme-tecture”: striking, mainly software-generated images that are created for the express purpose of going viral.
But others insist competitions can foster genuinely useful forms of innovation. Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, a competitive process born out of the quest to make New York more flood-proof after Hurricane Sandy, believes they can inspire solutions to the huge infrastructure challenges faced by cities in the 21st century. […]