The ongoing competition for the redevelopment of the landmark Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Australia has begun to raise some serious questions about the role of the public in architecture. The international competition, which narrowed down a total of 117 applicants to only 6 finalists, is due for completion in mid-2013. Each proposal will be put on display and the public will be invited to vote on their favorite design; what is raising eyebrows, however, is that the result of this public vote will be kept from the jury, who has the final say. The jury will not know what the public likes or dislikes when they place their own votes, and the public preference will only be revealed at the very end along with the jury’s decision.
Although there are pros and cons for keeping this information from the jury members, some Australians feel very strongly about their station - and you can certainly argue that they should have a greater say in its future.
Read more about public participation in architecture after the break…
Shane Green of The Age argues that when the public is the main user or consumer of a design, it’s just good business practice to give them an honest, influential vote. Awareness of the public’s opinion could help a jury towards a design that the majority prefers or distance them from one that the people are strongly opposed to. In this way, the people that benefit from the building most will have a better chance of getting what they want.
On the other hand, there is a reason the competition rules stand as they do. Many times the uninformed public favors a “safer” design over a more radical, forward-thinking one that will really push the limits of the design industry. Or the public can do the exact opposite and choose a very showy design with wow-factor but little practicality – a very important thing to keep in mind for this particular case, as it is the busiest, most important interchange in Melbourne’s public transport system.
Then there are the practical limitations. As opposed to a slowly-progressing design project under the leadership of one architect, a competition breeds – well – competitiveness, and that often translates into a solitary desire to one-up one’s competitors. Because the nature of most competitions is very high-strung and time-sensitive, firms have little opportunity for serious consultation with varying knowledgeable parties, including the public. A competition leaves no room for market-testing, which Mr. Green points out is “surprisingly uncommon in architecture” to begin with. So it looks like whether or not Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station becomes the next Guggenheim is up to the jury – and only the jury.
What do you think is the public’s role in design competitions? Leave your comments below and check out our earlier coverage of this controversial competition!