What have these three projects got in common? They will never be published in a reputable architecture magazine. This news is no surprise: only a few projects in all the world deserve the right to be published. Editors set trends, put focus on hot topics, give visibility to emerging firms and confirm architectural stars.
A printed magazine has limited space and therefore has to engage in a very strict decision-making process; only the very few are shown. In this Darwinian selection some worthy and brilliant architects perish. On the other hand, an internet site has the possibility to widen the projects range. The web has virtually unlimited space - but still, this space is not to be wasted. Very few would benefit from a site that published every architecture project on earth.
These unpublished projects are not outstanding nor interesting; they might be “fine” or worse. Frank Gehry says that “98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit.” I don’t know where he found his data (and personally I would save from this off-hand dismissal a little bit more) but basically I agree with his statement. So you’ll find the best projects on published in magazines and on websites, and the worst you sadly have the opportunity to experience on your own, simply by walking around almost any city.
If the real world is like that, one can imagine architectural competitions might mirror this pattern. Along with winners, out of the competition basket often come finalists and honourable mentions, usually all acceptable proposals in spite of their failure. And where is the “shit”? Deeply hidden in organizing committee’s warehouse. What we normally see is the tip of the iceberg, and therefore it is easy to convince oneself that only the best practices compete in architecture. In October 2014 everything changed: we were overwhelmed by thousands of proposal for the Guggenheim Helsinki Museum, of which a large portion were part of what I now call Gehry’s share.
Combine this with cost-effective software and hardware, the collaborative possibility given by the internet and social media, and you have the most popular architecture competition in history. Malcolm Reading Consultants, the Guggenheim Helsinki international competition organizers, decided to publish every single file they got from the participants.
In a sudden bout of Finnish transparency they gave birth to a brand new “Helsinki effect”: too much, too bad, too soon. Almost nobody (apart from the jury and myself) had time to see all the images: taking 1 minute to read the project description and another to see every image it would have required 8 days, 8 hours a day.
Among this mess, several magazines and critics published their list of good, hilarious and weird projects. The most absurd projects spread all over the internet, crossing over from the little world of specialized magazines to conquer newspapers. In a few days the most horrible projects on earth were the most famous (or infamous) despite overwhelming odds against them.
I know that it is easier to sneer at funny projects than to debate on fair proposals, but the effect is that until the winner is announced, absurd proposals will be more visible than the finalists, and it’s pretty awkward.
After this turning point, another very popular international competition - the Bamiyan Cultural Centre International Competition - published all their entries. This time the field contained “only” 1070 entries. The Competition conditions and eligibility were very similar to those of the Guggenheim Helsinki. The UNESCO’s new Centre didn’t draw the attention of newspapers, but the relationship between good and bad design also seems to follow the rule of Gehry’s share; no strange flying objects or tricks, just good, bad and mediocre. Maybe this is the reason for the press’ lack of interest.
Recently, we’ve also been able to admire all the entries of the Nine Elms to Pimlico Battersea Bridge Competition. Immediately a debate emerged about the “expressivity” of the bridge - a “visible landmark” as if you believe the competition organizers, or a “wild designs” according to The Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright.
This is all to say both the Helsinki Guggenheim and the Nine Elms Nine Elms Bridge competitions have been controversial from the beginning, and not only by their design. On one side there is the city of Helsinki that can’t stand the museum institution and maybe fears its costs. On the other side Londoners try to oppose the political lobbies that push the bridge as a promotional design to an urban development, just like the nearby and forthcoming Green Bridge.
In both the competition notices the project was intended as a landmark; “visionary” in the case of the Guggenheim and “expressive” for the Nine Elms Bridge. Fatally this might lead to hatred/loved design. As OMA partner Reinier de Graaf wrote:
“It is exactly this type of media geared competitions, which, in calling for ‘landmarks’, end up causing a lot of public hassle in the process. In soliciting extravagant designs, they inevitably solicit extravagant public expenditure.”
Of course he was referring to his project that CityMetric labeled “the one that is definitely not a bridge” in its article “The 12 most ridiculous design for the new Battersea bridge”.
I don’t want to see all the discarded projects from every architecture competition in history. If the jury discarded them it was for a reason! Similarly, for modern competitions I don’t want to spend my nights in an attempt to find something interesting in the manure. Most of all, I don’t want ordinary people to think architects only ever propose weird, non-functional and absurd design.
Please, competition organizers of the world: if you still have discarded boards, burn them.
Federico Reyneri is an architect and partner at LPzR associates architects (Italy). He has previously contributed an article about his preliminary research on the use of parametric techniques in the Helsinki Guggenheim competition - hence his claim to have seen every one of the competition's 1,715 projects.