For architects the word ‘competition’ is contentious. For some it means provocation, innovation and a level platform from which voices and ideas may project. For others, it means long nights saturated with endlessly depleted coffee, money burnt and professional exploitation, leading to an ego-deflating fate. As Bruce Mau states, “Don’t do award competitions. Just don’t. They’re not good for you.” 1 But regardless of the view to which we align, there is an undeniable seduction about competitions to which we constantly return. Therefore, we ask; what is the value of competitions? Is there a measure for this value?
The debate about whether the risk and shortfalls outweigh the gain is subjective, exhaustive and cyclic. While attempting to steer away from blind optimism and the old adage of “it’s not all about winning”, this article looks at how competitions may be vessels to test, develop and refine ideas. It avoids the loudness and immediacy of recognition and builds toward the slowness of the architectural process – as not one great shift but a series of many lessons.
“Competitions celebrate different ideas and adds value to the notion of our profession…there is a certain joy in sitting down and thinking it through.” 2
For Robert Simeoni competitions are a generator of ideas, which if speculated upon resonate throughout his work. Both Heidi III (in collaboration with Atelier Wagner) and the more recent Stokehouse are competition entries. Standing eighteen years apart, each is an autonomous product of its brief, time and place. One sited on a floodplain by the Yarra River, the other on a coastal plain by the sea. However, when placed side by side parallels are drawn between the two. Both have a sense of arrival, procession and order, achieved by a long arrival cutting through contours and a passage through a series of small spaces opening onto a gathering space. Spatially, Heidi follows a linear typology whilst Stokehouse more closely resembles the cloister typology, wrapping the passage around a solid core. In section an embedded mass is met with a light elevated platform, mediating being in, on and above the ground, between which, the horizon is felt.
Taking our gaze over his oeuvre, Simeoni’s Seaford Lifesaving Club also articulates the raised platform. This gesture reveals a primal longing to gaze at the horizon at what lies beyond. Whether it be through connections to vast landscapes or ritual of living in suburban house, Simeoni provokes an awareness of site and physical existence, more so than experience of the building itself.
In comparison, for Searle x Waldron Architecture (SXWA) competitions became a foundation to fast track their practice. “Competitions can create opportunities that would not otherwise exist – for both design outcomes and architectural practices. The ‘Iconic’ public competition doesn’t necessarily help practices establish themselves – but in our case they did.” 3
This is exemplified by their competition propositions MoCAPE (Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning Exhibition) in Shenzhen, China, and Annexe, an art gallery in Ballarat. Similar in purpose yet different in site and scale, there are common ideas of sculpted mass, shaped ground plane and references to landscape in each. Seen in MoCAPE, mass circulates and encloses public space, building the void to activate space. Developed further in Annexe, the void is articulated as a slippage between existing building and new proposition. In section the ground plan becomes folding terrain. For Annexe, a plinth is carved to form stage and seating. MoCAPE, at five hundred times the scale of Annexe, carves the plinth to shape an underground public space pierced by deep skylights that frame the sky. Rising above the ground level, an open public void is elevated and is internalised as a series of inhabitable volumes held within a light permeable skin.
“For us translating design strategies across scales – from large competitions to smaller scale built work – has placed an emphasis on considering how even small projects can interact with the wider public and urban realm.” 3
Similarly, in SXWA’s work there is a recurrent theme of ‘strangemaking’ – of taking the local and familiar and tweaking it. It is the language of the striations in MoCAPE and Annexe that allude to rock formations and vernacular timber ceilings, respectively. It is also manifest in their award- winning Maidstone Tennis Pavilion in the profile of the timber boards, which reflect the existing weatherboard building. Sculpturally, the ground plane of MoCAPE makes reference to mountains (dis)placed in an urban setting whilst the form of Annexe is a distortion of the existing heritage roof lines.
“Doing competitions tests these ideas in different contexts. Through this process you know your design biases and accelerate the accumulation of design approach for the practice.” 3
As architects, collecting these reflections reveal the persistent lines of thought that transform across project, scale and context. Through this we develop our spatial intelligence; an intelligence formed since childhood through our personal and resonant experiences4. Competitions provide a place where speculations are tested, flaws are revealed and new ideas emerge. As in all research, lessons learnt cannot be escaped, and one project will inevitably inform the next.
The conundrum in assigning merit-based value to creative work is that no standard can be applied across projects. In competitions, we ultimately produce ‘incomparable’ work, and by assigning a numeric we defy the immeasurable and subjective nature of our work. To define our value based upon what someone likes best would be to deny the knowledge that we unquestionably gain through research and time spent thinking. Through this particular viewpoint, outcome always triumphs.
This embedded spatial intelligence is our worth and value, and it is unique to ourselves and profession. As demonstrated by the quality of work by Robert Simeoni and SXWA, without competition processes their subsequent work may well have been rather different, and perhaps without such opportunities, they may not have been so refined.
1. Mau, Bruce. An incomplete manifestation for growth. 2012
2. Robert Simeoni, Director, Robert Simeoni Architects
3. Suzannah Waldron, Director, Searle x Waldron Architecture
4. Schaik, Leon Van. Spatial Intelligence; New Futures for Architecture, Australia, John Wiley & Sons, 2008