On Competitions


        In 1957, a relatively unknown 39 year old Danish architect named Jørn Utzon won the international competition to design the Sydney Opera House.  Eero Saarinen, the American architect and one of the jury members arrived late, by which time a few of the entries had already been inspected and Utzon’s was one of the rejected proposals. Saarinen went through these and picked out Utzon’s scheme and declared it the winner. Utzon’s drawings were very diagrammatic but Saarinen was able to see the power of his scheme and supposedly made an additional perspective himself to convince the other jury members. The Sydney Opera House is today an international icon and widely considered one of the masterpieces of modern architecture.


        Architectural competitions offer this promise - that something truly outstanding, truly timeless could result. Examples of this include the Vietnam War Memorial, in Washington D.C., by Maya Lin, then a 21 year old Yale University undergraduate student and the Pompidou Center in Paris by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano & Peter Rice. Many things do need to align for something truly exceptional to happen - the competition brief needs to be provocative and sufficiently open-ended, the jury needs to have vision and most importantly the patrons of the competition need to build it.


        Competitions are also a refreshing change from the tedium of everyday architectural practice. If approached as an opportunity to push forth on the practice’s individual agenda it often produces proposals which question, alter and re frame the competition brief. But many competitions also produce winning proposals which lack any real ambition, and show a distinct lack of risk taking. These projects look like they are comfortable, familiar and non-threatening options which the jury could easily digest. It is almost as if the very act of hosting the competition is laudable enough that choosing a worthy winner takes a back seat.


        Having cast these aspersions on the systemic problems of hosting a competition I still feel that this may be the best way to find new talent and encourage bold new ideas. A great opportunity is staring us in the face. Recent newspaper articles have discussed the possibility of a 200 storey tower as part of the new proposal for the Race Course. This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a big impact on the form of the city. The Race Course occupies some 70 acres in the heart of the city and could provide a fantastic platform for us to define a vision for Bangalore. The 200 storey tower is a cop-out. It is a sad excuse for a vision and I hope the powers that be see this opportunity for what it is.


        In fact opportunities are all around us. With all the widespread demolition going on as part of the Metro we now have the chance to really revitalize the city and be creative about the programs that could fill these many blank pockets all around the city. I am reminded of François Mitterand’s Grands Travaux program. As President of France from 1981 - 1995 he oversaw the commissioning of, among other grand cultural institutions, the Musee d’Orsay (1986),  the Insitut de Monde Arabe (1987, competition), the Louvre Pyramid (1989), The Bastille Opera (1989, competition), the Grand Arch at La Defence (1990, competition), and the National Library of France (1995). We need vision of this scale. Large public projects should ideally be awarded through open public competitions and a commitment needs to be made to ensure that the winning entry is built as intended by the architect.


        I recently visited the new National Gallery of Modern Art, here in Bangalore. It was a Sunday and I was the only person there. The security guys turned on the fans as I walked through the rooms. The project has a long history and though awarded on the basis of a limited competition has left a lot to be desired. As I said earlier the promise that competitions hold are sometimes thwarted by the jury, the brief or the architect, but this is a risk worth taking because what it ensures at its most fundamental level is a chance for private individuals to participate in the making of the public realm. The more inclusive and open this process is, the richer our city will be.


Bangalore Mirror

August 2009