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Competing for Second Place

Discussing competitions and new models for disseminating architectural ideas, the “(P) RE:Think | Competitive Ideas” panel discerned little about the future. When directly asked, all panelists shrugged with a resounding, “I don’t know.” They did clarify that large-scale project competitions are rarely built and visionless, while the smaller-scale tend toward experimental installations with little impact. Despite these limitations, alternatives and strategies exist for making the most of competitions.

The Architects’ Newspaper’s Founding Editor William Menking declared his broadsheet an alternative to mainstream media. Supportive of ideas competitions, the paper recently sponsored one to propose an adaptive re-use of the Houston Astrodome, and another for housing in New Rochelle, the latter fully intending to be built. The unorthodox approach in Westchester County enlisted architectural ideas before a second phase required developer partners who could realize them.

Jamie Torres Springer, partner at HR&A, and Menking both emphasized that architects must understand the project’s intentions and micro-politics, in addition to site characteristics. “Many times,” Springer revealed, “competitions are used to kill time, please people until the market will support development, or simply to create interest.” Competitions are not uncommonly used “to drum up interest and finance – and a good architect must understand this,” he said. New York City competitions are often developer-led bids where architectural ideas, if explored, play a backseat role – if even let out of the trunk.

Taking a grassroots approach, Abigail Coover started the SuckerPunch website 10 years ago as a platform for ideas competitions to the Nth degree. One competition solicited lunar architecture! She found that entrants wanted to create dialogue as well as portfolio pieces. Recent winners have built full-scale details for exhibitions, thereby realizing ideas and taking the conversation face-to-face. Menking reiterated this trend by assessing events and biennales as polemical social networking-oriented conversations.

While it may take entrants numerous competitions to figure out how to present their ideas before winning – Menking cited Rem Koolhaas as having made a career from second-place entries – they are encouraged to engage the organizers to discern the real goals. Springer laughingly lamented, “New York agencies are a little harder; you can’t pick up the phone and call 311 to ask about the competition.”

James Way, Assoc. AIA, Marketing Manager at Dattner Architects, was formerly an assistant editor at The Architect’s Newspaper.

Event: (P) RE:Think | Competitive Ideas
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.07.13
Speakers: Lonn Combs, Founder Easton+Combs, Assistant Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Abigail Coover, Editor, SuckerPunch, and Partner, Hume Coover Studio; William Menking, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, The Architect’s Newspaper; Jamie Torres Springer, Partner, HR&A, and New York University
Organized by: AIANY New Practices Committee