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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Would more design competitions make better cities?

Mark Joseph opined in the Baltimore Sun that "Baltimore (should) rise up" and achieve architectural notoriety much like the similarly sized Bilbao in Spain did through the Guggenheim branch museum designed by Frank Gehry. The opinion recommends that Baltimore's architecture could be notched up a lot by design competitions such as the one for the University of Baltimore new law school building which had been supported by Bob Embry of Abell Foundation.

As an architect, I should be jumping up and down of joy when a housing expert and development expert calls for better design. Yes, I agree, most architecture in Baltimore plays if safe and is pretty boring; very much the same applies to our metro area sister city Washington DC. But would Baltimore really be helped by a head-turner building like the Guggenheim masterpiece which represented a turning point in museum architecture and in Gehry's carrier?

As much as I support the notion that good design matters, the idea of "trophy architecture" still somewhat novel when the Guggenheim was done, has now already gone too far. Barely a city,that doesn't hire an internationally known star architect to get "on the map". Witness the Libeskind art museum in Denver, the Calatrava museum in Milwaukee, the Koolhaas library in Seattle or Vignoly's convention center in Pittsburgh. Some of these buildings represent valid new frontiers in their respective building type (Vignoly and Koolhaas), others have made a splash but hardly advanced much else. When it came to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York, the spectacle of the star architects reached a fever pitch only to implode in a manner where all star architects seem to have cancelled each other out while leaving the usual speculative American production architecture triumphant. (see my blog about the WTC site).

So maybe we would be well advised to distinguish between trophy architecture a la Bilbao and the value of design competitions and discuss them separately.

UB Law School under construction (status in June 2012)

There is no question that the UB competition which Mark Joseph also mentions and which gave us a design by the German architect Stephan Behnisch, resulted in one of the most interesting and cutting edge structures in the city, architecturally and technologically.

So why is it, that we don't do design competitions more often, that even the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is only a luke-warm promoter of design competitions? After all, the European architectural organizations from the British RIBA to the German BDA are really big on them. In Europe they are the main entry ticket to large commissions for young and creative architects. In many European countries public buildings from firehouses to courthouses and from schools to libraries  have to be designed through competitions. And those countries have very strict rules how these competitions have to be conducted, culminating in the rule that the "sponsor" has to realize the design of the winner. The only time a second or third prize design gets picked is if the first one cannot come to an agreement with the owner. On the jury, professionals are often in a stronger position than the sponsor side. (The German guidelines GRW required this even but had lately been adjusted for Europe wide competitions).

Back when the UB law school options for a design competition where discussed at the Abell Foundation, I had suggested such a rule to the president of the university of Baltimore. Thus I had talked myself immediately out of the possible position of competition advisor. And the only thing I had mentioned, really, was that the international architects that the president had in mind, may not go by a set-up in which he has the last word since they would be used to a system. (As it turned out, from Dominique Perraut, to Norman Foster and from Moshe Safdie to the Stephan Behnisch, world famous architects didn't mind the unusual US set-up and happily participated anyway, shying no expense for world class submissions).

So why does AIA  not embrace the European preference for competitions as the procurement tool of choice for public buildings when it is clear that this would result in a shift of emphasis away from cost towards design?  And equally clear is that anonymity in the selection process gives young talent a chance over the playing it safe with the known and established firms?

These are the main down sides of design competitions:
  • Hundreds of firms and architects may respond to a plum competition request but only a handful of prize winners will see any money. The entire rest has worked many hard hours  for free
  • With the emphasis on design and the preponderance of peers on the jury, decisions are heavily dependent on the eye candy of the presentations. There is little opportunity to ask back, check the structural, functional or cost implications and a culture of architecture as skin may be promoted. 
  • Winners may have been quite capable in submitting a plausible and convincing competition entry but may be too inexperienced or small to develop the full set of working drawings.
  • owners have to pay all the bills and eventually operate the building but can be overruled by design professionals and be forced to build something they hate with little chance for developing a solution in an iterative process based on dialogue.
  • Design competitions don't allow meaningful public participation 
True, the European design competition system has developed remedies for almost all the above problems (except the wasted work of all the non winners). A host of options exists how design competitions can be conducted including:

- a technical screening process that supposedly eliminates entries which are clearly dysfunctional, not economical or structurally questionable
- invited competitions where only pre-screened firms are admitted
- two step competitions in which first ideas and designs are solicited and then a shortlist selected to do the realization entries. 

Still, the biggest question is not easy to answer: Are buildings in European cities better designed? Is there more creativity because of the competitions?
This ultimate litmus test brings us back to the topic of vanity architecture, star architects and if a piece of trophy architecture here and there can not only "put a city on the map" but be a meaningful improvement relevant to residents.
While it is very clear that that signature buildings like the Guggenheim in Bilbao have worked for some cities, it is also clear that this approach has pretty much reached its pinnacle, if for no other reason than over-use.
As "community architect" I cannot help to note that many citizens would much rather direct architects'  attention to the protracted problems of cities than have them get carried away with one or another jazzed up structure. In fact, one of the arguments often heard from citizens criticizes the focus on grand projects instead on the many smaller things that decide about the well being of neighborhoods.

But is that a proper way of describing the choices? Are these really alternatives, design or healthy neighborhoods? Isn't that a false choice just as the one between functionality and design, or practicality and art? Doesn't the "creative city" point another way?

It doesn't make sense to play better design against the need to make a city functional on a basic level . Recent insights in how much value good design can add even in economic terms (increased productivity in office buildings, quicker healing in hospitals to name just two examples) proves even better than the slogan "form follows function" that design cannot be divorced from function. Still, it remains an open question if design competitions can really achieve better design than the standard route of procurement through direct commissioning or requests for (non anonymous) proposals.

Before we dismiss European design competition model we should see if it can't be adjusted to respond less to formal fashion trends and more to broader and more meaningful challenges including resiliency, sustainability and true system thinking. A bigger challenge would it be to make the linear competition process more of a dialogue that includes owners, operators, users and the community. Stakeholders are certainly less and less willing to hand their fate to the high priest of design and never be involved again.

The new law school in Baltimore is a great example of a successful competition. But even then, it will not solve significant community problems. But as probably the most advanced building in the city regarding facade technology, sustainability and the art of interior place making we are better off with it than without it. And I think it is very good looking as well. If Mark Joseph would have used it as his main argument for design competitions rather than the Bilbao Guggenheim branch, I might not even have started these reflections.

Design excellence and responsibility for the community certainly don't have to be mutually exclusive. A few cutting edge buildings in a city set the bar higher for everything that follows. In this sense the UB design competition has its mission accomplished even before the building has opened.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Photo: Copyright ArchPlan Inc.

See also this previous blog on the topic

published: 11/24/12 22:20. Last update: 12/06/12  16:30


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    1. thank you for the positive feedback and encouragement.