A Competition Where Everyone Wins

While browsing the internet for potential opportunities, I came across an innovative series of design competitions. The simple format and democratic transparency of the Spontaneous Architecture project, run as a collaborative experiment between Pre Office, GSAPP’s Studio X,  and Good Magazine, aims to explore new ways for the architectural design competition to generate discussion, debate, ideas. That freedom is achieved, perversely, through the use of a restricted competition format; each contestant has only a single 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper with which to show the world his or her ideas. That minimal format, combined with the contest’s quick timetable and low $5 entry fee, encourages risk-taking and innovation among the competitors. As a result, each month’s entries can often be highly abstract and experimental …

… or theoretical:

This proposal, for the US/Mexican border, provokes the following question in its descriptive text: “What is a border? Conceptually, it’s a line, separating one side from another. But in architecture a line always gets a thickness.”

Other contestants may take the alternate approach of honing their message through simplicity. The results often resemble the visual equivalent of a one-liner, albeit ones with powerful impact:

Some other entries, meanwhile, are just plain bizarre:

All of the entries, whether tectonic or outright psychedelic, are displayed for public viewing and voting on the competition website. In an interesting blend of the digital and analog worlds, the entries are also discussed in real life at a monthly Studio X event. The presence of those venues for debate and discussion ensure that each contestant has the potential to make a statement, provoke thought, or contribute to a larger dialog, regardless of whether or not they win or even necessarily intend to win.

I was also impressed by the thoroughness and passion with which many of the competition entries addressed the pressing issues of today’s society. Although their awareness was undeniably kick-started by the format of each month’s competition brief, which inevitably highlights a particular social or cultural challenge, the results often suggest inventive new solutions beyond the  rehashed political arguments typically associated with such themes. A proposal to place medical offices and waiting rooms on trains, for example, pragmatically reinterprets the unpleasant urban reality of long commute times as a tool for health care improvement:

“Combine idle time. Use time during the commute for visual checkups on specialized checkup trains.”

Such competition briefs also encourage designers to think beyond the scale of individual buildings, and instead consider the overall systems of society and how design can impact the future:

Decentralized health care kiosks to serve local communities.

Some other dreams embark on a more idealistic direction, resembling dramatic large-scale utopian (or perhaps dystopian) visions:

Immigration infrastructure designed to link unemployed workers with countries that have demand for their labor.

Regardless of how spectacular some particular entries appear, however, the discussion-focused nature of the competition seems to lend its entries to be judged by the critical fiber of their ideas rather than the presentation of their surface imagery. Andrew Miller David Ruperti’s winning entry for the March 2010 Olympics-themed competition, for example, requires a few moments of blinking before one can look past its distracting background. Once you do, however, the overall idea will make you seriously think:

“Identity Games proposes that Olympic teams be allowed to identify themselves with non-nationalistic groups. This change would invite a flood of new teams representing both geographic and non-geographic communities.”

January 2010 winner Daniel Georges’s global warming predictions are similarly challenging:

“Even the things that will be saved won’t be the same any more.”

Beyond the merits of any individual submission, however, the competition’s overall spirit of dialog and risk-taking creates an atmosphere which I haven’t quite seen before in any other design contest. This is the kind of ambition that the world needs more of right now, and as this generation (my generation) of emerging architects grows and develops, we hopefully will see much more of it to come. If you’re interested in joining the project, there’s still time to propose your solutions to this month’s topic, the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, before the competition deadline of June 15.

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