It seems like a host of design competitions, both actual ones and those merely in the talking stage, have come up a lot lately.
In today’s Oregonian, Eric Mortenson reports on a new competition sponsored by Metro, “Integrating Habitats”, to generate ideas and designs that result in green clusters of development, not just green buildings. The competition has already attracted 234 entries from 10 countries, Mortenson reports, with a respected jury that includes local developer Jim Winkler, German architect Stefan Behnisch, and Metropolis magazine editor Susan Szenasy.
The Metro competition likely won’t ever be a high-profile one because it’s more of an ideas-based competition, rather than one resulting in tangible built work. But it’s a logical next step for the Portland area’s efforts to truly build green in a world-leading way.
Incidentally, the idea of green urban design got me wondering: what's to stop the Portland Department of Transportation from having its road-paving crews from now on use nothing but permeable pavement material?
Speaking of high-profile, today a reader forwarded me a New York Times article about a design competition co-sponsored by actor Brad Pitt to generate houses for the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Several star architects and firms like Thom Mayne and Pugh + Scarpa of Los Angeles, David Adjaye of London, and Japan’s Shigeru Ban. (Incidentally, If Pitt's Tyler Durden was the ringleader of Fight Club, what does it make these guys--The Magnificent Several? Charge of the Black Mock-Turtleneck Brigade?)
As I understand it, Pitt’s was an invited competition, as compared to the completely open-ended housing competitions we’ve had here, such as Living Smart to generate skinny-lot houses, and the city’s more recent competition to generate courtyard-style housing. I certainly like the idea of an open competition in that it allows young firms to compete on an even playing field and, theoretically, for the best design to win. But it’s probably no coincidence that the New Orleans designs in the Times today seem a little sexier and more interesting than the work our two competitions generated. But of course it also depends on what you're looking for; in a city competition, pure functionality understandably carries more weight.
Finally, there’s the matter of two local bridges set to be constructed. Recently on this site we talked about the planned new Sellwood Bridge, which is not using a competition. I’d questioned at the time whether a competition would have fostered more originality, but perhaps this particular project is not the right one for such a format because of its modest size. A lot of people seem to think something that functions well will suffice, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, what is enticing about a competition is the chance to get something better than sufficient—although of course it’s not guaranteed, either.
Where a design competition might be a lot more appropriate is for the new span planned for the I-5 Columbia River crossing. In case you missed it last week, the panel of experts looking at options for the span—particularly whether to expand/repair the existing bridge or build a new one—have recommended an entirely new structure.
The Columbia River bridge has a lot of function to attend to every day (moving thousands of cars efficiently without so much congestion), as well as a lot of red tape to clear (state, federal and local officials). However, this is a bridge that could and arguably should be a real landmark for the state. What’s more uniquely Portland than its rivers and the bridges that cross them? And this isn’t any river; it’s the Columbia, a particularly big, significant one. It's calling out for something not only functional, but beautiful. It doesn't have to be as showy as a Santiago Calatrava bridge like the one pictured here; maybe in the Northwest it should tend to be more like the land bridge being completed in Vancouver as part of the Maya Lin-overseen Confluence Project. I guess I'd be happy with something kind of in between. But, to borrow from the language of my fellow blogger Mike Merrill, it really needs to be awesome.
If one were to advocate for a design competition for the Columbia crossing, what are the chances of making it happen? Who needs to sign off? Many have credited the media and particularly former Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg (including Randy) for jump-starting the idea of a competition for the aerial tram. It really seems like the Columbia bridge is the next big public works transportation project that needs a competition.
But just as these projects are different, so too are the competitions themselves. I love design competitions, and have long advocated for them in Portland. But clearly they are no panacea, especially when executed or set up poorly. What would we need to do to ensure a Columbia bridge competition not only happens, but happens correctly? I’m thinking it should be an invited competition, for example, with only certain top firms and designers selected. But in the meantime, getting to that point is the vastly greater challenge. Are we ready to cross that span?