Public Architectural Competitions in Israel - a Double-edged Sword?

Design contests are considered a springboard to personal success, but they are nevertheless an inexhaustible source of friction and entanglement, with recurrent complaints over defects and shortcomings, and even corruption.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The metaphoric wastepaper basket of architecture in Israel − and elsewhere − is full of blueprints that won public architectural competitions yet were not built. Even though vast amounts of talent, effort and money were invested in them, and they met all the necessary requirements and were chosen in a democratic fashion by a team of professional judges.

A prime example of this were the plans for a new prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, which were canceled because of public anger over the price and their ugliness. But the fundamental question was: How can it be that despite all the investment, only a fraction of the winning proposals of public competitions in recent years in Israel came to fruition?

This question stood at the forefront of the discussion held this week at the Architect’s House Gallery in Jaffa, as part of an initiative by the young branch of the Israel Association of United Architects. For these young architects, winning a design competition is crucial at this stage in their careers.

Architectural competitions are considered to be a primary means of advancing architectural ideas and a springboard to personal success, especially for architects who are just starting out, or are unknown or unconnected. Over the generations, many industry insiders owe their professional careers to planning competitions. Many others are left bitter and frustrated. Competitions are inexhaustible sources of friction and entanglement, with complaints over defects and shortcomings, and even corruption.

This is especially true within a small professional community such as that found in this country, where the field is not entirely well-administered and regulated. History has taught us that winning a competition does not guarantee a project’s implementation, and its cancellation − for one reason or another − is not a unique phenomenon to Israel.

The history of architecture competitions began 2,500 years ago. As far as we know, the first architectural competition was for the Acropolis of Athens, that ancient masterpiece of Western culture from the fifth century B.C.E. Thousands of years later, during the 1950s, the Seagram building in New York was built. This masterpiece of Western corporate Modernism was not chosen in any architectural competition − it was thanks to a personal decision by the customer’s daughter, who recognized architectural genius and gave it an opportunity.

So there is no way to know for certain which method of selection leads to the most success − an architectural competition or the customer’s good taste.

The debate this week at the Architect’s House Gallery was held during the furor over the cancellation of the winning design for the National Library in Jerusalem − an affair that has stirred up excitement in the architectural community, and currently rests upon a court decision. Architect Rafi Segal, who was discharged as the winner, may have joined in the discussion, but he didn’t divulge any details of the affair, disappointing those who were hoping for a glimpse behind the scenes.

In a rough ge neralization for purposes of illustration, you could say that architectural competitions, especially the prestigious ones, are irrelevant to the general public. Mostly, they revolve around iconic projects and “too much architecture,” favoring an excess of creativity in order to catch the eye of the judges in a competition where they’ve already seen it all. The public conducts life far away, in an environment that in many cases has not been built to accommodate its needs and wants.

Competitions are to a large extent a hotbed of inessential projects, which are only built because an investor has been found. They are innovative only in terms of style and technology, and in practice only perpetuate the ruling power structures and existing spatial situation.

In general, the architectural community and architectural organizations support the existence of public competitions despite criticisms over their management. The competitions bring the best out of them − a point which was raised at the debate this week − and ignites a “twinkle in their eye.” The day-to-day stuff doesn’t do it for them.

With all the difficulties and complications involved in such competitions, “at their core stands the desire to plan and design the built environment in the best way,” says the chairman of the architect’s association competitions committee, Osvaldo Stav. In the debate this week he showed a representative selection of winners that included the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Bank of Israel in Jerusalem, and the Haifa courthouse − all of which either represent the positives or negatives of the system, depending on your point of view.
According to Stav, the question is: “Is there an alternative to public competitions? Is it better not to have competitions at all?”

An ambitious attempt to change the system from within is a competition with the paradoxical name: “The Competition of Competitions.” It was announced last month by Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York ‏(a non-profit organization for the advancement of innovative positions in architecture, art and design‏). The idea was born out of the hypothesis that the “true desires of our present society are outside of the current taxonomy of competition briefs.”

The completion sets itself the goal of turning architects from passive participants − whose role “has been reduced to answer a question that someone else has asked” − into active participants in the formulation and setting of rules and regulations of future competitions.

In the brave new world Storefront is striving forward. Perhaps future participants in architectural competitions in Israel will be able to suggest projects that are more relevant to the rest of society.

The Acropolis of Athens was the result of the world’s first known architectural competition. Credit: Benutzer:Fantasy
The Seagram building in New York was designed without any competition. Credit: Benutzer:Fantasy



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