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Or how to bury the imagination

by Jean-Pierre Chupin, published 2014-04-16
If it is useless to hold a competition when there are no beliefs in the virtues of emulation and collective judgment, it is, above all, futile to hold an ideas competition when one fears the surprises of imagination and experimentation. The first part of the Green Line ideas competition (Toronto, 2012), presented in the most recent update of the Canadian Competitions Catalogue, proposed an ideation exercise aiming to generate public debate. However it is harder to understand the relevance of the second part, entitled "Underpass Solutions", which required designers to stick to "realistic and feasible ideas".

Editorials that go with each update of the CCC are not written as part of a platform for opinions or for the promotion of any competition, nor do they try to praise the winners or console the losers. Nonetheless, as researchers devoting a significant part of our scientific activities to the documentation and understanding of competitions and contemporary practices of projects, both in Canada and elsewhere in the world, it behooves us to take this opportunity to emphasize that the use of ideas competitions requires a minimum of respect for design teams. In its rules for international competitions, the International Union of Architects insists on the distinction, perhaps unfairly, between ideas and projects competitions. Some people will emphasize the inherent misnomer associated with this distinction, as it implies that most projects are separated from ideas. However, this distinction is generally understood as stemming from a clarification of the objectives of any type of competition. The organization of a projects competition always entails a measure of feasibility and appropriateness for each proposal; thus there is always a form of realism since the winning project is not necessarily the most daring and the most innovative. Adolf Loos' famous response to the great competition for the Chicago Tribune in 1922 remained in people's minds precisely for its critical capacity, but the competition's organizers expected a good "solution", in addition to their desire to have a successful event, as they were all good communication professionals. That being said, the organization of an ideas competition requires a willingness to open the question to all possible forms of responses, including, and perhaps especially, those answers that will challenge the question, the site, as well as the very idea of the competition. A non-restrictive ideas competition is perhaps the best way to prepare a great project competition as it opens the door to a reformulation of the issue addressed by the competition, based on the contenders' proposals.

As for the "Underpass Solutions" part of the Green Line ideas competition (Toronto, 2012), 15 projects were submitted and all of them were somehow reflecting the characteristics of the double contradictory injunction imposed by the organizers: mediocre, confused, and uninteresting. The aim of the competition was to address these crossing places. There are at least 8 underpasses along the 5 km-long power line corridor crossing the city of Toronto, often disturbing, for which designers were invited to address the issues of mobility, security, and visibility. The program stressed the need to provide "realistic and achievable" ideas, in addition to sticking to a modest budget, although no further precisions were provided about this financial constraint. The issue was very interesting, potentially a real "competition question", especially since there is not a lack of comparable situations in the Canadian context. The act of reflecting on the quality of these underpasses is, indeed, well worth the exercise of collective intelligence that is a design competition.

So, what is the problem then? Looking through the 15 proposals available on the organizers' website (http://www.greenlinetoronto.ca/index.htm), which we are relaying here in the hope of supplementing the competition's documentation, we do not find any real models in the true sense of the term. We find underpasses poorly designed (see the horseshoe project), figurative green projects (the attempt to design an arc of greenery is rather elegant), as well as literal green projects (one competitor found nothing better than covering the lanes with a synthetic green carpet). Some urban markers can also be found in some projects, similar to what was done for the first cable-stayed bridges in the nineteenth century, the one in Bristol for instance, except that, in this case, it is underground. Then, when it comes to functional and utilitarian projects, there is an attempt for an "underground theater", which will be particularly disrupted by the deafening noise of the trains (the project cross section is betraying the weakness of the idea). Speaking of sounds, the winning project actually focuses on making acoustic walls meant to receive artistic interventions. Among the other propositions, we can find a large mirror wall which attempts to hide the gateway behind an electronic wall, a device project to circumvent flooding underground passages (or how to create a problem just before solving another one), and most frequently, we can find ideas from contenders who seem to be completely inhibited by the contradictory rules of the competition, at the point of regurgitating the original message. This is the case for the project called "Watershed Refuge" which concludes its project description as follows: "The solutions are cognizant of the fiscal realities facing municipal governments and stakeholders today. These solutions are submitted through a lens of what is practical to implement and replicable at other underpasses within the city."

Fortunately for the world of ideas, although it did not seem to please the jury, several competitors have focused on the "light at the end of the tunnel" and have proposed different lights or illumination devices in accordance with underpasses, bystanders, and situations. One proposal plays with magnetic fields, remembering that the site is, after all, a large power line corridor, while another proposal tries a rainbow-shaped decomposition: always useful in this type of underground situation, even though it is short.

If a competition may also lead to examples that one should not follow, the Green Line "Underpass Solution" competition offers itself as a counterexample of what a good ideas competition should be used for. An ideas competition does not seek a "solution", it rather seeks imagination, to validate the complexity of an issue, or even to identify the most innovative teams. Ideas first, please!
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