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“Paysages Suspendus”: a new step towards the diversification of competitions?

by Jacques White , published 2010-01-01
The format of competitions in Quebec has gradually evolved into a model that finds part of its coherence in the long list of projects funded by the ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition Féminine (MCCCF) within the last twenty years. On this empirical basis, the most recent Guide on Competitions by the Order of Quebec Architects has highlighted what should be common to all architectural competitions, while opening the door to certain variants. By acknowledging the frequency of national recognition awarded to projects that are a result of the standardized practice of competitions in Quebec, it is conceivable that this contributes to improving the quality of architectural production.

However, from this model, two trends are now emerging that could shake things up.

On the one hand, greater rigidity is looming on the horizon, since MCCCF is preparing a particular guide for their own competitions, which will lead to a drastic reduction of their diversity. Under the new rules, competitions open to anonymous proposals will no longer be permitted, the pre-selection criteria for the finalists of the applicant submissions would be the same for all competitions and the planning of technical systems for the buildings would be validated upstream. Ironically, while the administrative considerations with respect to the project as an investment property are increasingly important, concern for the social and cultural challenges raised through competitions do not appear in the documents provided by the ministry, which is surprising considering its primary mission. The new model rules would result in always favouring the same teams based on what they have achieved in the past and would invariably eliminate competitors that may present better ideas for the unique challenges of a particular project, which represents, and it must be emphasized, the essence of the competition.

On other territory, currently jostled by the spectre of a rapid evolution of projects through Public Private Partnerships (PPP), the competition formula has withstood, but the question of adapting to this trend, despite its recent troubles, remains unresolved. We can now see the emergence of competitions which include engineers and specialized consultants in the logical deployment of concerns for sustainable development and integrated design. The cities of Montreal and Quebec mobilize groups and services to invent new mechanisms for the selection of professionals and non professionals (such as designers, artists and scenographers) using a multidisciplinary approach in order to assign the command not only on the basis of a curriculum vitae and costs of services, but on the intelligence of the developed solutions tailored to the project, drawing inspiration directly from architectural competitions. Thus, a new future is in store for competitions even if the path is strewn with obstacles, including those imposed by the Municipal Code of Québec and the Cities and Towns Act and various ministries and agencies concerned.

It is in this context of emerging mutations from which the multidisciplinary competition “Paysages suspendus” should reside, which requested “designers" (indiscriminately, architects, landscape architects, urban planners or artists) and structural engineers. Resulting from an unprecedented collaboration between the Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec (CCNQ) and the Ministry of Transport of Quebec (MTQ) - whose missions do not necessarily converge - this contest was born out of patient and meticulous work from several representatives of both organizations and from the professional counsellor, to be able to construct, through a series of contortions, an unusual procedure that was accepted by all. For example, the competition had to be, in order to obtain the right to be launched, entitled "call for candidacies without prizes in two stages in the form of a competition" and assume a vocabulary belonging to other procedures. If everything has not yet been solved and alternatives are yet to be found, it is nonetheless a step that deserves attention.

The competition “Paysages suspendus” focused on the development of residual spaces along the Dufferin-Montmorency highway, when approaching the Upper Town of Quebec. The intent was to propose a permanent facility designed to elevate the existing infrastructure, to enhance the experience of the road users and to compose a new landscape in the suspended space which defines the highway above the ground. The project was part of a series of other redevelopment projects by the CCNQ destined to improve access to the national capital. The budget was very small with respect to the surface to be covered and there were particularly severe technical constraints, which forced competitors to step up their imagination so that they can intervene in spaces where neither MTQ nor CCNQ knew what to do.

The jury, chaired by Robert Lepage which included respected figures in each of the profiles of candidates, had explicitly promoted innovation and its associated risks for attributing the first prize to the team made up of architects Côté Leahy Cardas and engineers of SNC-Lavalin. He wrote in his report: "This proposal quickly distinguished itself from the others by its boldness, its contemporaneity and the impact that the work could have on the experience for those moving along the highway or for those looking from a distance from various points of view in the city. [...] Finally, the jury wishes to highlight that it is worth the effort to build this bold project rather than adopting a solution that would be more reassuring, yet less at the height of the ambitions of the client of the project." Following the outcome of the competition, many competitors have expressed reservations regarding the feasibility of the winning project, continuing the debate initiated by the jury. For the latest news, technical research is productive and the results encouraging, although the outcome of experiments remain hypothetical. It will also be important to monitor the reception of the project by the public, whose initial reaction on the announcement of the competition results was rather divided. The recent history of the competition “Milieu humide”, in Île-des-Sœurs, has of course led to this.

Beyond the analysis that can be made regarding the process of this contest or whatever it may have produced as “potential architecture”, the ownership of its tangible result, the winning project, does not appear as a simple consequence of this process, but serves instead as an end, something we have a tendency to forget. We should undoubtedly retain from the “Paysages suspendus” competition and from its findings - necessarily temporary - that the question deserved a competition, that all conditions had been met so that the best project emerged from the process and, above all, that a competent jury had designated a winning project, that in their opinion, has the best chance of being validated in the long term despite the concerns it raises.

(translated by Carmela Cucuzzella)

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