159 competitions documented 412 competitions listed
4 536 projects 43 089 documents

Can one win without innovating?

by Camille Crossman, published 2013-02-08
Are innovative projects, which venture onto new aesthetics, riskier than more conventional projects? The Griffintown neighborhood of Montreal has seen major changes over the last decade, and was recently the object of a design competition for a new boardwalk and a public space. Through the competition, the South-West borough of Montréal wishes to consolidate the repurposing of the old industrial sector as well as use this example for future reference. The competition therefore highlights the usual tension between winning strategies and innovative strategies.

Like all major cities around the world, where residential architecture rhymes with intense densification, condo and low income housing towers grow by the dozens in former industrial and commercial areas. Under these circumstances, the neighborhood, which, historically, was a gradually constituted area, is now the subject of an organized pacification through public consultations and design competitions. The objective is to define an identity for these new living areas, which often are of contrasting scales and a somewhat repetitive architecture. However, when the time comes to create a place with its own strong identity, which issues and criteria should be prioritized? Originality? Feasibility? Integration? Innovation? …

In the context of a design competition, these questions are all the more important. The reflections they encourage may participate in the definition of an architectural strategy, or even the adoption of positions regarding the role of design competitions, both from the designers' point of view and that of the organizers and members of the jury. For the designers, there is a tension between wanting to elaborate a “winning” proposal, a.k.a. clearly feasible and fulfilling the program's expectations, and an “innovative” proposal, thus taking risks in the name of a vision. The jury, meanwhile, is confronted with a tension between feasibility and originality. Evidently, the design and judgment strategies at play in a design competition are much more complex than what has been described. Although this division remains somewhat simplistic, it has the advantage of exposing a twofold tension that includes organizers and competitors.

Reading the jury report for the Smith Promenade Urban Design Competition (available online on Design Montreal's web site) clearly illustrates the problem to which was referred. The comparison of comments attributed to the winning project (that of NIPpaysage) and to a project which received a “special mention” (that of The Commons Inc.) is eloquent.

With regards to NIPpaysage's project, the report states that “[the project] was deemed, in the eyes of the jury, the most “rich” of all the projects, both in its ideas and its integration into the urban redevelopment project. The main idea is the development of the site with a simple and intelligent project, responding with flexibility to the competition requirements.” (from the jury report) On the other hand, with regards to The Commons Inc.'s project, the report states that “the jury wanted to give a special mention to this project, due to the exceptional sensibility it demonstrates with regards to the site singularities, as well as the innovative character of the solutions it proposes.” Further on, they add that “this project represents an innovative, poetic, and fresh approach […] [and that the project itself is] very innovative, almost provocative.” And finally, “despite the interest [the project] raises in terms of originality, innovation and sensibility, [the jury members have judged that] the concept is coherent but the design is problematic.” (from the jury report)

When one realizes that the granting of a special mention to The Commons Inc. was not mandatory, and was granted on the initiative of the jury members “given the positive contribution this original proposal brought to the jury's deliberations on the renewal of public spaces, as well as the understanding of the uniqueness of the site within Griffintown”, the tension of the quest for innovation in today's high risk societies becomes palpable. It is important to note that this is not a critique of judgment process or the jury's decision, which took place through an exemplary process (open Canada-wide, held in two phases, with the first being anonymous, the presentations of the finalists open to the general public, a balanced jury, rapid and detailed dissemination of the competition documents: boards, regulations, program and jury report, etc.) The fact remains that this problem may raise others: to what extent can the fear related to unknown dimensions of more “innovative” projects may bias the judgment on the intrinsic or real quality of projects? Will projects in which the judges recognize time-tested solutions be advantaged? Can, or must, the design competition represent a space where ideologies, esthetics, etc. are consolidated or, quite the contrary, are they the perfect opportunity to take (reasonable) risks? In what way does this duality participate in the strategic architectural choices of the participants?

There are 13 projects to discover in the first phase, and 4 finalists, all with different strategies: some are green strategies, some are urban, some contemporary, others more sensitive to historic traces, and we can see that a variety of avenues were explored. It is up to the visitor to decide a posteriori which projects are winning proposals, and which are resolutely innovative.

(Translated by Konstantina Theodosopoulos)
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