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Editorial> Under Consultation
William Menking on the implications of architectural competitions.
Wohnen am Park apartment building (2009) at the site of the former Northern Railway Station, Vienna.

In the United States we have developed a unique public/private model of organization that reaches into nearly every corner of how we construct our cities and practice architecture. Projects get built, but the terms and protocols— and therefore, the results—vary widely. Elsewhere, it’s done differently. For example, Vienna, Austria, which may have the most successful program of affordable housing of any city in the world, has a defined process known as the “the four pillars,” a set of guidelines that every RFP in a competitive process and every submitted proposal must follow and be judged by if they are to be chosen by city officials.

With our myriad of overlapping municipal and governmental regulations, standards, and authorities, this country may never adapt a universal set of criteria for selecting memorials and major buildings. Given all the variables, it should be no surprise that even architectural competitions have become a mini-business in this country. This issue’s feature focuses on a growing industry of consultants who work almost exclusively on creating and staging competitions. Further, these consultants do more than simply stage competitions—they seem to hold the hands of the client(s) and sometimes even the architects to ensure the success of the process and the resulting design. It’s a valuable service for many clients, since “architecture” may be defined as everything in excess of basic program requirements like toilets and a roof that does not leak.

Too often architects are guilty as charged of being elitists or unconcerned about the bottom-up input of the clients and the public. But one can see what Bill Lacey, former executive director of the Pritzker Prize means when he says, “I worry about the long-range effects of the public being to involved in a matter that they’re not equipped to deal with.” We cannot help but think of the banal sculpture of fighting soldiers that was placed beside Maya Lin’s powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial project or the input that September 11 victims’ families have had over the construction of the complex surrounding Larry Silverstein’s towers. In fact, the most important role these competition specialists can perform is, as competition consultant Karen Stein says, to “establish a process that mirrors the core values of the institution” commissioning the project.

It is a worry that these competition insiders could become powerful architecture brokers, trading on their friendships and connections. But legitimately used, their knowledge of the process may allow them to be the only arbiters between the top-down excess that makes great architecture and the legitimate demand by the public to be part of the design process.

William Menking