Editorial: Competition Success Stories

Designed by OMA and Provencher Roy et associs, the new Muse National des Beaux Arts du Qubec in Quebec City is the result of a well-conceived design competition. The museum is expected to open in 2014. OMA/Provencher Roy et Associs
Designed by OMA and Provencher Roy et associés, the new Musée National des Beaux Arts du Qubec in Quebec City is the result of a well-conceived design competition. The museum is expected to open in 2014. OMA/Provencher Roy et Associés

The Université de Montréal recently held an international symposium on the subject of architectural competitions–the first of its kind in Canada. The event illustrated the importance of many critical issues that contribute to a successful competition–such as nurturing emerging talent, ensuring the transparent selection of design teams, and promoting architectural excellence. However, when formulating the perfect competition, selecting an actual winner represents only a small part of the process.

Entitled “International Competitions and Architectural Quality in the Planetary Age,” the symposium was jointly directed by Professors Jean-Pierre Chupin and Georges Adamczyk, who chose architects, urban planners and academics from over 15 countries to participate. Since 2001, Chupin and Adamczyk have led the development of an online Canadian Competitions Catalogue through their work with the Laboratoire d’étude de l’architecture potentielle (LEAP), an interdisciplinary research organization that undertakes–among other things–competition-related research with the School of Architecture at the Université de Montréal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Institut de Recherche en Histoire de l’Architecture.

Of the many presentations delivered at the symposium, the competition process in several European nations was of particular interest. Many countries in Europe mandate that publicly financed buildings require the implementation of a competition process; over 500 competitions are held every year in Germany alone. By comparison, Chupin estimates that roughly 300 design competitions have been held in Canada since 1945. However, Switzerland and the Nordic countries expressed the fact that as design competitions become more prevalent they tend to become more bureaucratic, incorporating substantial pre-qualification requirements and other criteria which begin to transform the design competition into a typical North American proposal call.

Within the Canadian context, organizing a successful design competition is never easy, even in the province of Quebec, which boasts a significantly higher competition rate than any other province. For certain public buildings in Quebec, such as municipal libraries, the province requires a design competition to be held. However, the province has yet to support competitions for public schools, as some architects have suggested. Most recently, Quebec municipalities unable to afford their own mandated design competitions for libraries have been delegating this process of selecting an architect to a general contractor, thereby abdicating their responsibilities to the interests of a private corporation. The outcome is unlikely to be positive.

Yet it cannot be overstated that a competition’s ultimate success rests with a client group’s ability to pursue a strategy for its organization that effectively balances programmatic and institutional requirements with design excellence. A clear strategy helps to define a successful architectural competition. The lack thereof may explain why a number of high-profile Canadian public buildings completed in recent years (i.e., the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton) are generally thought to be architecturally underwhelming.

Occasionally, a design competition yields a good pairing between architect and client. Appearing as the keynote speaker for the LEAP symposium was Shohei Shigematsu, a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and director of its New York office. Shigematsu’s firm, along with Montreal-based Provencher Roy et Associés comprise the architect team for the new $90-million Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec (MNBAQ) in Quebec City. The team was announced in 2010 after winning what was widely believed to be a fair and successful international design competition. The museum expansion will effectively double the space allocated to exhibitions. With most of the money secured, construction is set to begin this spring with a completion date sometime in 2014. Line Ouellet, the client representative and recently appointed director of the MNBAQ, presented the museum’s expansion plans with Shigematsu, implicitly sending out a strong message that measuring the success of a design competition requires the clear vision of both architect and client group. We hope that LEAP’s next symposium will further the conversation by discussing client viewpoints as a contributing factor to success within the complex structure of architecture competitions.