Saturday, March 2, 2013


The National Archives of Australia is putting selected competition design entries for the city of Canberra on display as a part of the anniversary of this event. Some of these submissions have not been seen for one hundred years: see

It will be interesting to see these competition entries on display. Australia has a habit of never disclosing the entries made to competitions, just that of the winner. Of course this is not a common occurrence as design competitions are becoming more and more rare. The opera house in Sydney, itself the outcome of an international competition, has become the iconic example of why one should never hold a competition. In this context, “We don’t want another opera house!” is the oft-repeated phrase that snidely refers to cost blowouts, delays, and arguments between the client and the architect on the development of the winning concept in a nasty, politically charged environment. One never knows what might be, or become of any situation, but these conditions do not seem to be the singular problem of schemes selected only on a competitive basis.

Today any ‘competition’ is much more likely to be an informal, private arrangement where an institutional client will invite architects to submit schemes in response to a certain brief for no fee, or, at best, for a miniscule payment. Sadly the profession seems keen to comply with these invitations with great enthusiasm. Indeed, other firms that have not been chosen to participate will complain at not being offered the chance to freely spend their time and money, to give their expertise away for nothing, all on the off chance, the gamble, of getting a job: a real gambol.

A true public competition is something that has become a strange event today. The private invitation to make a submission is, unlike the public summons, never anonymous. In this situation, those who make decisions always know who and what, as well as the impact of any political implications, and more. The results can be manipulated. It is for this reason that the private competition has become popular: there are no surprises. The true public competition where all participants are unidentified leaves everyone on edge with the nagging question: “Just who have we chosen here with design xx?” The winner of the design competition for the new capital of Canberra was ‘Design 29.’ Would it have been chosen if the author had been known? We will never know, but seeing the Canberra competition submissions on display will be of great interest. Events such as these should be more frequent.

The design of the new Parliament House in Canberra was chosen from a competition, as was the design for Federation Square in Melbourne. In both of these cases, selected designs were made public; but the memories of losers’ schemes fade quickly. Like most things in life, winners are grinners and write the history.

The latest building to be decided by a competition in Queensland is GOMA, the Gallery of Modern Art located on the southern side of the Brisbane River opposite the western portion of the CBD. It is linked to the city with Kurilpa Bridge: see  This art gallery was the result of a hybrid process that initially called openly for international interest to be recorded. Once the names of those interested had been submitted, the selection body chose a limited number of firms to participate. It seems that the State wanted to have the best of both worlds; or was it merely seeking a way to diffuse complaint and still keep control of the process? The design chosen to be constructed, the one that ‘won,’ was designed by a local firm of architects. It is a scheme that has close parallels with Copenhagen Opera House: see  Unusually, the losers’ schemes were published in a small booklet. It was a good idea, sadly unique or very rare in Australia.

It appears to me that those running competitions, whether public or private, have an obligation to publish all submissions. Is it fear, a dread of open public debate that prompts promoters to selective silence? Is there a concern that the decision might be challenged or criticized by an articulate and persuasive few who might sway public opinion, or highlight the ignorance of the jurors? There was some public discussion on the GOMA outcome, but it never gained any momentum. The government pressed on with its development and got what it wanted. On reflection it seems that Brisbane - Queensland - lost an opportunity to have a really exciting gallery. It got competence and safety. There were other proposals that were obviously risky, being more interested in the way the building engaged with the water; in the play of forms; and in the implementation of experimentally different ideas. One can only envisage the potential that has been lost, even though the river is still there and it has flooded repeatedly since this competition. Who knows what might have happened if something different had been chosen?

The Walter Burley Griffin submission for Canberra - nicely known as ‘Design 29’ - has been put on display previously in a Powerhouse Retrospective in Sydney, some years ago. The drawings are indeed beautiful. This exhibition was one of the best shows on the life and work of an architect ever seen. It had an array of carefully designed, inspired display elements with thoughtful ideas that skillfully presented everything in its best light in a way that was sensitive, engaging and informative for the visitor. It is a real shame that the Sydney Powerhouse has now become less innovative and experimental, what with its more careful and cautious cost cutting. The much-promoted proposal for the le Corbusier exhibition that was looked forward to with great anticipation, was cancelled. Well, at best, to repeat the spin, it has been postponed indefinitely. Ironically only the catalogue is being published, suggesting that the abandonment of the concept happened very late in the day. The idea was to reconstruct Corbusier’s cabanon at Cap-Martin and one of his units from the iconic Marseilles block, but it seems that all this was going to cost too much: as Kenneth Clark concluded in the television documentary Civilisation, as the camera panned out from Wren’s Greenwich Hospital, “Buildings like this became just a waste of money.” It is a sad loss for Australia, and a terrible outcome for the Powerhouse as it will set the example for future concepts to support things safe and mediocre - popular and profitable: the cliché fashionable blockbusters. How embarrassed must the Powerhouse be when it has to sell a catalogue for a faded, discarded idea?

Interestingly, Queensland has had other competitions that have never been publicised at all: the proposed Football Hall of Fame on Southbank in Brisbane was one that had received submissions but was cancelled. There must be more too. It is truly unfortunate that all the work that has gone into these submissions lies hidden in a dark archive. Surely ideas need to be exposed for all to discuss and review? As a principle, a State should publish all of the design work that it has generated, either by way of public or private competition, or in all of the other ‘mini’ competitions that it holds - the everyday ones. As part of the public art programme, different artists are frequently asked to prepare submissions for the one project. The process is really a private competition, but it is rarely seen in this way. The outcome is the same: only the chosen scheme is ever seen by the public. Hundreds of ideas are accepted, discussed and disposed of. The artists get a small fee for their work, so one might have thought that there was an obligation for a State to be open with the public on how it spends money.

Even if this argument is not accepted, the interest in ideas alone should be enough to require the publication of all proposals. The recording of these submissions would formalize these sundry private events for future reference and become the testimony for history. It is strange that this idea is rejected as money was available in the GOMA project for an ‘artist/photographer’ to be engaged to record the build and to publish the images in a book. It can be done. The only thing missing is the political will. Is it that art is seen as a meaningless luxury add-on that has to be included only because of some political demand to satisfy popular public perceptions of its importance?

If any good is going to come from the National Archives display, then it will be that it has set the example of what should happen with all competitions, in the present, not in one hundred years time. Such an outcome would be admirable if it happened, but we need to hold public competitions first. We need to forget our concerns and clichés, and take a close look at Canberra and the Sydney Opera House to see exactly how these competitions have changed Australia, and what they have come to mean for the nation. Australian’s delight in ‘architect bashing’ needs to change. Once the profession has regained its respect, then true competitions can become an everyday event. They should be. Perhaps we need a better understanding of how mistakes have changed the world? Do we need more tolerance? In his small book Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, Umberto Eco writes of circumstances where errors and misguided thinking have been the stimulus for new, transformative visions that have changed the world. If Canberra and Sydney’s Opera House are seen as ‘slip-ups,’ - as ‘problems’ - then we need more of them: more serendipity is required; less logical and rational rigour.

The ABC article, Designs that created a capital, mentions that the Royal Institute of British Architects tried to set up a boycott of the competition because of the Australian Government’s control over the result. This is always a real problem with competitions, with the promoter repeatedly being scared that it will get something costly and outrageous designed by a totally inexperienced architect. Governments do not like losing control of anything, especially today. Brisbane needed an ‘opera house,’ but missed out with its GOMA that unfortunately looks familiar- borrowed? It may be pleasant, but it does not stir the heart of a nation. Risks need to be taken.

The Austrians are good with competitions. The city of Graz has held competitions that are prepared to be open to chance possibilities. The young are encouraged to participate. These events have opened up futures for young architects and have stimulated the city with ideas, and given it some vibrancy: new life. Australia is too conservative; too risk averse; safe with the ordinary, still seeing architects as indulgent ‘poofters’ or ‘wankers’ - both? This is not an intellectual fantasy or a writer’s trick. When first noticed, AIDS was said to be a potential problem for nurses, doctors, architects, artists and actors and the like. No wonder the profession is held in such disregard, with the efforts of architects being seen only as a waste of money. It is very sad to record that one common comment is: “I could get my swimming pool for the fees that an architect would charge.” Well, one can only hope that the results for the individuals who think like this are not so bad that drowning in the pool might become the preferred outcome. The other problem is that the profession is not helped by such popular television programmes as Grand Designs that promote the wonder of DIY and eulogise outcomes, whatever they might be, just for the ‘success’ of the programme: see

Garnier Paris Opera House

Achieving everyday quality is a challenge for our era. see . Architects do not help themselves with their pompous phrases. Humility is needed. One can understand the reluctance of institutions to choose to have a competition. The result would likely be a ‘Gehry’ or an ‘Hadid.’ Architects seem to see competitions as a chance to ‘express themselves,’ to display their brilliance, in the extreme. One wonders if this strategy is promoted on the basis that the ‘fancy proposal’ might catch the eye and the imagination of the jurors, like the Utzon’s Sydney Opera House submission that was, so the story goes, drawn from the pile of rejects by Eoro Saarinen who arrived late, authoritatively declaring, “This is the winner,” with such passion that he won the day. The world likes stories of struggle, loss and redemption. This inspired submission for the opera house was revived from the waste pile; the architect was sacked; the project is lauded as ‘world class;’ the new building is published in Bannister Fletcher. It now has a World Heritage listing. What more does one want? There is even a postscript: the son of the architect has been back to work on the father's masterpiece, which, regrettably, the father never saw completed. Architects are indeed treated poorly. Charles Garnier, architect of the famed Paris Opera House, was not invited to the opening. He had to purchase his own ticket for the event.

The Canberra display will hopefully bring the idea of competitions back to life. Life certainly needs it. Hopefully architects will respond responsibly; but whatever might happen, the chance to see possibilities from the past, dreams and visions now one hundred years old, layered onto the current outcome of the city, the present, is always fascinating. It is a little like the new craze that likes to match the old photo with the exact image taken today. It is not a strange thing to do; after all, history is a layering.

One wonders if Canberra might benefit from this exhibition, not financially, with tourist statistics that politicians like to spruik about, but in the future of its infrastructure, with ideas that could be raised as new possibilities today. We all know that Griffin's Canberra is not what has been built; that he too, like Utzon, struggled to get his ideas implemented. Sadly Australians always seem to know better than the professional. Just imagine what Australia might have today if Griffin and Utzon had been helped rather than hindered. Are we just a ‘smartarse’ group of ‘know-alls,’ the DIY country bumpkins that can do anything with a bit of wire - jack of all things: master of . . . well, sweet ‘FA’? “She’ll be right.” Will we ever learn? Will we ever come to recognize what we have gained from our competitions and remember how we got it; and how we nearly lost it too?

Will the populace ever come around to hoping for an outcome that can come from the risk of the true excitement of a public competition without politicians having to pander to the lowest common denominator? Humility must come with love and understanding if there is to be a change. Good architecture comes from all of these. It needs these. Some say it promotes these qualities too. The competition drawings of Canberra could be a real surprise for all. Hopefully they will make a change for the good and not be seen as yet more mere entertainment - a distraction to fill the day, to pass time.

Designs that created a capital
Thursday, February 28, 2013
By Anna Morozow

It is the Canberra that could have been but never was, when 100 years ago a competition was held to design the new capital of Australia.
To coincide with Canberra's centenary, the winning entry and some of the rarely seen finalists have gone on show at the National Archives of Australia.
But Design 29: Creating a Capital will display the turn-of-the-century designs in a new light, thrusting them into the digital era.
"We have iPads that visitors can collect and take around the exhibition with them and they unfold and unlock a whole new layer of content," National Archives curator Jane Macknight said.
"It's not been done this way before in Australia."
Ms Macknight says the technology allows people to see what Canberra could look like if the design of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin had not been selected.
"You can read a story about something, you can look at photos from our collection, films, you can look at documents from our collection," she said.
"We also enable you to layer a contemporary Canberra map over one of the design maps so you can get a real feel for how the two relate to each other or not, as the case may be."
Ms Macknight says visitors can also explore aspects of the Griffin plan which were never implemented.
"One of the lesser-known aspects of Griffins' design was a planting scheme to cover different hills with pink cherry blossom, red bottle brush or yellow broome," she said.
Archives director-general David Fricker says the technological aspect is a great way to celebrate Canberra's 100th birthday.
"Not only do we have some precious designs from 100 years ago on display, we're also combining the exhibition with cutting-edge augmented reality technology to give visitors a 21st-century viewing experience," he said.
In 1911 designers from around the world were invited to share their vision for a truly planned city.
Though just like the decision of where to locate the new capital, the city's final form was also controversial.
"The Royal British Institute of Architects attempted to boycott the competition," Ms Macknight said.
"Because they didn't like the control that the Federal Government was retaining over the result."
Despite the controversy, 137 entries were lodged from across the globe.
A century on, those that made the shortlist are back on display.
Ms Macknight says despite attempts to look forward, the designs are a reflection of their time and place.
"It's easy to look back and think how could a city be like that?" she said.
"But at the time they didn't imagine the populations that we have or the dominance of the motor vehicle."
Even the winning entry, design 29 by the Griffins, never really came to fruition.
"There's a lot of debate about whether we've brought Griffin's design to Canberra or whether we've effectively destroyed it," Ms Macknight said.
Nonetheless, Mr Fricker says it is a rare chance to see some of the designs.
"Some of the works haven't been on display since the competition itself 100 years ago," he said.
"It's a real centenary experience.
"Others like the Marion Mahony Griffin works might be more familiar, but they haven't been on display for the past 10 years just because they're so fragile."
The Griffins' original design and others shortlisted for the competition will go on display at the National Archives from Friday... a reminder of a city's beginnings as it heads into a second century.

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