AIA YAF Temporary/Permanent Relief Housing Competition Results
Have you seen the results of the Temporary/Permanent Relief Housing Competition? It is an ‘ideas competition’ sponsored by the AIA and Young Architect’s Forum. This competition serves as a reminder that the architecture competition system, or lack thereof, in the United States is flawed, and that it is in desperate need of regulation. Before you accuse me of having a vested interest, let me clarify that I have no horse in this race. I am not associated with this competition or any other competition. So, to clarify, I did not register for, nor did I submit a project to be judged in this competition. A few days ago I received a copy of the winning entries, and I was disgusted with what I saw, as it only confirmed the reasons for which I did not enter the competition and everything that I know to be wrong with the way architectural competitions are run in the United States.
Why I Did NOT Enter This Competition:
The main reason that I did not enter this competition is that it is the worst kind of competition that exists, an ideas competition. It is also a competition that exploits those who enter it, profiting from their naivety. The registration fee for AIA members is $100.00 and 150.00 for nonmembers! This is a large sum of money for an ‘ideas competition’ that targets young professionals. The winning design will not be built, and there is no cash prize awarded to the winner! It was obvious upon reading the competition brief that the AIA was using this competition as a cash cow. Even if the money went to the jurors to pay for flights and their time, why would you enter a competition where there is nothing to gain except for limited exposure at the AIA convention? I have seen how these types of competitions play out, you are better off designing something great, and publishing it on your own blog.
No, I am not against design competitions, I enter 1-2 design competitions a year, and win or place in half of those. I am a prodigious proponent of design competitions, and I believe that they are a great way to both gain integrity in the profession and improve your design portfolio. Design competitions also expose entrants to different building types and sites that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to design. Design competitions require an investment of time and resources that few are willing to commit, because of this fact I attentively select the competitions that I enter, in order to give myself the best chance of winning. After reviewing the competition brief posted on the AIA website, I thought that this competition had waste of time written all over it.
Aside from the the above mentioned facts, the competition had no focus. Within their own competition brief it is unclear whether it is an ideas or sketch competition. Even the title of the competition “Temporary/Permanent Relief Housing” is vague and sends up red flags. Not because of the obvious contradiction in terms temporary and permanent, but because competitions that have a lack of limits in its program, such as this one, are difficult to win. The competition brief also states that the entrant should look at how the units can be used to develop a community. That should be another red flag, so this is both a housing competition and urban planning exercise? I always avoid competitions like this, because they do not have a defined program or site, and you never know what requirements the judges will favor. Although this exist to some extent in every competition, competitions with a loose framework are especially vulnerable to jury interpretation. An example of such loose limits is in the site of the competition, although the competition says that the site is the Astrodome, the program also permits entrants to use the adjacent parking lot, which in effect creates a site with zero constraints. There must be enough limits imposed by the competition program to allow the entries to be fairly judged against one another. Rather than being judged on design, entrants are often judged on the sensationalism of their ideas rather than design skills and feasibility.
The vague site as noted in the competition brief:
While successful site adaptability is a key goal and criterion for this Competition, the specific site to demonstrate the solution consists of approximately 200 acres. It includes the Astrodome and the surrounding parking lots. Entrants may include modifications to the structure of the Astrodome in their proposal, may allow the Astrodome to remain untouched and focus solely on the surface parking areas, or may have some combination of the two. Individual entries may focus their solutions on the provision of either temporary or permanent housing. Entrants are encouraged to address issues of uncertainty associated with either types of housing and with temporary solutions that become permanent.
It is important to note that none of the winning solutions addressed the Astrodome in their design. This is unfortunate, because this is the one feature of the competition that made it unique. Rather than define a site, they simply should have stated: this is a competition for temporary relief housing, the site is irrelevant, but the competition brief urges entrants to think about the development as a whole, which is something that none of the winners did. In fact, two of the three winners failed to address major concerns of the design problem:
As such, the design solution should embrace and provide the opportunity for access to those functions and services this community will require: food, medical, social, financial, etc. The design should consider how this is a “livable community,” where the amenities essential to the daily life of the residents are integrated in the design. Successful solutions will demonstrate broad applicability and responsiveness to the widest possible range of various site and climatic conditions.
Why does this matter? It matters to the architects and interns that spent hundreds of hours, only to be taken advantage of, and worse, they had to pay for it.
Now for the Winners:
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I do not want to turn this article into an attack on the winning designs and designers, because that is not the point of this article. I am not going to critique these projects in terms of design quality, although there are a couple items that I may not be able to resist critiquing. I will try to critique the projects in terms of the competition brief and how they respond, or rather in nearly every case, how they have not responded to the competition brief.
I would like to give credit to the winners, but unfortunately I cannot, because the designer’s names were not issued in the media brief that I received with the competition winner’s images. So much for publicity being your reward. If any of the winners happen to see their projects, please contact me so that I can give you credit for your designs.
Aside from looking like a web of . . . you know what, this is an interesting project. The designer states that this is the next evolution of the modern tent, but I see this more as the next evolution of the mud hut, or the sand bag. This technique would actually be an amazing design if the competition were to redesign the sandbag. The woven capabilities allows the sandbags to structural act as one, rather than a series of stacked bags. This has promise in that application.
Unfortunately this design is a pipe dream when it comes to making architecture out of it. The designer claims that the structures can be quickly built, and is the next evolution of the traditional tent. I can imagine it now: the National Guard dropping this off at the Astrodome, telling a bunch of angry Americans to fill this up with trash and build a house. The angry mob screams I’d rather live in the Astrodome than a mud hut. If you thought Kanye West was pissed about Katrina, could you imagine what he would have done if George Bush told them to make a house out of trash? Speculate for yourself, because if I typed it, this blog would end up on the Secret Service watch list. Most Americans are not capable of erecting a tent let alone this complex assembly. How long is it going to take to build this structure? Days! By the time you build 500 of these, the disaster will be over, and you’ll have 500 piles of trash stinking up the city. Unfortunately this design simply does not work when applied to a house, and does not allow for long-term user occupancy despite the designer’s claims. Do you know what these structures would smell like after a few days?
The project also fails to address other major requirements of the competition. The site is a parking lot, where is the dirt? If it is a flood, there is no dirt, then what? What kind of community does this create? How are services such as water, food, healthcare, security and infrastructure dealt with? The brief states that the primary goal is to “consider how this is a livable community.” This project neglects this requirement. The construction technique proposed by this talented designer is unique, but should not the winner of this competition based on its brief.
The Community Unit:
This design comes the closest to addressing all of the issues in the design brief. The designer alludes to how these units could be assembled to form a community. The designer gives some idea of how other systems and services are integrated into these communities. What the entry does not address is how the Astrodome is incorporated into the development. If the site could be anywhere in the world, then just say that the site is anywhere in the world, and forget the Astrodome. If this is a competition focused on the Astrodome, then make all of the entries respond to the requirement. Despite the visual strength of this entry, it is the worst spatially, and provides little room for living spaces. The styling of the form is the key feature that distinguished this entry from others that I saw that better responded to the competition brief. Unfortunately the curving surfaces are not functional, and add nothing of value to the project, pure style points.
FREE, is just that, free housing. The design, however falls short in many of the ways that the Woven Shelter entry falls short in regards to responding to the program. It does not specifically address the site, it does not address how the design creates a sense of community, nor does the designer show how other services and functions are incorporated into the design. The units do include photo-voltaics, which is applicable in Houston, as Texas receives a lot of sun throughout the year. Other than the “green bling” this design does not address any of the other competition requirements.
The Winners in Closing:
Based on the selections of the jury, it is clear that the jury tended towards the solutions that focused on the individual units, rather than solutions that focused on how to create a community after a natural disaster. From the entries that I have seen, the solutions that incorporated the Astrodome looked at solving the problem at an urban planning level, developing infrastructure, generating food, energy and drinking water. The winners for the most part focused on the living units and neglected the urban context. I only state this, because the intentions of the competition are not clear and do not align with the chosen winners. This is unfortunate for those who addressed the problem statement of the competition brief.
Shame, shame, shame…
Lastly, shame on the jury. The AIA and YAF DID do an excellent job of finding competent jurors for this competition: Barton Phelps FAIA, Lawrence Scarpa FAIA (sorry Larry, but you no it is true) and Mehrdad Yazdani AIA Associate, they should never have agreed to sponsor a design competition that exploits architects for free work. Any of you three want to donate a hundred hours to design my house? By the way, I’ll post fliers in my neighborhood that you designed it if you win! Sorry, did I say free, you each need to pay me $100.00 to enter. I thought I would feel better about this situation after writing this article, but I do not. The profession of architecture is slowly dieing in the United States. It is well known that clients exploit firms for free work, it is also well known that architects stab each other in the back by whoring their selves out undercutting other firms to buy projects, but now the AIA and our piers are taking advantage of the competition system to exploit the few young architects in our profession. The United States needs a system similar to the ones in place in Europe that regulates design competitions. It seems that every architecture blog and Columbia graduate is running a design competition. There are large amounts of money earned from these competions, and NONE of it is regulated. The AIA should refund the money to those that entered this ‘ideas’ competition, or offer a cash prize to the winners. Sadly neither of these things will happen and the image of the American architect will continue to fade.