Idea competitions can open mindsby Kim Benjamin Stowe
Kim Benjamin Stowe, president and director of ArchTriumph London, demonstrates how ideas competitions are vehicles of open-mindedness and innovation, taking the example of three AZC projects in competition.
I work mainly from London, on a wide variety of arts projects. I’m a firm advocate for the ‘almost anything is possible’ and ‘make it happen’ schools of thought, I left the world of investment banking a few years ago to concentrate on my passion for art, architecture and design, and during the global recession came up with the idea of organising architectural competitions. It seemed unfair that the creative industries should pay such a heavy price for the downturn; the pressure was on for the architectural profession, which relies so heavily on the availability of financial resources. I was very aware of the fundamental role competitions and awards played in the world of architecture, and wanted to be involved in projects large and small, built and un-built – both valuable in their own rights. ArchTriumph was born: with a friend, we set out to run various architecture competitions, a mission driven by sheer passion. I had always wanted to set up a project for an intervention in a public space, like Pavilion, and ArchTriumph provided the platform.
ArchTriumph, the Triumph of Architecture and Design, is a platform for architectural exploration and presentation, a celebration of the role of architecture and design in our lives and the world around us. We provide an avenue for experimentation for architects and designers that brings them both invaluable publicity and potential financial reward. Unconventional projects, which I prefer to call innovative projects, are made public through competitions, exhibitions and installations. They capture the public’s imagination and spark discussion on the subject, the site, the structure, and the architects themselves. ArchTriumph projects, even as un-built proposals, can make a community think differently about itself. And when they are built they make a clear positive impact on the immediate community. Take the example of AZC’s 2013 Peace Pavilion for east London’s Museum Gardens. Both residents and local politicians were enormously proud of the elegant structure, welcoming the kind of project that is more often seen in the more affluent areas of the city to their neighbourhood. These projects draw attention to their sites and their sites’ potential, prompting people to use them, and to use them differently. They bring architecture and design to a place where they can resonate with a wider audience in a very direct way.
In 2012, we launched a competition to design a new, contemporary bridge over the River Seine in Paris to challenge the existing notions of bridges. We hoped for exciting and challenging ideas. AZC’s project, entitled « Saut de Seine », brought a smile to the face of every member of the competition panel. We all agreed that it was one of the best proposals for its sheer audacity. The project came third in the competition, but was widely embraced by press and public, who rechristened it the “Trampoline Bridge”. I don’t think you always expect the general public to like or approve of the decisions made by a panel, but when a risk pays off it is great.
Even though it didn’t win the competition, it is a project that remained in everyone’s mind to some degree long after the final selection.
The success of the bridge was in the marriage of project and city, which captured our imagination. Maybe the combination of innovation, romance and fun was too much for the public to resist. I think that a project like the Bouncing Bridge would transform views of Paris, casting it in the light of a city with ambition, fun, and where going out on a limb is encouraged. I could see this bridge in London on a stretch of the River Thames. Maybe we should talk to our Mayor…!
Every summer, ArchTriumph installs a pavilion in the gardens of the Museum of Childhood, an annex of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Peace Pavilion was our first summer pavilion. The Peace Pavilion was an anonymous competition entry but I immediately had a strong suspicion that the ‘Fun Architects’, as I had dubbed Irina Cristea and Grégoire Zündel following the Bouncing Bridge competition, were behind it. The project replied to the brief, was elegant, innovative and bold, and resonated with that year’s theme of Peace. It was selected and sure enough, it was AZC.
The panel was initially concerned that the project would prove to be high maintenance, even after we had assured the Health & Safety officers that helium gas would not be used! Concerns were also expressed about the project coming in on budget and on time. But in our quest for innovation, we were quickly convinced that we needed to give it our full support, and the decision proved to be right.
The Peace Pavilion transformed the way the gardens were used, the routes people took and the numbers of visitors. It changed the way the local community saw the space and the neighbourhood – they now anticipate each year’s new project. Many expressed their wish that the Peace Pavilion be installed permanently. The pavilion was used by visiting schools for shelter during lunch breaks, short lessons and discussion following a visit to the Museum. Children played in it, families held picnics, it provided a meeting point for friends and held poetry readings and music concerts; it was used as the backdrop for photographic shoots. The Peace Pavilion was widely and enthusiastically received.
Battersea Power Station
We chose London’s iconic Battersea Power Station as the site for an ideas competition, for the installation of an architecture museum, out of frustration after yet another proposal for its redevelopment came to nothing. Designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s, Battersea Power Station is an iconic structure and landmark for Londoners, even more so than its slightly later sister building at Bankside, now home to the highly successful Tate Modern after a sensitive restoration and redevelopment.
I have always loved Battersea Power Station It is a structure I passed on my train route home as a teenager, I was fascinated by its sheer volume and the size of the chimneys – it is a fantastic urban castle. Money no object, I would gladly make it my home!
Irina Cristea and Grégoire Zündel, winners of the competition, used the idea of a theme park, putting in a roller-coaster that would enable visitors to explore the power station from every angle. This entry confirmed their nickname as the ‘Fun Architects’ forever.
Ideas competitions can open minds. They are founded on creativity rather than any kind of formulaic approach, and lay open the site for all to consider – members of the public, architects, developers and politicians. Every project, architectural or political, starts with an idea, without an idea there is no starting point, no trigger for discussion, no argument for change.