Starchitects Vie for Coveted Commission in Revealing Documentary

A new documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at a fitful 2009 architectural competition.

The documentary follows an architectural competition for a national museum in Andorra, involving Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and Dominique Perrault.

All images courtesy Office for Strategic Spaces (OSS)

Architecture’s great shame is that it is a profession of screamers. A culture of casual cruelty—especially at the expense of underpaid and overworked interns on whose recently educated technical expertise the maintenance of any firm’s cutting edge depends—is not hard to find behind the architectural scenes. Some of this violence results when the artistic and anxious souls who are among those drawn to architecture find themselves at the top of organizational charts, contending with management dilemmas for which no part of their education or socialization has prepared them. Some of it might be old-fashioned bullying by members of what is still largely a boys’ club—either to reassert jock or butch status in the potentially nerd- or femme-skewing practice of quietly drawing imaginary buildings, or by principals who recover at the expense of their staff the loss of face they feel after charming clients whose economic power is ever further beyond their own. And some of it might reflect the cycles of abuse embedded in architectural education’s nineteenth-century conventions of ritual hazing, “all-nighter” physical endurance tests, and faintly sadomasochistic “shooting gallery” reviews.

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Much of this shame is on display in The Competition, a new documentary directed by Spanish architect Angel Borrego Cubero, about a 2009 contest—entered by established celebrity architects Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and Dominique Perrault—to design a smallish national museum for the tiny European country of Andorra. Architectural competitions of the open and anonymous kind, in which any entry’s visible excellence might alone vault it into being built, represent the highest ideals of the profession. This film documents the other kind of competition: invited, limited, sociable, and thus potentially corruptible and corrupting. One apparent condition of the contest’s last round was participation in the film itself; the only hint of self-congratulation in this otherwise restrained production (no talking heads, no narration, no music) is an intertitle noting Foster’s withdrawal following this development.

Hadid, and much of her office, stays offscreen. The other architects, at least as filmed and edited, play to type: black clad, given to portentous and pretentious pronouncements, petulant with their hardworking employees, alternately imperious and obsequious with their potential clients. The emotional heart of the film (which follows the meetings and late-night sessions at each office as all race to meet the competition’s deadline, and concludes with each team’s presentation to the jury in Andorra) is the wrangling between Jean Nouvel and an employee identified as Gaston—whose Gallic, heroically irony-quote-laden pronunciation of his title, “project managerrrr,” exquisitely captures his simultaneous liability and disempowerment, and is alone worth the price of admission.

Nouvel, whose charismatic resemblance to such cinematic villains as Ernst Blofeld and Dr. Evil is by now a matter of record, makes an appropriately epic entrance—silhouetted in hat and cloak, needling Gaston over the shortcomings of conceptual designs. “I don’t know what I want but it’s not working,” he says, avoiding eye contact with his silenced listeners. “This is nonsense […] This is absolutely ridiculous […] It’s useless to make so many drawings if it doesn’t work […] Fuck, make some holes!”

The Competition, at best, may become a kind of time capsule, documenting a culture made evermore obsolete by today’s emerging firms…

The holes in question become subtle openings in the facade of his firm’s eventual design, a beautiful little tower, brooding and luminous, with a crystalline interior and articulated roof. “A Zumthor with a Gehry on top,” a staffer merrily describes it, evincing—there among ubiquitous blue-foam models and inevitable Pentel felt-tip pens and Photoshopped 3-D Rhino-renderings—an endearing capacity of architects to admire architects. And to love buildings. The players are revealed to be fans. As for Gehry himself, his attitude toward his staff—which, like Nouvel’s, tries to collectively channel the will of its often-absent principal—is sunnier but more diffident. “It’s a crazy idea maybe,” is how he signs off to the team that developed his own design, which intriguingly embeds boxy galleries in a blob of aerated aluminum. “I gotta go.” Gehry’s aw-shucks on-camera manner drops, for a memorable moment, with an icy “Wait!” barked at someone who misses a cue during the chaotically hosted jury presentations.

The competition’s likeliest design emerges, perhaps not coincidentally, from a firm with what appears to be a relatively placid working environment: a proposal from Perrault’s team in the form of a miniature skyscraper that branches up and out from its tight urban site like a tree. But the designs aren’t really, for better and worse, the film’s point. The Competition, at best, may become a kind of time capsule, documenting a culture made evermore obsolete by today’s emerging firms whose habits of interdisciplinary collaboration with more enlightened professions, and open-source approach to tools and information, offer a promising alternative. And especially by mature firms like SHoP and Architecture Research Office, who are achieving new leadership in the American architectural profession with an emphasis on office culture; research-driven institutional learning; mindful mentoring; and a scalable capacity, in both design and process, for simultaneous creativity and calm.

Nobody really wins in The Competition. Shortly after the jury presentations, the putative new museum was canceled after its patrons were voted out of office. And so, coming to an abrupt halt with some on-screen text to that effect, this long film is left with a truncated narrative—fading out on the falling face of Nouvel as he turns away from his post-presentation round of grip-and-grin handshakes. The only real victory the film records—fleeting, moral, magnificent—is by a front-line draftswoman who finds the spine to check Gaston, at a moment when he seems about to pass down some of the agitation he has received from above. “Please don’t get nervous with me,” she interrupts her boss to say, politely but powerfully, “I’m trying to do my best.” “Yeah,” he answers softly, after taking a breath. “I know.”

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