Exquisite Corpse

The open competition model, through its democratic blindness, affords the architect freedom of independent thought and action. In principle, it is the architect's vision that will organise and direct the other actors, enlivening spaces and avoiding thoughtless replication.

 

Op-ed / David Neustein

This article was originally published in Domus 961 / September 2012

Exquisite Corpse is a game in which participants write or draw on a folded page, concealing each turn from the next until a cumulative text or picture is formed. Sam Jacob recently proposed the game be used as an alternative architectural approach. Based on "multi-authorship", wrote Jacob, the game results in "accident and un-logic", and might therefore "help us out of the self-replicating horror of contemporary architecture and urban design."

Jacob may not be aware that a city-scale staging of Exquisite Corpse has been taking place in Sydney for over 20 years. In this case, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has been used in lieu of a folded page. Since 1991 the MCA has occupied an Art Deco-era office building opposite the Sydney Opera House. In 1996 and 2001, international competitions were held for proposals to renovate and extend the museum. Winning schemes by Kazuyo Sejima and Sauerbruch Hutton were never realised for variously cited reasons, including lack of funds, political conservatism, architects' naivety and even — in a city barely 200 years old — the onsite discovery of historical remains. Yet behind those reasons was a powerful subtext: the authorities' fear that any architect's vision would "compete" with the iconic Opera House, our Scandinavian Sphinx. In 2002, following the second competition's failure, the MCA's director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and her board arrived at a radical conclusion: there would be no vision.

No further competitions would be held, and only a handful of local, malleable architects would be considered. Neatly folding the previous architects' endeavours and beginning afresh, Macgregor appointed Architect Marshall, a Sydney office otherwise known for residential projects. A decade later, the opening of the MCA's new Mordant Wing signals that the game has come to an end. So, was Jacob's intuition correct? Does the Mordant Wing offer an alternative to the "self-replicating horror of contemporary architecture"?

Autopsy / autopoiesis
To answer this question, we must examine the Corpse. Architect Marshall's MCA addition began as a modest master plan, nurtured over a decade into a contextual proposal, deferential to the old building and the surrounding street pattern. However, within this well-meaning project lurked a deadly disease: autopoiesis. Self-generating and selfmultiplying, autopoiesis is a cancerous condition manifesting itself architecturally in outbreaks of mindless, space-filling, self-referential geometries.

Dissecting the Mordant Wing, we find a ravaged host. Witness the cube-like forms that aggregate like tumours on the outside and infiltrate within. These do not stack, nor intersect, nor align to a grid, but seem to have grown in purposelessly overlapping clusters. As only a parent could, lead architect Sam Marshall finds the "cubic" façade "random and inviting", claiming the building's exterior makes its contents legible. But the cubes frustrate legibility through their very randomness. Containing mostly breakout and teaching spaces and not light-sensitive galleries, the building's envelope is irrationally opaque.

Inside, disease runs rampant. Plasterboard cubes hang from above, cling to walls and swell up from below. From a precarious entry stair, via unfurnished lobbies, beneath uncomfortably low ceilings and under harsh fluorescent lights, the visitor encounters a series of acoustically and experientially hostile spaces. The frenzied growth of autopoiesis starves other areas of life: the MCA's forecourt is an uninviting moonscape, inhabited only by the panel seams and plugholes of the precast concrete floor. Somehow, the disease seems even to have crippled the architect's attempt at "deferential" planning. The portion of Art Deco façade adjoining the new stairwell suffers a cruel fate, its windows blinded with black paint. The new extension displaces the entrance from the middle of the old galleries to the end — discouraging access and impeding circulation. At the uppermost public level of the building, even the postcard Opera House view is impeded: inside by a blade wall, outside by an autopoietic black cube.

Post-Mortem / Mordant
The Mordant Wing case seemed like an isolated outbreak. Then plans were announced for a new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Australian architects have long called for an open competition to replace the "temporary" existing pavilion, installed in 1989 and compromised as an exhibition space. Last year, the government-run Australia Council for the Arts announced there would be an official competition, but that it would be restricted to a limited number of Australian architects invited to participate based on an "open" process to establish eligibility. When the winning proposal was revealed, it was clear that something had gone very wrong. Architects Denton Corker Marshall's sterile black cube was unmistakably an offshoot of the MCA's autopoiesis. Improbably, the virus had managed to leap more than 16,000 kilometres, contaminating a new host.

One name appeared in both Sydney and Venice: Simon Mordant. A wealthy businessman and prominent philanthropist, Mordant is both chairman of the MCA and, alongside his wife, the major benefactor for its expansion. In 2011, they donated one million dollars towards a new Australian Pavilion, and Mordant joined a government-run panel to appoint the architect. In the case of both the MCA and Australian Pavilion, Mordant played a key role in funding and thereby initiating significant architectural projects. Could it be that he had unwittingly spread the disease?

Conclusions
Autopoiesis is Jacob's "self-replicating horror", a disease that thrives in the vacuum of ideas. But in the game of Exquisite Corpse we find not the solution, but the cause. Both the MCA and Australian Pavilion represent abandonments of the open competition model, devising instead a bureaucratic, multiauthored, vision-less mode of procurement. The common element was a philanthropist who is extremely generous, yet ambivalent about architecture. In both instances, he not only provided the critical funding, but also occupied a position of leadership during the implementation of the project, without understanding the role that a patron can and should play in fostering visionary architecture. When asked to comment on the decision not to hold an open ideas competition for the Australian Pavilion, Mordant said, "This is an art space, it's not an architectural competition." I asked Mordant, "How do we best foster and support a vibrant architectural culture through private patronage?" He replied, "I'm not an architect and not best placed to answer that."

In 2010, an open letter by Charles Holland called on architects to "stop entering competitions" in order to protect their ideas, livelihoods and sanity. I hope that the examples above will help demonstrate that there are compelling reasons why architects cannot and should not stop entering, and calling for, open competitions. The open competition model, through its democratic blindness, affords the architect freedom of independent thought and action. The entrant can operate outside the brief and beyond bureaucratic controls. In selecting a winning scheme, the institution transfers visionary power to the architect. In principle, it is the architect's vision that will organise and direct the other actors, enlivening spaces and avoiding thoughtless replication. It may not be the only cure for autopoiesis, but in the absence of visionary patrons, it's the best one we've got. David Neustein (@dneus)