Elisa Poli and Giovanni Avosani

Bruce Mau is right: never enter competitions

Are architecture competitions a good investment? On the eve of a large gathering in Vienna for the Europan prize, we propose a series of reflections, and ten questions for the architecture world.

Don't enter awards competitions. Just don't. It's not good for you.
— Bruce Mau, An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

On the eve of the large gathering in Vienna for the Europan prize that, this year, obliges students to pay €100 to participate in the international forum (plus travel, meals and lodging), some questions arise spontaneously regarding the state of architecture (particularly in Italy) — and especially regarding competitions. Elisa Poli and Giovanni Avosani, co-founders of the Cluster Theory research group, ask the architecture world 10 questions.

Every week we read a page in a section of a famous Italian newspaper dedicated solely to the formulation of questions. We have always believed that asking questions — a prerogative of the learned and wise — was among the most difficult tasks for intellectuals. On the occasion of Europan and with the discontent relating to the genuine possibility to realize the projects presented during this event — which is increasingly like San Remo for the young — led us to articulate the growing frustration with the lack of solutions to the problem of the renewal of the architecture system. But having no solutions, we decided to ask questions; not with wisdom or culture but with curiosity, knowing that there is a brilliant generation ahead of us that is intelligent and willing and that probably already has the answers, simply, without even knowing it.

1) What is the meaning of a complex machine like the Europan, created to encourage the start-up of young architects who are now hindered by having to pay high prices to attend an event which, under these conditions, rewards bureaucrats rather than designers?

2) The minimum cost for a lottery ticket is €1. Participating in the Europan costs at least €200. Are we sure that competitions are a good investment?

3) Writing is design. Competitions are, or should be, design opportunities. Architects, especially young ones, seem particularly attached to these two forms of expression to help clarify and define their work. But is it not perhaps an excuse on their (our) part to seek refuge in these two formulas since we are unable, in practice, to build architecture?

4) An architectural competition — with some exceptions — is the manifestation of an asphyxiated system that compensates the evident lack of public interest in architecture with poorly functioning devices. Do we really believe that retreat into this form of design will enable a generation of young professionals to overcome today's crisis?

5) The generational complaint that too often accompanies slavish adherence to the models of our "fathers" (or uncles, because "there are no more masters") prevents us from seeking proactive solutions that shift the focus onto communications. Competitions are the reserve of a small public — unless we want to talk about the downturn in the archistar system. We should go out and raise public awareness rather than continue to talk forever and only among ourselves. Or do we want to deny that, in most cases, our encounters are self-referential?

6) Of course, there are many exceptions but if we don't create a system, how can they intervene upon a level of reality that crushes quality — hiding behind the easy veil of economic necessity? And are competitions the products of the guilty conscience of this impaired vision?

7) Despite often being mentioned, the issue of cultural economics is little studied by those who, like architects, should instead make this discipline the bulwark of their work. Too often, competitions are the condensation of an approach that should be developed over time through deep research. Could talking less and reading more be the diet that will help cure our discipline's egocentric bulimia?

8) Between 1922 and 1927, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher , student at the Bauhaus Metallwerkstatt , designed the building blocks produced by Naef Spiele that are still on the market. Interested in pedagogy and the relationship between design and teaching, she might be considered an example of how to raise public awareness through refined and simple design; a clear vision, developed through study and not in the urgency of a response to a partial demand like competitions. Might it not be more useful to volunteer in schools? Why not start talking about architecture from there (and there)?

9) The architect's work is still marginal as compared to the complex economic/political decision-making systems that influence the prospects for sharing the city of today as well as the city of the future. And competitions often function as shrouds, conceling this reality in a bigoted way. Does it still make sense to believe that we work in an unsaturated market even if the data shows that we are on the verge of systemic collapse?

10) Demonizing is always an excellent way to avoid facing the facts. The enemy, according to circumstance and depending on the competition, can be finance, multinationals, corporations, politicians, individuals, institutions, administrators, the head of the coop board, the Post Office, media, banking, the University etc.. What if all these parties are necessary to begin to solve the problem?

Elisa Poli and Giovanni Avosani cofunders of Cluster Theory

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