From the Chicago Tribune Tower and the Paris Opera House, to Parc de la Villette and most recently the Guggenheim Helsinki, the public lecture series explored these competitions as opportunities of experimentation. Beyond the architectural competition’s evident objective of selecting an architect, ulterior motives are often at play. Financial and political considerations can steer the organising party in selecting a particular architect, while designers may utilise their answer to the competition brief as a vehicle to promote a certain ideology. The ensuing glimpse into our discussion about Griffin’s endeavours in Australia, leads from his lofty personal aspirations to the changing nature of architectural competitions at large.
“This is not necessarily a competition to design the new capital for Australia, but rather to set an example of a new architecture,” Professor Van Zanten explained early on in our conversation on Walter Griffin’s work. After beating his European star competitors Eliel Saarinen and Alfred Agache, in the 1911 competition to lay out Canberra, the new capital city of a united Australia, Griffin managed to get himself named in charge of a second step: an immediate competition for the parliament central to his winning urban plan. As Van Zanten argues, it is the competition for this capitol building that he used in his pursuit of inventing a new, concrete architecture. Similar ideas had been implicit in the initial renderings of their winning Canberra proposal by Marion Mahoney, Griffin’s wife and professional partner, but only after the pair mobilised jurors across Europe and the United States, did their intentions become clear. The eventual jury consisted of Louis Sullivan, Victor Laloux, John James Burnet, and Otto Wagner, all of whom were sympathetic to the use of reinforced concrete, and could thus serve as allies in Griffin’s quest. Wagner in particular, appeared to be receptive to this potentially revolutionary project.
Reality hit though when World War I broke out, and the competition as Griffin had imagined it never came to any sort of fruition. It is at this point that our talk moved away from Canberra to Geneva, where it had been the 1927 competition for the Palace of the League of Nations, which arguably brought an end to the idea that a competition could be the source of a new architecture. Within weeks of Le Corbusier’s famous defeat, he established CIAM, which would use discussion amongst peers to define the future of building. A similar set-up of an international group of architects, also including Le Corbusier, would later collectively develop a design proposal for the United Nations headquarters in 1947. It was through discussion, rather than competition, that this building came to be. “The idea of a competition actually being a way to invent a new architecture, is to be very naïve and optimistic, because the politics are so elaborate and things are going to go wrong,” Van Zanten determinedly underlined once more, “and between the Palace of the League of Nations and the UN, I think the most decisive symbolically is the UN.”
Anecdotally recalling his experience as a juror on the 1987 competition for the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, Van Zanten elaborated on the politics of decision making and the range of complications that can deflect the process. From the requirement of architects having to submit their proposal in partnership with a construction company and the limitations of a hundred million dollar budget, to the hierarchical makeup of a composed jury and the social pressure that comes with it. Following all this, he insists, “that every competition is unique,” and that, “the moment matters, the people matter, and – god knows – the client matters.” If the idea that inventing a new architecture through a competition was already slightly ridiculous in an early twentieth century context, then it certainly seems fairy-tale-like today. The many complexities of elaborate selection procedures and intensely regulated European tenders hardly allow for such grand ambitions, yet we might have to join Van Zanten in appreciating the idea.