Eyebeam's quest to house its new-media museum reveals that design competitions--for all their pros and cons--can be good for architecture.
Rashid's optimism was contagious. And yet--given the pathetic history of architectural competitions in America--it played like an attack of the Pollyannas. Whereas in Europe a tradition of competitions, often state-sponsored and legally mandated, has nurtured pathbreaking architecture and innumerable distinguished careers, the United States has never had a comparable culture--for good reason, many believe. Competitions, their critics say, waste the resources of the participants, traduce the architect-client relationship, and result in design by committee, dysfunctional pseudosculpture, or frequently nothing at all.
Yet when thoughtfully undertaken and executed, they can produce, as Rashid suggested, epoch-making ideas, buildings, and careers. The Eyebeam competition to design one of the first institutions devoted to new media represented just such an opportunity. And as it played out over 19 months to reach its surprising conclusion, Eyebeam's endeavor became a kind of X ray of the competition process: it revealed many benefits, not a few pitfalls, and much of what it takes to succeed.
The first requirement, without question, is a good client--one with an understanding of a project's challenges and a willingness to take risks. Enter John S. Johnson, Eyebeam's executive director. A 36-year-old film director, Johnson conceived of Eyebeam after founding the Filmmakers Collaborative, a New York facility that provides low-budget filmmakers with affordable office and editing space. Growing disillusioned with independent cinema, Johnson cultivated an interest in video art and, by extension, new media. "I'd always liked electronic artists' work," he explained when we met last year, "and I began to see that the problem was the same for them as for filmmakers, in that resources were relatively inaccessible." In 1996, with a grant from his family's Atlantic Foundation (theirs is the fortune Band-Aids built), Johnson launched Eyebeam to support the creation of digital artwork, encourage research, and expand awareness of new media.
Johnson's instinct points to one of a competition's chief benefits. "The more complex the problem, the less likely it is that the framers have even considered the ten best solutions," says Terence Riley, who as chief architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art oversaw the competition to redesign MoMA. "A competition," Riley believes, "is an extremely important stimulator of serious thinking and brings out the best ideas." The reason is simple. "Competitions allow you to take problems of architecture and explore them more freely than with commissions," explains Preston Scott Cohen, an Eyebeam competitor. "The sponsor is looking for vision, ideas--you can be more creative."
Consulting architects David Hotson and Craig Newick, together with Eyebeam's special projects director Angela Molenaar, helped Johnson design a three-stage invited competition: proposals would be requested from roughly 30 firms; a shortlist of fifteen would then be asked to submit conceptual designs, and three of these would be chosen to develop their entries more completely.
Johnson next faced the question of whom to invite, a make-or-break moment that's often mishandled. Typically the board of an institution, faced with fund-raising and dreading controversy, selects a handful of brand-name competitors and then chooses either the most conventional scheme or the one that approximates the Bilbao du jour--which means effectively that the game is rigged. It's a mentality that works as much against clients as architects. "Piano, Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron--it's the same group that's doing a hundred projects right now," participant Elizabeth Diller says. "Wouldn't it be better to get someone who hadn't done it before?"
Eyebeam's strategy also raised the stakes, just as Rashid's evocation of the Tribune competition suggests. The two shared key similarities. In 1922 the skyscraper--like the new-media museum today--was a new building type. The Tribune tower offered a defining opportunity: to create an architectural form that--again, like the new-media museum--owed its life to a world-altering leap in technology (the high-rise elevator) and demanded an equally vaulting response. Some of architecture's most forward-thinking minds accepted the challenge. The results--as the Tribune predicted--made history.
The younger practitioners that competed for the Eyebeam project (including Architecture Research Office, Neil Denari, Foreign Office Architects, Thomas Leeser, Greg Lynn, MVRDV, Reiser + Umemoto, and Rogers Marvel) are some of the brightest of the digital generation. Each firm resolves the tension between the material and digital somewhat differently. "It's interesting," Jesse Reiser says, "that these firms come together in a project like this, where you have virtual spaces, and [the problem of] how you would deal with the material aspect of architecture relative to that immaterial condition." This rare confluence of theme, project, participants, and moment added up to a signal architectural event. "Eyebeam really put one out there for us," Denari says.
The program--the architects' marching orders--is arguably a competition's most significant element. A good one must be thorough enough to convey a structure's particulars, yet sufficiently fluid conceptually to spark the competitors' imaginations. It's a hard balance to nail, and Eyebeam's got mixed reviews. Almost everyone responded to the concept's four themes: Adaptation (to technical change), Transformation (from mixed-use to institutional), Interrelation (between programs and functions), and Intersection (of public and museum space). But the architects also found the brief too specific. "The demands went down to the tiny detail of every office," Cohen says. "It really wasn't necessary at this stage." This overemphasis on details would prove less relevant than anyone imagined.
On June 13 last year, however, when the semifinalists' designs debuted in Eyebeam's temporary space, the outcome was overwhelmingly positive. Though a sameness pervaded certain schemes--perhaps because of the brief's specificity--the architects had attacked Johnson's "tangled problem" with energy and imagination. Many treated the building's skin as an active technological representation--notably Greg Lynn, who created goiterlike extrusions and intrusions in the building's skin, which was itself a screen for displaying media projections. The problem of overcommitting to an evolving medium produced solutions ranging from FOA and Chipperfield's blank slates to Asymptote's renamed Flux Museum, a curvilinear form composed of fluid, flexible spaces. Reiser + Umemoto proposed two clusters of open flooring--one for tenants, the other for the museum--suspended dramatically from a superstructure. And no one reckoned with the real/virtual dynamic more arrestingly than Cohen, whose sculptural solution toggled together curves and beams to create two spaces, each playing off the other: a vision, in architecture, of separate equal realities.
But had the competition produced, like its fabled predecessor, a template for
a new kind of building? An answer could be gleaned from the finalists' schemes,
which were announced five days later. The firms all sought to secure the
individual's sovereignty within the shifting parameters of the virtual realm.
Diller + Scofidio presented a two-ply ribbon folded over on itself, creating
multiple levels. As the ribbon undulates--each side intermittently acting as
floor, ceiling, or wall--it interweaves, sometimes joining, production and
presentation spaces. The plan would also allow visitors to use the institution's
multiple interactive technologies to customize their experience. The design
posited a world in which real and virtual might--like an ideal interracial
couple--marry and multiply without losing their identities.