Just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it in reality. That was the lesson I learned from being on the jury of the third edition of the wonderful Fairy Tales Architecture competition, whose winners were just announced last week. This was a panel that, as is increasingly common, never met or even talked to each other, despite press reports that the results came “after rigorous deliberation.” You just sat in your office, reviewed the projects the competition organizers had pre-selected from the hundreds of entries, and gave a number from one to 10. Whoever received the most points won, end of (non) discussion.
Aside from whether I was happy with the result (of course I am not, or I probably would not be writing this), this reliance on abstracted evaluation is, I believe, an unfortunate and avoidable outcome of the digitization and mass connection of our human universe.
This removal of real-time discussion from architecture has been going on for a while. Though I realize it might save time and money, it is pernicious. A long time ago, I started refusing to be part of local AIA juries if we could not see at least the finalists in reality, and discuss them among ourselves. It makes all the difference in the (real) world, if you are judging things that are constructed, to see them in context and in materiality and scale. I will make an exception for competitions such as those Architizer organizes because they are so clearly based on imagery and popularity, not on intrinsic value. In that context as well, however, the inability to talk together about what we are seeing, why it interests us, and why it is good or bad—let alone the ability to point out what others might have missed, or the other way around—is a great lack.
Recently, a fellow member of a selection committee I was on could not attend the final meeting at which we had to pick the architect to be awarded the commission. She wrote a long evaluation of the finalists’ work, but she ultimately did not have a vote. I think this was correct, even though, if I interpret the tenor of her written evaluation correctly, she would have turned the jury towards a result I would have preferred.
There is something that happens when you talk together that changes everything. I will happily admit that a jury can get into group think, or can wind up following persuasive arguments that might not have anything to do with the work at hand. But in the end, the ability to look seriously at all of the work, to bring in different perspectives, to test those against each other, and to reach the same kind of consensus architects require to operate in the world is of paramount importance. Technology can facilitate, but should not come in the place of, human deliberation.
In the case of the Fairy Tales Competition, there is by the definition of the project no reality to any of the material, which is why I agreed to be part of the judging. Now I wonder what my fellow judges, who are all individuals whose opinions I highly value, saw in the three projects we somehow picked as the winners. What did I miss?
Certainly the First Prize winner, Welcome to the 5th Façade—a noirish evocation of Seattle in the near future by Olson Kundig—sports some evocative drawing and has the trappings of so many of the better post-Blade Runner and William Gibson Sci-Fi stories: It seems to take place in a messier version of today, in a time not too far away. But, by relying on clichéd drawing techniques and kowtowing to current ideas of sustainability, it fails to achieve that sense of wonder that I think is so central to the very notion of fairy tales.
I would have preferred either some of the purer science fiction efforts, such as the tale of a self-building structure that outdoes the Tower of Babel by almost reaching the moon (+Z, by Patch Dobson-Perez), or Neil Spiller’s and Mark Morris’ enigmatic and well-written (of course architects are not authors, so this is a consistent problem with the program) Ink-Soaked Boy.
I wonder what we would have talked about as a jury. Would my fellow members have convinced me that the winning scheme’s ability to communicate, as well as the fact that it remained so much more rooted in a rewriting and redrawing of existing reality, trumps its bad writing and art school exercise drawing? Would I have convinced them of the importance of making things strange, but believable enough to transport us into another world?
We will never know and, what is more important, this otherwise worthwhile effort, which spurred so many hundreds of participants to produce so much beautiful material (which will, luckily, be available in printed form) did not receive the kind of thoughtful evaluation it deserves, while that discussion which, like a fairy tale, never happened except in my mind, never led to the inflecting of a more general debate about architecture in a way that I would like to believe it could and should have.
Other jury members for Blank Space's Fairy Tales Architecture competition included Allison Arieff, David Basulto, Dror Benshetrit, Elizabeth Diller, Francesca Giuliani, Cristina Goberna, Matthew Hoffman, Sylvia Lavin, Robert McKee, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Becky Quintal, Bradford Shellhammer, Daniel Simon, and Alexander Walter.
See the winners of the 2015 Fairy Tales Competition.