The best scheme won. That is easy to say when you have completed a jury for an architecture project, though history often proves you wrong (see: the Chicago Tribune Competition’s 1922 second place award to Eliel Saarinen). But in the case of the Keelung Harbor Building competition, which I had the honor of helping to judge this last week, I believe that statement is true. (I also have to admit that the second place winner would have been fantastic as well.)
I write this with a fair amount of trepidation, as my years in architecture have resulted in a fair amount of self-doubt, which is more acute because I know so many of the architects who enter international competitions. In the case of Keelung, three of the five finalists were personal friends. I make no excuse for this: There were others who did not make the cut, and the votes of other jury members who did not know the architects preceded mine. It did give me pause as I tried to weigh my judgments.
It became clear to all of us jury members—five Taiwanese and two Americans—that two schemes were considerably more developed, appropriate to the site, and smart, than the other three. They in the end received nearly the same evaluation in all our scoring.
Studio Asymptote proposed two ovoid structures backed by an elongated mastaba housing offices and a rooftop restaurant. The front oval was to contain the terminal structure, which would wrap around a rainforest. The rear object, which was actually a speculative proposal for a future build-operate-transfer development, was to contain a velodrome over a so-called "night market" or array of food stalls that would double as bus parking when cruise ships were at the dock. The rear tower would contain offices for the harbor authority.
The design showed how smooth Asymptote’s designs can be. Both in function and in shape, everything flowed with an elegance that few other designers can achieve. Because of the firm’s track record, as well as that of the consultants they brought in, we as a jury believed that the firm could make the building into an exhilarating form gesturing to the water.
The second oval, though, was purely speculative, and we did not believe that a developer would give the site over to such functions, given the chance to build a hotel or office building on the site. The terminal rotated around a garden, but you could only peak into it—it was not an integral part of the spaces. The plaza below flowed to the water, except that security concerns would preclude that movement. The office building would rise out of the terminal, but only by stretching its skin, not in any formal or functional sense.
Neil Denari, AIA, proposed a more complex structure. The terminal would be a metal-clad vessel whose organization would let you rise up and descend down on ramps through spaces cutting diagonally through the volume. At the pier’s promontory, these spaces would shoot up into a mesh-covered periscope looking out to the sea, whose oculus would connect with an open cube containing both the Harbor Authority’s spaces and speculative office (or hotel) structures.
Unlike the Asymptote design, Denari’s proposal would drink in the reality of Keelung, a densely built harbor town rising up around a rectangular basin. It would take the forms of the apartment blocks, stores, office buildings, and hotels, the cranes, the stacks of containers, the storage sheds, and the craggy hills, mirror and abstract them, convolute them, and turn them into a structure that would be both startlingly new and strangely familiar.
I thought the client representative on the jury would hate it for its cut-off curves and elongated shafts, but he immediately recognized it as representing what the harbor was and wanted to be. We kept being tempted by the beauty of Asymptote’s curves, but then kept coming back to the difficult rightness of the Denari design. It has many problems (a massive plinth, circulation inconsistencies, strange diagonal windows, office space that might be difficult to lease), but, when it is built in a few years, it will make sense of Keelung. It demonstrates the power of architecture—and architecture competitions—to do just that: find a form that intensifies, condenses, and catalyzes a context into something it can be.