Forms, Places and Processes: Tracing Geographies of Architecture through Design Competitions

Draft Editorial Introduction by Joris Van Wezemael for a special topic issue of the journal Geographica Helvetica.

What is an architectural competition? (Synonymously used terms are design competitions and planning competitions.)

An architectural competition can be regarded as a ‘site’ where diverse interests (e.g., those of the building industry, of private investors, of governmental institutions), findings from various fields of research (e.g., structural analysis, sustainability, preservation order) and discourses from the most different societal fields (relating to topics such as aesthetics, fairness / justice as well as profit) are folded in. Mainly this interdisciplinary aspect allows an architectural competition to connect different fields of actuality and to enable translations between these fields: An architectural competition may transform ambiguous societal and politically disputed problems into concrete building projects. It may replace open / unsettled / unsolvable / dynamic clashes with solid building constructions, that is, turn political disputes into allegedly “a-political” design problems (discussions regarding eaves height, façade design, budget calculations or sustainability criteria). Yet, an architectural competition may also constitute a political event: it may “shape” public consciousness or public opinion, respectively, and it may enable a society to transcribe (or translate) its ideals and objectives into its built environment.

Against this background architectural competitions can be regarded as significant decision-making procedures towards urban landscapes. They open up towards alternative urban future scenarios and act as ‘sorting machines’ for those scenarios; they move a given place from the most fixed form (a steel or concrete construction, a stonework or simply waste land) to the most fluid form (discourses, propositions, concepts, projects, drafts, ideas, represented verbally, in texts, plans, models or electronically) and back again. This process of opening up (that is, producing ideas or creating a multitude of propositions respectively) and narrowing down (i.e., determining a solution and then putting forward that solution for actualisation into another fixed set of materials) can be seen as a key characteristic of the architectural competition.

Furthermore, the architectural competition, which, as a set of rules and routines, is significantly being modified as we write, can be viewed as an ancient form of tendering: a client asks for a variety of propositions with regard to a given problem, (s)he then evaluates the entries to pick the best. But is it really that simple?

Whenever public organisations spend money in the building sector, they are bound to national and international tendering rules and regulations. However, at the same time, the building sector plays an important role in shaping our cities – and our lives. The building sector not only relates to political, economical and juridical decisions; rather it is closely related to architecture, planning and urbanism. Thus the processes of selection, which are generally referred to as public procurement processes, are by their nature a platform that brings together heterogeneous actors and produces different procedural formations. In the next section I will argue how research on architectural competition can inform (urban and cultural) geography.

Places without a form?

Probably inspired by macro-anthropological theory that, since the late 1980s, viewed cultural forms (including ideas, practices or objects) as the product of an often complex intersection of different types of flows (images, capital, people; see for instance Appadurai 1996), Doreen Massey redefined place as an intersection of networks: a horizontal, open phenomenon versus place as a vertical (historically shaped), bounded and homogeneous entity has moved our conceptions of that specific geographical form. On another strand, the German notion of ‘doing geography’ (‘Geographie –machen’ in a Werlenian tradition) mainly focuses on processes of appropriation of space and on ‘space’ as (formal-classificatory) dimension in action (Raumbezug). With both the ‘relational turn’ in Anglo-Saxon human geography (see e.g. Amin 2002, 2004; Massey 1999, 2005) or the social constructivist Sozialgeographie in German language geography (see Werlen 1992 and others), mainstream geography has left (geo-) deterministic approaches for good (we hope).

Whereas the mentioned bodies of literature are still important contributions to a contemporary (urban) geography, we agree with the observation of Guggenheim and Söderström (2009) who state that places in Geography are rather undefined as built forms. This might be one reason why the (rare) debates of geographers about urban quality are generally rather low-brow. However, is aesthetics the realm of urbanists and architects only? Is built form not relevant to the notion of (urban) landscapes as cultural products? How is the urban texture produced, and what can we learn from its study with regard to the relation of the political, the economic, the aesthetic, and the material? How are political discourses or administrative routines connected to the transformation of cityscapes?

These questions, it seems to me, become increasingly relevant as a number of discourses (such as (neoliberal) notions of market-efficiency and transparency, or the mainstreaming of (ecological) sustainability as an unquestionable truth) colonize every corner of both public and academic discourse. Is it in 2011 politically incorrect to mention that global warming or climate change adaptation are not the only problems e.g. with regard to the (many) futures of cities? Is it acceptable to question the goal of transparency in public markets in favour of more scope for design, or a project that still attracts the attention in 300 years from now (but that may not be in line with the current budget restrictions of a municipality)? As an academic I am deeply sceptical about generalizing discourses (see above) as they subjugate the multiplicity of the world (there will be a future beyond Masdar City).

In order to critically deal with such questions it is important to highlight the relations between the semiotic and the material, or between the plane of the virtual and the strata of power. More precisely, in the field of the articles in this issue of Geographica Helvetica, we are asked to elaborate on how values and norms are transcribed into the built environment.

The collection of articles takes design competitions as an entry-point in order to address the mentioned topics. The contributing authors that draw on examples from Greece, Canada, The Netherlands and Switzerland first gathered at a workshop series within an organization science conference (‘Constructions Matter’, conference held on May 5-8 2010 at the Copenhagen Business School CBS). Management scholars from the CBS invited a geographer to play the role of a convenor in order to organize a track on architectural competitions – not a bad start for what one could call a post-disciplinary field! The contributions deal with procedural quality, changing public market regulations, the role and impact of (environmental) standards in jury based decision-making processes, and with the transformation of global discourses into urban form. They reflect a small but growing international research community, which comprises of scholars from a range of disciplines including architecture, art history, organization studies, geography and planning.

In his contribution Jan Silberberger highlights key differences between evaluation and judgement as he tackles the relation of strategic development of a place with the scope for creativity, for unexpected proposals and for out-of-the-box thinking. In his empirical analysis he scrutinizes the writing of the brief, which he views as an assemblage of wishes and restrictions. Building a sound connection to the field of urban planning he discusses in-depth the preparation of the competition program by means of (strategic) development studies. How rigid, how exact should competition briefs be? When do they produce a mere ‘as-if’ competition, and why? How can competing teams of planners grasp which notions should be taken almost literally, and how do they discover room for manoeuvre? Silberberger argues that the writing of a competition programme should be considered as a process of organizing the competition’s space of possibilities, and he adds the process of translating a detailed request into a competition programme as a fourth process of judgement to the state of the debate. Furthermore, his analysis allows for a positioning of competitions along a continuum from reducing the work of participating architects to developing a nice form and nice facades for a project that is entirely determined right from the start at the one extreme of the axis, to searching for far-reaching and possibly unforeseen architectural propositions at the other extreme.

In their paper Jean-Pierre Chupin and Carmela Cucuzzella share their critical look on the widespread and often too uncritical use of environmental standards in the selection of projects in urban development. Elaborating on the key differences between technical rationality (as the foundation of evaluation models in environmental standards) and judgement (which demands controversy and different meaning in order to elaborate claims and advance towards final decisions) they shed some light on the downside of the mainstreaming of sustainability. Indeed, the standardization of environmental standards on the grounds of ‘sustainability’ as a meta-narrative about ‘the good’ overpowers traditional criteria and fuels deterministic approaches. As a consequence, the authors argue, complex reality becomes fragmented, projects loose their coherence and the multidimensionality of urban landscapes becomes obscured. Drawing on John Zeisel’s work, Chupin and Cucuzzella provide a theoretical approach to understand the recursive process in judgement as they conceptualize the spiral succession of reflection and action.

Leentje Volker and Juriaan van Meel ask how the reorganization of public markets change the reproduction/transformation of urban landscapes. Whereas Silberberger and Chupin & Cucuzzella discuss modes of decision-making on project level, Volker and van Meel focus on the organization of public procurement as a system. However, their analysis is in line with the former articles as they ask: is quality measurable? Does ‘quantitative’ mean ‘objective’ when selecting a project or a partner? Their paper addresses a seminal shift from traditional design competitions towards tendering processes that are in line with EU public service contracting regulations. This implies a gradual transformation of the client in playing both a cultural role and being responsible before the public shifts towards the latter. Does this trigger more uniform and mediocre architecture, as many planners and designers fear? The authors present a careful analysis of the situation, highlighting the room for manoeuvre, the phases within EU public procurement processes that allow for ‘competition-culture’, and they moot strategies and tactics as to harness a maximum of creativity within the (seemingly) ‘given’ order of public markets.

Sofia Paisiou takes on a sensitive and highly symbolic series of four competitions for the New Acropolis Museum (NAM) in Athens. She stages design competitions as a place-making activity and thereby bridges conceptions of morpho-genesis from assemblage thinking (Gilles Deleuze (1994), Félix Guattari (1984) or Manuel Delanda (2004)) with a geographical place-making tradition in the line of Doreen Massey (1999, 2005). Paisiou locates the dynamic processes of the genesis of the form of the NAM in force fields of different tendencies and illustrates how we can achieve a better understanding of place-making. In the project of a NAM, what was a practical problem became a national issue and a way to shape a national identity by creating powerful bonds between the ‘progressive’ past and the ongoing present. Competitions not only recombine various modes of knowledge, discursive arguments and materials of representation; rather they set out a trajectory from imagination towards realization. In a competition, laws, judgement processes, protagonists and outcomes travel with different vehicles, localising in a unique way the global within the planning site. Paisiou shows how the political, practical and social demands affect the actual decision and the creation of NAM, changed between the four competitions. The author reads political issues such as the interrelation of cultural, economic and political aspirations, the entrance into the EU and the arrival of the free market as “grand narratives” in the sense of Massey (1999). This allows her to map the shift of the original focus from the creation of a new museum towards different trajectories: By tracing four competitions for NAM, Paisiou discusses the re-assembling of global problems (pollution or the need for a bigger museum) and shows how they gain importance and relevance by becoming component parts of “assemblages” such as the “national identity” or “international cultural heritage of the Acropolis marbles”.

The collection of papers presented here discuss some of the manifold relations between form and process and sketch out a field that may be referred to as Geographies of Architecture. Design Competitions are not only fascinating objects of research. Rather, as the articles may illustrate, they offer a powerful epistemic vehicle that allows for a better understanding of how societal fields such as the political, the economic and the aesthetic are connected, and how they produce a distinct materiality of place. Research on design competitions calls for interdisciplinarity as an epistemological necessity. They can be used as a means to produce knowledge about the joint becoming of objects that traditionally are neatly compartmentalized by (sub)disciplinary traditions. It is in this perspective that I believe that the collection of articles in this special topic issue of Geographica Helvetica can be most productive.


Guggenheim, M. & Söderström, O., 2009. Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban Form, Routledge: London and New York.

Amin, A., 2002. Spatialities of Globalisation. Environment and Planning A, 34, S.385-399.

Amin, A., 2004. Region Unbound: Towards a New Politics of Place. Gegrafisker Annaler, 86(B), S.33-44.

Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at Large : Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

DeLanda, M., 2002. Intensive Science and Vitrual Philosophy, London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G., 1994. Diffference and Repetition, London: Continuum.

Guattari, F., 1984. Molecular revolution: psychiatry and politics, London: Penguin.

Massey, D., 2005. For Space, London: Sage.

Massey, D., 1999. Spaces of Politics. In Human geography today.  Wiley-Blackwell, S. 358. Available at: Downloaded on Jan 30, 2011

Werlen, B. 1992. Society, Action and Space. An Alternative Human Geography. Routledge: London and New York


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