Inside the Collection

Winners and losers: the Venice Biennale pavilion

Photo of the historic Duomo in Florance, Italy
Photograph by Oleg Sidorenko. Shared by Creative Commons License

A far swag of the world’s most famous buildings are the result of design competitions – completed winners include Florence’s Duomo, the White House, the Paris Opera, the Westminster Houses of Parliament, the Reichstag (twice) and the Centre Pompidou.

Closer to home, winners include Federation Square, both Australian Parliament Houses, the Sydney and Canberra War Memorials and the Sydney Opera House. Compared to these, the just-announced competition for a new Venice Biennale pavilion is small cheese. But it has already generated plenty of heat, including a well-subscribed petition that the competition should be open to all Australian architects rather than merely those with an international pedigree.

A typical response came from Don Bates, one of the architects responsible for Fed Square:

We had never built anything before Fed Square…Had Fed Square gone down that [experience-only] route – and it’s a much more complex project than Venice biennale pavilion – then we wouldn’t have been selected…Coming up with something that really makes us rethink what an exhibitions space can be is about imagination. It’s not about previous history and background and a big CV and a big portfolio of projects that may seem similar.

There’s no question that numerous successful architects have gained their big break via competition. Among design archives held by the Powerhouse those of John Andrews and Ken Woolley document careers sparked by this way. Andrews was shortlisted in 1958 for the Toronto City Hall contest and worked with the successful entrant, setting off his glowing North American career. At the same time Ken Woolley was already involved with major projects for the NSW Government Architect, but in terms of public profile this achievement paled compared to his and Michael Dysart’s success in the 1958 Australian Women’s Weekly’s ‘Australian Family Home Competition’.

Photograph of the model of the Sydney Opera House
Photography by Jean-Francois Lanzarone, Powerhouse Museum

The Sydney Opera House is the best known Australian example of a competition career breakthrough. In contrast to Joern Utzon, Walter and Marion Griffin had already established careers in Chicago when the Canberra competition was won in 1914. But all three had ample opportunity to reflect ruefully on the pitfalls of ‘success’. They are far from unique, as politics frequently trump competition success and many of architecture’s biggest names – including Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Zaha Hadid – have seen their competition winners by-passed.

Open competitions for public buildings remain the norm in many European nations; in France competition is compulsory for public projects of significant value. Jean Nouvel, like Utzon a serial competition also-ran until his 1981 breakthrough with the Institut du monde Arabe, is an example of the talent that can be unearthed this way. However the French system is often criticised for focussing architecture towards juries rather than clients.

In Australia and other Anglophone societies this career path is under threat as limited competitions a la Venice Biennale become common. One reason is the possibility of an open competition producing no commercially, politically or aesthetically appropriate winner. As building regulations, approval processes and finance become more complex design is only one of the factors to be considered by competition juries. Big names and established firms have experience at negotiating these tangles.

But even established architects aren’t necessarily good at this sort of thing: Daniel Libeskind made his name with his winning design for the Berlin Jewish Museum, but his reputation or skills haven’t stopped him being sidelined in the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre site in New York, despite his Freedom Tower concept being chosen from an initial ideas contest.

Photograph of the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Center
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum

At a less exalted level the Powerhouse’s neighbour the Ian Thorpe pool initially went to an open competition although none of the shortlisted entrants were judged to meet the required ‘functional and budget criteria’. The disappointed architects were even less impressed when a competition of three invited firms (none of which had entered the open contest) chose the Harry Seidler design.

However the main factor is Australian governments’ current preference for privately funded design and constructs contracts, removing the financial risk (and design) from the public sphere. Both the Sydney Olympics and the Barangaroo contests saw winners ignored in favour of private contracts. Of the Olympic venues only the Dunc Gray Velodrome design was a competition winner, while Barangaroo saw the corporate charms of Lend Lease triumph over the competition victor (dismissed as a ‘sub-division plan’ by Paul Keating). Barangaroo may yet prove the failings of this approach.

None of these considerations are relevant to the Australian pavilion, a small (320 square metres, only slightly larger than McMansion size) but prestigious project. On the face of it, perfect for an open competition.

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