A design competition can be an incredibly seductive proposition for an aspiring architect. A blind contest of this sort affords the emerging architect an opportunity to compete against larger and more established firms and have their ideas judged purely on their merit. All this is made even more tempting by the oft-told stories of unknown designers winning the opportunity to create some of world’s more iconic buildings. Maya Lin, for example, was a 21-year-old undergraduate architecture student when her entry was selected for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Jørn Utzon was an obscure middle-aged architect in Copenhagen when his proposal was chosen for the Sydney Opera House.
Of course for every inspiring story of a designer who won, there are hundreds of stories of designers who didn’t win. The argument could be made that design competitions are by nature exploitative, as their prizes often do not adequately compensate even those who actually win. I know all this and yet, like a cat hopelessly chasing after a laser pointer, I still find myself chasing after competitions. Even though our office is small and does not really have the resources to sink into these adventures, I still find them to be worthwhile. They allow us to work on projects of greater scale and social importance. They allow us to stretch our design muscles by exploring ideas that their “real” projects do not allow. And every once in a while, we actually do win.
But even when our work goes unrecognized I like to think that the work we do has value.
One of the side effects of a design completion is that multiple solutions are proposed for the same problem. This body of work provides the general public with many potential futures to consider. It fosters discussion and helps members of the community imagine how our cities might be improved. So often we take for granted the reality of a place that has come to exist but we should always be empowered to design for ourselves the future we would like to have.
Competitions give us many examples of what that future could be.
This is one of the reasons my interest was piqued by the announcement of the BYOBroadway Ideas and Design Competition. As an “ideas competition” it allows entrants to imagine the Broadway corridor as it could be. As the competition is open to anyone who lives in San Antonio, the ideas come from anyone – not just design professionals.
The competition is broken up into three challenges based on location. The first asks entrants to imagine a use for the vast swaths of undeveloped land under the 281 / I-35 interchange that acts as the informal (and rather unappealing) gateway to San Antonio from the north. A second category seeks ideas for how Broadway could better interface with the series of public spaces that connect to it including Mahncke Park, Brackenridge Park, Maverick Park, Alamo Plaza and Hemisfair Park. The third “wildcard” category allows entrants to imagine a solution to any site along the Broadway corridor.
Click here for submission guidelines.
As with any competition there are prizes but at the end of the day I would argue it is not about who wins. Rather, it is about mobilizing our community to start to imagine what our city (or at least our Broadway) could be. What is being offered is an opportunity for the rising creative class of San Antonio to reimagine Broadway and how it could become the kind of street our city deserves.
Although it might be easy to dismiss this effort as “pie-in-the-sky” dreaming, there are precedents for these sorts of things resulting in the radical transformation of a place. That is exactly what happened in 2003 when a competition was held to imagine how an abandoned set of elevated rail lines in New York could be transformed into a public amenity. When the potential of the space was understood, it helped galvanize support for The High Line, a once “fanciful” idea that went on to be built and become one of New York’s signature public spaces.
Will one of San Antonio’s signature public spaces result from this effort? It is of course impossible to say. But if as a city we are ever to make the kind bold strokes that have the “Magic to stir men’s blood,” this seems like a really good place to start.
*Top image:A man uses a temporary, makeshift crosswalk at the intersection of Pearl Parkway and Broadway Street to get to the Broadway Street bus stop. The pop-up crosswalk was installed by an anonymous group named the San Antonio Department of Transformation. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.