Architecture In Competition: A Critical Journey Through Portuguese Modernity — A competition is the most open and free way to gain access to architectural commissions. But, most importantly, it is the best method to solve a specific architectural, urban and territorial issue. Architectural competitions confront different solutions for one same situation. The competition between equals, usually anonymous, fosters experimentation and speculation in a resolute and generous search for the perfect project. A competition is therefore a plural combination of possibilities in an intense decisive moment. This urgency of the present moment is revealed in the demand of a choice. But selecting the best proposal involves a jury who will take responsibility for the decision based on certain objectives and criteria. Contrary to what one might think, the jury is as much at stake as the participants. Although its neutrality is implicit, it is made up of people with different views of the world and beliefs about architecture.
Architectural competitions are also moments of public discussion, of interaction processes between architects and the community. The internal debate of the jury corresponds to a desired exterior debate with society, with its institutions and citizens, with an impact in the general and specialised press. The contests are activation points of public space, in both a physical and a communication sense.
An architectural competition is both a synchronic and a diachronic process. In fact, it is the synchrony that specifically qualifies it in that moment, when a choice has to be made between several alternatives. However, you cannot separate this decisive moment from a continuous movement, one that begins by addressing a problem in order to reach actual implementation, which could be full, partial or altered. Without a diachronic extension, the synchronic concentration would be meaningless, as it would deprive the process of its temporal dimension. In this sense, an architectural competition has a fundamental connection with tangible reality. If, on the one hand, it is inherent to a context, to a particular physical and spatial reality in which it intends to operate, on the other hand, it is involved in time-related changes that reveal the historicity of that transformation process. Competitions are always processes related to space and time that result from the endless existing possibilities.
However, the acid test of architectural competitions is the actual construction of the works and their subsequent appropriation by the public, testing in real life what had until then only been a hypothesis. In this sense, a competition is a promise that can only be confirmed by the public by experiencing the built work. The truth is that we know the competitions, above all, due to the works that were built and then entered our everyday lives. Once it is built, the winning project becomes a symbol of the competition. The proposals that did not win, even if award-winning, remain hidden, as though suspended hypotheses relegated to oblivion in the archives of promoters and institutions or in architecture offices. These, however, still retain the memory of the fascination that lies within the discovery, of those processes of great enthusiasm and intensity even if stamped with disillusionment in view of the jury’s verdict.
The history of architectural competitions is one of successes, achievements and beliefs, but also one of failures, uncertainties and suspicions. Between the discipline’s authority and the scrutiny of public opinion, the participants’ beliefs and the competency of the jury, the promise of a competition between equals and the reality of the winning built work, the competitions scene is inevitably immersed in tension and controversy. An architectural competition is by nature a troublesome process. In spite of this circumstance, it has remained an indisputable disciplinary institution and professional procedure.
Architectural competitions allow for an interpretation of the political, economic, social and cultural transformations in Portugal since the beginning of the twentieth century.
They granted us a number of works of outstanding quality that marked the history of modern and contemporary architecture, as well as opened intense moments of disciplinary debate. In short, the history of architectural competitions in Portugal overlaps with the challenges and changes of the country. “Architecture in competition” will be the first attempt to organise this evidence.
Luís Santiago Baptista
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