15 December 2008

More Calgary shenanigans

Ah, Calgary, oh Calgary. As Happy Pontist readers may recall, this Canadian city is looking to build two new "iconic" footbridges, at a staggering combined cost of US$50m. And they want both of them to be designed by Santiago Calatrava, probably the most famous bridge designer in the world.

Back in September, there was controversy as to why Calgary City Council wanted to directly appoint Calatrava, rather than selecting a designer for the bridges by means of a juried competition. The bridge proposal had been rejected by a local committee, and moves to appoint Calatrava only approved by the full council because two members of the opposition had been away that day.

Mayor Dave Bronconnier appears to be keen to get a Calatrava-branded crossing, and has plenty of money available in the forms of a no-strings-attached grant from the provincial Government of Alberta. He's trying to finalise a contract with Calatrava in partnership with a single local firm.

The latest controversy is because a small group of councillors are trying every available route to get the Calatrava appointment rejected, and the scheme opened up to other bidders. They've failed in a direct proposal to get the council to reconsider, and their attempts to get Alberta to intervene have also been turned down. The rebels even tried to get Alberta to stall other funding as punishment for Calgary daring to single-source the Calatrava design. The rebels are still moving ahead with an attempt to review the council's legal policy on single sourcing.

Their efforts have been furiously rejected by the council's powers-that-be, accusing them of betraying Calgary's democratic decision. The Mayor argues that the council is following provincial funding guidelines carefully, and that even if the design is single-sourced, competitive bids will be sought for the construction.

From my perspective, over 4,000 miles away, all of this is pretty incomprehensible. I have no idea what the local legal aspects are (there are few if any public bodies in the UK who could appoint a design consultant for a project of this size in this way without putting the job out to competition). But it's fundamentally unfair to the design market, and the people of Calgary, not to seek out a designer who will offer the best bridge at the lowest price - a consideration of value that Calgary seems to entirely ignore.

Writing in the Calgary Herald, Paula Arab clearly agrees:

"River crossings should be beautiful, but there are better ways of getting it designed than to go to the best-known architect who charges the most money.

"The assertion that only Calatrava can give us 'extraordinary' bridges is utterly false.

"It's also typical of the nouveau-riche attitude that continues to believe style and class can be bought by paying the highest price. Not so."

Well said.

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