The first is the Four Mile Run contest, for a new pedestrian / cycle bridge across a flood control channel (pictured below) in Arlington, Virginia, USA. This forms part of a wider scheme to revitalise the flood ditch's ecology and turn it into a park. They're currently inviting prequalification submissions (deadline December 7), with the intention to shortlist three teams to come up with concept designs and present them in a public forum.
So far, so good. It's a flat site offering plenty of scope for creativity (a couple of overhead cables in the way being the only significant problem), although equally the landscape is somewhat uninspiring.
It's more of a competitive interview than a design competition as such: they're looking for a team who they can work with in future as much as they are looking for a bridge concept. To that end, the prequalification criteria emphasise previous experience of similar span footbridges, ability to work with multiple stakeholders, and professional standing measured by number of awards and past innovation. That's all likely to result in a safe, conservative selection.
What's really wrong with the competition is that there's no way for entrants to judge risk against reward, and hence decide whether they have any real chance of winning.
There's no suggestion that anyone has carried out the sort of preliminary feasibility study that might confirm they've chosen the right location for the bridge, or provide engineering data to inform the design. There's very little guidance on how ambitious a bridge they're looking for, whether a landmark or something more subtle. The lack of anonymity also leaves the process open to favouritism or political sway (this is inherent to the competitive interview format).
Worst of all, there's no serious prize money for the winner (the three shortlisted entrants each get a US$5,000 honorarium); no indication of what funding, if any, is in place to take the bridge design contract forward; and indeed no commitment whatsoever to actually appoint the winner to a further contract.
The other competition I spotted recently is an open contest for a new footbridge in Maribor, Slovenia. This one is clearly aimed at choosing a design, not a designer, and it's part of a three-part contest, the other two sections relating to an art gallery, and river embankment improvements. Contestants can enter any one part of the contest, or more than one if they wish. It's all part of Maribor's status as European Capital Culture in 2012. A site plan is shown below.
Registration closes on 4 January 2010, and is open only to registered architects. What's that? You think an engineer can design a perfectly good bridge on their own? Well, the town of Maribor doesn't agree, largely because they've adopted wholesale the guidance on architectural design competitions promoted through UNESCO by the International Union of Architects, and as with all such trade bodies, the guidelines are there to protect their members' interests as much as anything else. All the judges will be architects too, they may seek technical advice on the designs submitted, but there's no strong voice for engineering, or for the people who will have to pay for the bridge or maintain it once built.
You might expect they'd at least insist that architects partner up with an engineer, but no, they've succumbed to the same malaise that afflicted the Krakow contest. Nobody should be surprised if the result is the same: a design that looks impressive, but couldn't actually stand up.
Like the Four Mile Run competition, there's no information on whether the organisers have a budget to build a bridge, but at least they make a firm commitment to appoint the winner to a design contract, and the prize money is relatively attractive, with 30,000 euros for the winner, and further prizes for 2nd and 3rd place.