18 September 2008

Calgary: Calatrava or competition? Controversy!

Calgary is on the hunt for two new "iconic" footbridges to cross the Bow River. And Paula Arab at the Calgary Herald has some very interesting thoughts on how they're going about it.

The story (also reported in entertaining manner in the Calgary Sun) is that a faction in the local council would like to appoint Santiago Calatrava to design two new footbridges in Calgary, at a combined capital cost of US$40-50m, and has agreed to spend US$25m to get both designs, and the first of the two bridges built (see much more here, here and here). Robert Remington asks in the Herald why it should cost so much more than the US$4.5m Liberty Bridge in Greenville, South Carolina. The answer of course is that it shouldn't: at about a 150m span, US$10m would be more than ample for a landmark footbridge.

Paula Arab suggest it's a disgrace that Calgary wants to directly appoint Calatrava rather than holding an open competition, one reason being that a contest promotes greater public involvement and attention. She also suggest the competition route is cheaper and more likely to deliver a scheme that meets a fixed budget. Most importantly, it gives local architects and engineers the opportunity to take part.

These are all good reasons, although anyone thinking that design competitions are the best way to deliver a project within budget is clearly unfamiliar with River Wear, Stratford and numerous other examples. One problem any promoter will see with a competition is that it increases risk: you have less control over which design will be chosen (because competitors will expect a fair jury), and over who the designers are.

The latter point would seem to be at the root of Calgary's decision not to hold a competition: they don't just want a fine "iconic" bridge, they want a CalatravaTM bridge. The brand name is at least as important as the product, it would seem. Certainly there's evidence from a rash of Calatrava proposals elsewhere in North America that few people on that side of the Atlantic have heard of any other bridge designer. To them, "iconic bridge" and "Calatrava bridge" are essentially synonymous.

Arab is on less confident ground elsewhere, suggesting that bridge competitions are good because every architect and engineers learns to design them in college (they don't), and because structurally they are simpler than libraries or courthouses (the opposite is often true). This misses the reality of open bridge competitions which is that a large proportion of entries are from people who have no idea how structures work, and this is readily apparent in what they enter.

Arab also writes:

Bridges are the quintessential proof that form follows function. It's that rule that leads to the birth of such esthetically attractive structures as San Francisco's famed Golden Gate bridge, more so than attempts by architects to draw fancy, but often impractical designs.

Again, this is a naive point of view. Many of the most successful bridge designs are shaped as they are because form follows constructability rather than permanent function, as can be seen in the works of Robert Maillart, Christian Menn and countless others.

Where I would certainly agree is that a competition is preferable to direct appointment; this is on grounds of simple fairness to the market rather than that it will necessarily produce a better result. An open competition is perhaps not the best way to go, however: it wastes vast sums of money which could be more productively spent, much of it generating designs which are not very good. Calgary could instead consider an invitation-only competition, giving star names the chance to compete against both lesser-known but equally talented designers, and even a few wildcards to ensure that fresh or local talent gets its opportunity too.

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