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Reflections

Notre Dame and Architecture Competition

Charlie Clemoes
Paris

Amidst the heated debate around the Notre Dame restoration one thing that’s received relatively little attention is the problem with staging a competition in the first place.

Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019 at 7:17 p.m. capture of the Quai de Montebello. (Photo Credit: Wandrille de Préville)

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Amidst the heated debate around the Notre Dame restoration one thing that’s received relatively little attention is the problem with staging a competition in the first place.

Shortly following the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, French Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe announced the prospect of an international architectural competition to design a replacement for the roof and spire which were destroyed in the fire. In his statement, Philippe suggested that the competition would look for something “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time”.

This followed President Emmanuel Macron’s own assurances that the cathedral would be rebuilt “more beautiful than before” and that the restoration project would take just five years (a timescale subsequently criticised by experts as overambitious and in any case unlikely).

There’s already been enough said about how hard it will be to restore such a highly visible and historically significant building (Darran Anderson’s article for CityLab offers a great exploration of the ethical dilemmas attached to such a project). Something that has received relatively less attention, however, is the problem of holding a competition in the first place.

Notre Dame as “Urban Mixed-Use Development”

To be sure, there’s already been some great satire highlighting the risks of leaving it to contemporary architects to devise a suitable replacement, perhaps the best being Bryce Elder’s spoof firm Pick Rogarth + Baumsnatch arguing for Notre Dame’s “unique potential as an urban mixed-use development”, or Christopher Clark’s suggestion to insert ceiling panels in the nave.

Meanwhile, the serious entries are giving the joke suggestions a pretty good run for their money. Dezeen has published a selection of proposals from various architecture firms that seems almost calculated to spark derision and outrage. In particular, there’s the bizarre hodge-podge of arches and balls suggested by Kiss the Architect and also French designer Mathieu Lehanneur’s atrocious proposal for “a monumental permanent flame covered with golden leaves”, the idea being to capturing the spire as it looked during the fire.

These joke and serious proposals go some way to illustrating the problem with architectural competitions. But to a certain extent the overenthusiastic response can be forgiven when you consider that this particular competition promises a lucrative prize: as well as the €1bn now raised to restore the cathedral, there’s the immense prestige which would come with restoring what is now surely the most visible building in the world.

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A white tarpaulin was put in place after the fire to exclude the elements. (Photo Credit: Joëlle Lévy)

Like pinning your hopes on winning the lottery

What cannot be forgiven, however, is the amount of work that will be expended in the course of the competition process, little of which will be remunerated by the client. Indeed, when considering the amount of entries for competitions on the level of a Notre Dame restoration, the business model starts to look pretty similar to pinning your hopes on winning the lottery.

Take for example the competition to build a Guggenheim art museum next to Helsinki’s South Harbour. Following a record 1,715 entries, the city council ended up rejecting the plan altogether. Architect and academic Peggy Deamer has made a fairly conservative estimate that the combined labour costs of the 1,715 entries is the equivalent of $7m of labour, almost all of it freely given to the Guggenheim (there were modest prizes for the winner and five runners-up). This may be an extreme case but the fact is that the competition dynamic necessarily assumes architects are prepared to commit thousands of hours of labour for free.

But as well as being financially exploitative these competitions also prey on the well-meaning creative impulse that fuels the architectural profession. In light of the diminishing role of architects in the production of the built environment, Jeremy Till has argued that the competition becomes an “ever more attractive sanctuary” for architects wishing to realise their desire to experiment: “Such is the will to create, such is the desperation to succeed that architects – apparently willingly – sacrifice themselves to the competition machine, vampirish though it is to the profession.”

The most wasteful competition of them all

“Competition” is one of those words that defenders of our contemporary economic model often use when extolling its virtues. Rarely do we consider the amount of waste that comes with all those competitors that miss out on the ultimate prize.

Judging by the amount of proposals already submitted by firms big and small, the competition to restore the Notre Dame Cathedral might end up being the most wasteful of them all.

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