“A healthy democracy will have healthy competitions” – The Competition Part 2 – Anna Yudina

With its inbuilt element of suspense, an architectural competition readily lends itself to being made into a movie. A10 new European architecture Cooperative discusses these with Angel Borrego Cubero in a ‘co-op format’ interview and finds out that the architect-filmmaker is planning to take the argument further in The Competition 2… and even in a third instalment.

For those who haven’t seen The Competition yet, here’s the plot, in a nutshell. In 2008 the government of Andorra, a European microstate with a population of just under 80,000, announces a competition for the National Museum. Five top-tier architects – Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Dominique Perrault – are invited to propose their versions of an iconic building that is hoped to attract more tourists to Andorra. This new museum, the government believes, will help boost the country’s economy, whose three main branches – winter sports, tax-free shopping, and private banking – are losing to a combination of stronger competitors and changing economic circumstances. The film crew follows the competition process from start to finish. The build-up of tension resolves into a last-second letdown: the final presentation takes place in an unsettling, high-pressure atmosphere just two weeks before the elections, which the government loses by one per cent. No winner named, no museum built.

Watch the trailer of The Competition movie here

Produced and directed by Ángel Borrego Cubero, the architect and artist at the head of Madrid-based practice OSS, the film premiered in October 2013 with a sold-out screening at the opening of the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam (AFFR), one of the world’s key festivals in the field. 

Back then, international press hailed the film mainly as an exposé of ‘starchitecture’. ‘For anyone with the slightest suspicion of the insidious, futile processes at work behind the glossy facades of the world’s so-called “starchitects”, a new documentary by Spanish architect Ángel Borrego Cubero makes for compulsive viewing’, wrote The Guardian. Yet some writers, like Anatxu Zabalbeascoa, who reviewed the film for El Pais, have pointed out some deeper meanings. She compared it to a history lesson and ‘a chance to think about who and what decides how the buildings will be and what and for what buildings are needed’.

Revisited at an almost ten-years distance from the actual event, and re-watched in a different context – that of the 2017 conference on Competition Culture in Europe – further issues start appearing. The story of a failed and forgotten design competition suddenly becomes a magnifying glass for some colliding trends in contemporary history, of which architecture is an inseparable part.

Anna Yudina: Why choose an architectural competition as the subject for a film?

Ángel Borrego Cubero: Architects used to consider competitions only as a tool, a way of getting commissions. I see a competition as one of the defining issues in architecture; architects are dealing with competitions since its beginning [according to art historian Barry Bergdoll, the first recorded architectural competition took place in Athens in 448 BC and was for a war memorial on the Acropolis – AY]. There is this amazing crossroads of being judged as an artist while also being judged objectively because these are the artists who actually fuck around with public money. For me, this was quite an astonishing realization, and probably that’s why I did the film.

AY: And why that particular competition? 

ABC: My only chance to make that film was to find an institution or a person that was organizing a competition and convince them to make a film. After half a year of asking everyone I met whether they knew any such person, someone who happened to be a culture advisor to the Andorran government suggested that I go Andorra – and that was it. An agreement about that documentary was reached in June 2008. The competition was supposed to start in October, but in August Lehman Brothers collapsed, so they waited till January 2009, and then the jury gathered two weeks before the elections day in Andorra. They lost by one per cent, yet the real problem was not the elections but the fact that entire world had changed. People no longer believed in making big expenses. Suddenly there was that big, fancy, expensive building – a child of the previous era. The world had changed, but the project could not change so fast.

AY: This was an invited competition, and we know that the organising committee was making its selection mainly among the Pritzker prize winners. Didn’t it feel like shopping for the most prestigious car or jewellery brand?

ABC: That is the most important aspect of the idea. One of the amazing things I have learned in Andorra was that the local architects never competed for public projects through their design skills, but only through previous experience and economic proposals. If you have already built an elementary school – no matter its impact on the kids – you can compete for more schools.

AY: This applies not only to Andorra, but to other countries as well. In France, for instance, I have heard similar concerns about an architect’s career – or rather their specialization – being conditioned by previously won competitions.

ABC: So, in a country that has never done a design competition before, they announce a super-duper design competition. If you call Pritzker-awarded architects, any solution will be good. And this horrible argument is now getting hold of the entire world.

Indira van ’t Klooster: Was there anything specifically European about the whole procedure, or is this a global monstrosity?

ABC: In fact the only monstrosity here is that there were no design competitions in Andorra. If you do just one, there is no way for you to do anything other than a monstrosity because that’s your first attempt. The real problem is that, since the advent of fear as society’s main driving force, with the predominance of lawyers and the inflation of documents in every walk of life, any single project will now involve hundreds of pages of documentation that are just for CYA – ‘covering your ass’.

The advent of the Pritzker Prize made it possible to run competitions in which the participants need to have a Pritzker or a similar achievement – so that, if a politician is interrogated, they can always say that those guys are the topmost practitioners. This is a known quantity; one of the few things that a lawyer will understand and that will pass in court. It’s amazing how media, communication, and all this ecosystem of reputation and fame has mingled with fear and with the legal system to create a very problematic state of affairs. Yet there is nothing specifically European about that, it’s a global development. Europeans are only different in a sense that competitions were born here and we still hold open competitions.

IvtK: I was intrigued by how mild you were towards the architects you portrayed… It seems easy to laugh at their preposterous behaviour, but the client was hopelessly unprofessional, and you seem to have found some real passion and courage as well.

ABC: I think that the client was courageous in a sense that they allowed this film to happen. When I first met the Andorran government back in 2008, I made a condition that they would have no say in the film’s final cut. They agreed, and I’m not sure that a lot of politicians would have done the same. Jean Nouvel, too, was courageous, because he was the only one who had fully accepted the rules. He did not limit my team’s access to his office; we were able to film anything we wanted [including his discussions with the project managers over the design process – AY].

In almost any other documentary about architects, the meetings they show would be prepared and curated in advance to create a contradiction-free, wholly positive image of the firm. We didn’t want to make one of those long advertisements. One needs courage to participate in such a film.

Tarja Nurmi: Have any of the stararchitects sent you a thank-you card?

ABC: None. I have no idea if they have ever watched the film. Our condition was that they would not have a say in editing the film, and I don’t think they were too thrilled about this [Norman Foster dropped out of the competition once the documentary was included in the competition terms – AY]. We’ve never had any bad situations while filming but, on the other hand, we never sought to be perceived as friends or colleagues, or to explain anything. We were just the people that were filming the competition process.

Ieva Zibarte: The story of competitions could have been told in a book, a magazine feature, or a blog. How did film as a medium help to explore and communicate the subject?

ABC: We had this idea of following a competition – that was a natural born thriller.

IZ: Even though it is a documentary, The Competition often feels like a fictional film (the same way as the TV series The Office was made to feel like a reality show). Do you think there is an audience for a feature film about architecture?

ABC: I’m not sure. Lawyers, policemen, or doctors have been successful in movies, but not architects. Architecture is too slow-paced. Extreme or ‘physical’ professions are having success now – loggers, Alaskan gold diggers, extreme engineering… You have people watching this on the end of their sofas, at least while eating. Recently, the best series have either been those where danger and tension are involved, or comedies. I’m not sure that architecture wants to be associated with danger, or look ridiculous.

AY: What about a love story?

ABC: Remember the film There’s Something About Mary, where a fraud passes himself off as an architect to appear more sophisticated? That’s the way popular culture sees architects: too sophisticated, too alien.

IvtK: What will The Competition 2 be about?

ABC: The plan is to make two more movies. Part two will be more analytical, dealing with the history and the problems of competitions. We will have a bit more of an agenda to this second part, including all of the analysis I could not include in the first film because it was not necessary then. The third film will be the opposite of the first one: instead of showing one competition for five architects, there will be one architect doing several competitions. And, while in the first film I wanted to maintain a distance with the architects, the third one should feel more personal.

I am becoming a big fan of competitions. I understand why architects may not like them, but I’m afraid they are losing sight of what is good for the profession as a whole. We don’t have to think of competitions only as a waste of architects’ energy and resources. If we want to live in a democracy, we have to find a smart and fair way of distributing work. And you can’t collaborate on everything, because at some point several people will want to design the same thing and a competition will be necessary. If we stop doing competitions, this is going to be a loss for our profession.

AY: It may then be important, in this new film, to distinguish the competition as a practice from the shortcomings of this practice that can and should be dealt with.  

ABC: It’s like democracy itself. Everyone knows that many things are wrong with it, and that they are difficult to change, but that’s not a reason for rejecting democracy wholesale. You have to try and change those things slowly. A healthy democracy will have healthy competitions.