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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  n.67 Santiago dic. 2007 

ARQ, n. 67 Concursos de arquitectura / Architectural competitions, Santiago, december, 2007, p. 26-31.


The architectural program in competition rules

Claudio  Vásquez *

* Professor, School of Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile


The architectural program is the essential instrument available for formulating competition rules. The program is the prefiguration of the form, and reveals the essence of the architectural problem. Its conceptual development is based on the information supplied by the commissioning entity, which shapes the systems and components of the logical calculus called for.

Key words: Architectural competitions, rules, architectural program, educational establishments, methodology.


Architecture competitions(1) are at the same time a deployment of professional skills and a confluence of events that create a scene in which a commissioning entity, a jury and competitors assume distinct roles. This requires planning and following a course of action defined by rules that create a playing field or stage, impart a particular direction to the scene, or allow latitude in the way the scene unfolds. Competitors can choose to follow guidelines, or can interpret them less than literally-though in doing the latter they risk losing their place in the cast of eligible players. In 2001, when OMA changed the location for Córdoba’s Centro de Congresos, in Spain, it demonstrated that there is a place for autonomous decision-making in such contexts, provided that the challenge posed by the commissioning entity is interpreted with understanding. Competing with Cruz y Ortiz, Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito and Rafael Moneo, Koolhaas rejected the rectangular site behind the city’s historic center on the Guadalquivir’s Miraflores Peninsula, instead proposing a linear volume actively linked to that focus of interest as a monument. The reinterpretation freed itself from the original piece of land, visually linking the Centro de Congresos with the Córdoba Mosque from the viewpoint of Miraflores Park.
Thus, an insightful interpretation of the problem posed led to a path that lay outside of the guidelines, but was parallel to them, and constituted a plausible option. Given the private nature of the competition and the class of architects invited to submit proposals, it was possible to make room in the competitive scenario for that unexpected proposal, which Fernández-Galiano (2001) described as brilliant and daring. In a sense, the proposal represented what Córdoba’s municipal government was after in selecting the participants that it did. The collegial defense implicit in Fernández-Galiano’s description of Koolhaas’s risk as a stroke of genius recalls the voices that were raised in defense of Le Corbusier’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s proposal for the Palace of Nations in Geneva in 1927.
In that competition, a total of 377 architectural firms from around the world created over 10 km of architectural plans, and a plethora of options associated with and based on various polemical architectural issues of the moment. The jury consisted of ten members from different countries, including well-known architects of the time such as Berlage, Hoffmann, Moser, Horta and Lamaresquier (Zervos, 1993). The jury met 64 times, and chose nine winners instead of one. The press got wind of the surprising fact that Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret had been deprived of an unalloyed victory because their plans had been mechanically reproduced, in violation of the rules, which explicitly prohibited the use of moyens mécaniques. The jury’s anti-Modernist members had succeeded in diluting the victory by distributing it among various competitors. The decision proved particularly hard for Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret to swallow when they learned that their proposal was the only one that strictly met the proposed construction budget, while the other winning plans stretched the budget to the breaking point
(2). A special commission was appointed to complete the jury’s unfinished work. To save the day and quickly name a winner, the commission negotiated a 50% increase in the budget, contravening all ethical expectations. In the end, first place was awarded to the proposal of French competitors Henri-Paul Nénot and Julien Flegenheimer.
In that scene, the leading role was played not by the competitors, but by the jury, whose rather thoughtless strict application of the rules in connection with some issues, combined with their failure to apply the rules in connection with other issues, took stage center as a problem. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret met the most professional and demanding requirements of the competition, such as the budgetary ones. Nevertheless, the scandalous internal deliberations of the jury deprived them of the contract. To console himself, Le Corbusier vented his ire in his book Une maison - un palais.
The scenes that can result from the relationships among competitors, jury and commissioning entity are diverse. However, one intrinsic condition is determining: the rules define the playing field or stage on which the scenes unfold, either in relation to the guidelines provided, or adrift in the absence of guidelines.
What, then, are the rules of an architectural competition? Essentially, they are a tool for prefiguring the form of the work to be commissioned. They must establish parameters that correspond to the nature of the construction’s eventual form-not an easy task, and a particularly difficult one for laypersons. And the fact is that commissioning entities rarely have the expertise to code their needs in terms that prefigure architectural form adequately, even when they are quite clear about their needs.
This, indeed, is the usual situation, and it is understandable if seen in the terms proposed by José Ricardo Morales, who considers architecture an art, but one that differs from the other arts in that it “represents -and gives rise to- irreducible human needs…”
(3) and hence affects all people, while the other arts address only particular interests or tastes. The non-architectural arts, in other words, have specific audiences and cultures, because their works are not coercive in the sense of affecting human beings’ everyday life. Thus, a commissioning entity may have clear intentions, that reflect its essential needs, and yet not have the wherewithal to structure an architectural competition properly.
The central problem of an architectural commission lies in how the architectural program prefigures form, for the seed of a projected building lies hidden in the way the program is formulated. This preliminary program is, in fact, the essential instrument of a competition’s structure, and a specialized, detailed study of the commissioning entity’s needs is essential if the program is to be properly formulated. The needs must be examined in the context of the relevant universe of institutions, programs and buildings to which they and the commissioning entity belong.
The instrumental and determining character of the architectural program as a prefiguration of architectural form was clearly expressed by Isidro Suárez (1985), who called it as the project’s entelechy, i.e., the central problem and objective of the activity of projecting or translating needs into architectural forms. In his view, architectural designs can be understood as a model of the architectural reality. Thus, a design is an interposed reality that represents another reality the latter being not the design, but its potential existence as constructed reality. The reality relationship is thus a double one. One aspect of it is the reality of the design, or the plan in its own terms, while the other is the reality of the reality, which is linked with the historical uses and customs into which the design is to fit i.e., those factors that the commissioning entity has identified as irreducible needs. In other words, the design has implicit parameters that shape it for everyday life by designing it for specific uses, while, at the same time, it must have an internal consistency that gives it a coherent architectural form on its own terms.
Thus, a competition must be structured with two aspects of the architectural work in mind: a cultural, use-defined aspect, which may be represented by a list of physical spaces, and an aspect that reflects the pre-compositional work involved in the conceptual formulation of the designs that are to be compared to select a winner.
Clearly, the rules of a competition may omit a list of physical spaces, and leave this to the competitors. The data involved in conducting the study needed to address both aspects must be provided, however. This is extremely difficult, since under the rules of the game, participants in a competition are unable to dialogue with the commissioning entity. Affected by these constraints, competitions run a risk of having to declare no winner, simply because of the uncertainty involved.
Isidro Suárez also provided methodological tools that facilitate the study needed for the program behind the rules of a competition:
“In the first place, the (program) seems to us a request for the creation of the design. Secondly, if this creation of the design is to be serious, it must take the form of a study. Thirdly, the study basically consists of an analysis that considers the constituent elements from the point of view of various logical systems .
Let us note parenthetically that the program is a study, not an enumeration. This is the first distinction that divides the universe of competitions: those whose rules are based on a prior study, and those that are simply an enumeration of spaces. The former have a high probability of success if the result of the study is conducive to architectural form, while the latter may easily end with no winner or with results outside of normal parameters.
To return to Isidro Suárez, we see that:
“The program, as a logical calculus functioning as a system, is composed of an enumeration of needs, the alphabet and the conditions to be met, which in turn are the formational rules and the connections among these conditions, i.e., the transformational rules. As we know, an alphabet, formational rules and transformational rules are the three elements constituting a logical calculus as a system, and are defined as: an alphabet consisting of a set of elementary symbols, formational rules that govern how these can be combined to create composite forms, and transformational rules that govern transformations from one combination of symbols to another, i.e., from one logical form to another, which is equivalent to transforming the logical form .”
It is clear to any architect that the program and the organization of the program require conceptual work that is fueled by information obtained from the commissioning entity in a conversational process that is quasi-therapeutic in nature, the objective of which is to define guidelines and relational logics that are ordinarily not arrived at directly. Suárez divides this process into three parts, which become factors in carrying out a logical calculus-namely, an enumeration (which is what the client would know from his own thinking and experience), formational rules (the standards or conditions to which each enumerated element is to be subject) and transformational rules that govern the interrelations between these elements.
Isidro Suárez went deeper into the question of the architectural program, explaining that these components and relationships are not meaningful in themselves. Rather, a theorem must be formulated that makes it possible to translate the systems and components of the logical calculus into reality, in the double sense mentioned above. In other words, one or a number of architects must give the program form, and this is their role as participants in an architectural competition. In effect, the three components of the logical calculus are instruments of the project that permit different architects to formulate solutions within the same conceptual matrix, deploying their professional skills as factors shaping or imparting form to a program.
The director of a competition is normally responsible for writing the rules, as well as directing the competitors’ work by specifying the set of factors that govern the preliminary formation of their proposals. Organizing the delivery of plans and architectural models is a part of this work, and must consider the criteria for measuring the degree to which the projects meet the requirements of the program and its logical calculus. It thus goes beyond the merely administrative role of organizing and writing documents.
An example may help to make this clear. In 2005, a religious congregation announced a competition to create a new school. The problem was a complex one, since operations of various types were involved. Different working groups were formed to address them. One was devoted to the subject of infrastructure, and I was invited to participate in it because of my previous experience in formulating architectural programs associated with educational projects
The study began by analyzing cases comparable to the proposed school from various points of view, either educationally, because of the nature of their funders/entrepreneurs, students and families, or as a function of their urban settings. The study produced the spatial parameters within which the project was to be situated, i.e., furnished a framework for the services that the new school was to provide. Meanwhile, the arduous work of describing the new institution’s educational activity in spatial terms took the form of enumerating physical spaces and their formational rules, based on what the commissioning entity had identified as irreducible needs. The study provided a list of areas the sizes of which were to be established in comparison with the characteristics of the case studies initially examined. A diagram summarily represents this methodological approach to the work (Figure 1).
The study made it possible to set forth such specifications as the number of square meters per student that the new school was to have, and to relate this to the total area used for construction, as well as comparing this entire pattern with the case studies. The chart (Figure 2) shows one of the preliminary results of the study. It that clears that the enumeration of areas alone would have led to overestimating the spatial parameters for the school. The preliminary exercise provided an opportunity to reformulate and correct the potential error. Such exercises were carried out for different components of the project, such as the formal teaching areas, the yards and sports infrastructure, and other areas that might be defined by examining the features of the educational designs of the case studies.
The list of areas and their proper sizes consists of the enumeration and a part of the formational rules, since the technical requirements of the spaces are associated with their size, i.e., with the conditions under which their internal functioning and equipping must take place, which the commissioning entity identifies as irreducible needs, and which the parameters established must define as minimum conditions for functioning.
The transformational rules had to represent the particulars that make the school different from the case studies. This was the major conceptual problem, since it involved systems of classification, division of the total space into different zones, and connections that could guarantee that the design would function in terms of the concepts set forth by the commissioning entity (i.e., as an educational institution).
The new school was to be coeducational. Boys and girls were to share certain spaces, while other parts of the infrastructure were to be for exclusive use by one or another sex. In addition, there were conditions deriving from teaching objectives and curriculum. Though these conditions are not relevant here, the system of transformational rules to which they gave rise is summarized in the scheme (Figure 3).
The competition rules were written in such a way as to require a precise enumeration of areas, and their formational and transformational rules. This provided a framework for the most important part of the process, the theorems embodied in each competitor’s proposal, which give form to the initial logical calculus. Thus, the proposals submitted could be compared, and the jury’s decision was based on an evaluation of the forms, ideas and spaces that each competitor proposed as a solution to the challenges posed. As a sample of the results, diagrams were made of some of the solutions, showing different options based on the same system of rules (Figure 4). One may see that the logical calculus (Figure 3) appears as the conceptual structure of the game plans, despite the fact that different theorems, forms and solutions are involved in carrying them out. Thus, a diversity of possibilities is opened up by a single architectural program.
To summarize, the rules of a competition are a key to ensuring that the scene that unfolds is the one sought, and to preventing the various problems and complications that can arise when competitions lack prior study and direction. An architectural program that goes beyond a mere list of spaces provides the structure to accomplish this.

Architectural competition in our context here refers to competitions designed to culminate in construction, such competitions being the only ones strictly architectural in nature from our point of view. Not included, then, are theoretical competitions for designs that there is no intention of building, commercial competitions organized to promote materials, competitions designed to promote academic activity around particular issues or subjects, and competitions that award prizes for specific, partial aspects of architectural projects.
2. The selected projects were studied by the Schweizerische Bauzietung, oficial organ of the Swiss Association of Engineers and Architects, which, according to Zervos, enjoyed worldwide prestige because of the precision of its assessments. The rest of the selected projects exceeded the amount established in the rules by as much as 300% (Zervos, Idem).
3. In the view of José Ricardo Morales, the radical singularity of architecture points ineluctably to the question of how architecture reshapes man, i.e., how it affects the human being and generates a process of action and compulsion between the two (Morales, 1969).
4. Idem.
5. Idem.
6. This study was conducted by the author with architects Fernando García Huidobro, Diego Torres and Fabián Todorovic.



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