August 31, 2003 ñ New York Times

There's Nothing So Closed as an Open Competition




EVER since the effort to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial made a star of a 21-year-old architecture student named Maya Lin, the open competition ó one that invites all comers to submit proposals ó has been the gold standard in selecting a design for a public memorial. So when officials overseeing the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan began to consider how to erect a homage to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was little question how they would structure the contest.

Now, however, as the jury that will pick the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial trudges through 5,200 entries ó three times the number submitted for the Vietnam memorial in 1981 ó it might seem that the purpose of the exercise has been turned on its head. For while an open, anonymous competition is intended to make sure that every entry receives a fair viewing, the flood of proposals ensures that hundreds or even thousands of entries are likely to get no more than a moment's glance from jurors. The panel reviewing proposals for a memorial to victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, for example, vowed to consider every submission. Yet the members acknowledge that some proposals ó say, the full-scale, stainless steel model of an airplane mounted so that it would appear to be about to crash right into the Pentagon ó were viewed for only the briefest of moments.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of the world's most esteemed artists and architects avoid such competitions altogether, given the cost of their time and the extremely long odds against winning. They typically prefer invited competitions, where the entrants are limited to those with professional expertise.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency that is overseeing the memorial competition, will not reveal how many of the 5,200 entries are from superstars and how many are from wannabes. It won't reveal much of anything, in fact. The jurors meet at an undisclosed location, and the competition entries have been shorn of any identifying information. Any artists who make statements that could be interpreted as promoting their entries risk being ejected from the contest.

This fall, the jury is expected to select five to eight finalists. But according to organizers, even those names may not be made public, at least not initially. The finalists may instead be notified privately, and then given more than $100,000 to transform their initial submissions ó which by regulation were two-dimensional displays on a single 30-by-40-inch board ó into proper three-dimensional models before the public sees them.

That move could help level the playing field for the less-well-financed finalists. But it also could protect the organizers of the memorial competition from the widespread condemnation that followed the unveiling of the initial designs for the World Trade Center site last summer. Those designs, which included only speculative notions of buildings represented by plain white blocks, were roundly rejected as unimaginative and ugly.

According to many who have managed or judged competitions in the past, inexperienced competitors often try to mimic the characteristics of previous winning designs, or to anticipate the submissions of other contestants. In effect, they end up fighting the last war. Maya Lin made just that point in an essay written in 1982. "I think the most important aspect of the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was that I had originally designed it for a class I was taking at Yale and not for the competition," she wrote. Nor did she conduct extensive research about Vietnam or the war. "In that sense, I had designed it for me ó or more exactly, for what I believed it should be. I never tried to second-guess a jury."

Artists who have responded to the call for a World Trade Center memorial, however, all lived through the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, along with the rest of America and the world. With such a powerful common experience, then, how does an artist communicate a distinctive vision in what amounts to little more than a sketch?

Raymond Gastil, the executive director of the Van Alen Institute, a nonprofit architecture organization, said entries required what he called "a clear, bold gesture." Without one, he said, "there's just no way a jury is going to spend time with you." But if the World Trade Center jury spends even one minute with each entry, it would take two 40-hour work-weeks just to view them all, and longer to discuss which to keep. In fact, many proposals will get even less time, and people who have served on competition juries say that given the quality of some of the entries, that's appropriate.

"Talent is not distributed equally," said Terence Riley, the chief curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, who served on the Pentagon memorial jury. "You want to respect everyone's efforts. But once you begin looking through piles and piles of submissions, benchmarks begin to be established. There are projects that tend not to leave your mind, and others that are obviously not going to meet the standards of the best projects you've been seeing."

In the first round, a jury typically tries to eliminate 75 percent to 80 percent of the entries. Richard Andrews, the director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, said that sophisticated juries could rule out some entries within 10 seconds. "But there will also be entries," he said, "where three or four of the jurors say they didn't see anything and one will say: `Look at it again. Here's what I found.' And it will be held over for a second round." That's when jurors really start debating and discussing stylistic differences among submissions.

Despite the effort to preserve the artists' anonymity, experienced jurors often can tell who is behind a particular entry. And at other times, they merely think they can. In the late 1980's, an anonymous competition to design the Bastille Opera in Paris resulted in the selection of a design that everyone ó from the jury members to President FranÁois Mitterrand ó assumed was by the architect Richard Meier. They were astonished when the winning entrant was revealed to be not Mr. Meier but Carlos Ott, a Canadian born in Uruguay.

Along the way, the fights can be fierce. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, recalled caustic battles among fellow members of a jury that was convened to guide a public art fund for Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan. The educators on the panel, she said, were looking for art that evoked the lessons and aesthetics of an earlier era. "They wanted the kind of works that we wouldn't get with a living artist," Ms. Gund said. To get their wish, the jury would have had "to pick the artists and tell them what to do," she added. The rest of the jurors, who represented the art world, refused to consider that possibility. The jury came close to scrapping the competition altogether, but members finally managed to settle their differences.

Some juries' differences are irreconcilable. During the 1995 competition to expand the Prado in Madrid, 500 entries were narrowed to 10, but the jurors were unable to agree on a winner. Eventually they declared that none of the entries solved the museum's extensive structural problems. Two years later, a second competition was conducted, and the 10 finalists were invited to try again. In 1999, Rafael Moneo, a Spanish architect, was awarded the job.

Even a consensus among jurors is no guarantee of success. In 1998, the University of Texas enlisted 61 entrants in a competition to design its new Blanton Museum of Art. Two Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, were selected as the winners for their modern design. But members of the university's board of regents pushed for a traditional building that matched the stucco-and-tile-roof style of other campus structures. After nearly a year of struggle, the architects quit, along with the dean of the university's school of architecture.

Rarely will a jury ask to combine elements of different submissions. "That's like saying to an artist, `It's a nice painting, but can you put more red in it?' " Ms. Gund said. Architects do, however, often revise their designs in response to suggestions from a jury or a client, or sometimes even in response to the designs of others.

After the German government decided to relocate to Berlin, it commissioned a competition to rebuild the Reichstag, which had been destroyed during World War II. Three winners were named: Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Pi de Bruijn. Only Mr. Calatrava's design included a version of the building's original dome. After initial review, the architects were encouraged to revise their designs based on a new program of elements. Sir Norman's second submission ó now including a dome ó was awarded the prize. (He said it was an extension of a cloud-like canopy from his first submission.)

Just how the World Trade Center jury, with its diverse backgrounds and aesthetic preferences, will get along, or even how it is progressing, is not fully known. Little more than a week after the jury had begun reviewing submissions, John C. Whitehead, the development corporation's chairman, said, "I think it's fair to say that the jury has narrowed down the 5,200 submissions to a much smaller number." He declined to be more specific.

Already, however, the process is beginning to look as though it might take longer than expected. Planners had originally hoped to have a winning design chosen by the second anniversary of the attacks. Then, the plan was to have a group of approximately five finalists named by this Sept. 11. Now, memorial officials are saying only that the finalists will be named in the fall, and that a winner will be selected sometime after that.

To those who have experience with juries, the delay may not be surprising. "No matter what the estimate is, it's going to take longer," says Dan Cameron, a senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art who is also serving as the curator for the Eighth Istanbul Biennial. "And the longer it takes, the better off we all are going to be with the decision. I'd feel very nervous if the jury came out and exactly met the deadline."