The public being asked to vote on the design of a new housing development in their city? Sounds like grass-roots democracy in action. Or perhaps not. As Anneke Bokern reports, what seemed like an architecture competition open to public vote in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week, was a case of “Hobson’s Choice” i.e. not a real choice at all. Asked to choose between two designs by the same architect, preselected by the developer, the public seemed to be just players in a carefully stage-managed PR stunt to generate profile for a private developer and publicity for their housing scheme – successfully as this article itself bears out.
During Dutch Design Week, the general public were invited to cast their votes in the architecture competition De Bakermat. They were asked to choose between two designs for a new residential complex on a site next to a nondescript, draughty roundabout in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Both designs were anything but subtle: one consisting of two brown blobs with little house-shaped gazebos protruding from their façades, the other a more regular perimeter block, but composed of a mass of candy-coloured, slightly wobbly-looking buildings with pitched roofs, all stuck together. On October 23, 2015 an expert jury – chaired by Dutch trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort – also judged the designs and in the end went for the second contender, which was by coincidence also the public’s favourite.
The name of the winning architecture firm didn’t come as a surprise, though, as both designs were developed by the same office. Commissioned by project developer SDK, Eindhoven-based Van Aken Architecten had formed two teams within the office. And because Eindhoven is the Dutch design capital, the developer decided to add a star designer (not architect) to the mix and invited Maarten Baas to coach both teams.
One has to give it to the developer: Maarten Baas was a courageous choice. They could have gone for a commercial, all-round star designer, but instead chose one famous for experimenting with ugliness, creating furniture out of clay and making conceptual timepieces. “Eindhoven is a design city, but there’s not a lot of interesting architecture around”, says Baas, explaining his motivation. “I shared my vision of design and architecture with the teams”. The developer’s main motivation in contrast, is more blatant: “Our ambition is that the project will be featured on postcards of Eindhoven.”
The resulting designs, though, seem more fit for postcards of the nearby amusement park De Efteling. Even more dubious than their aesthetics is the process which led to them. Admittedly, the developer never uses the word “competition” on his website, yet everything was designed to create the illusion of one for the public, even if a remarkably crude one: where a single rendering and a model had to suffice as basis for a superficial judgement.
“Well, it wasn’t really a competition”, Baas admits. “Both teams work in the same office, so sometimes they’d give each other tips on the designs”. The question remains why was it effectively presented as a competition?
In the end, quite obviously, the entire process was all about image building and PR. By staging a “competition”, the public was given the illusion that they have a say, the rather shallow design was ennobled by an expert jury, and – most importantly – lots of media attention was generated. In this sense, De Bakermat is symptomatic of the Netherlands today, a country where, despite a long tradition of high-quality spatial planning, the government is increasingly withdrawing from planning, leaving the field to commercial parties and their marketing strategies. There are hardly any competitions in Holland anymore, instead most commissions are given to architects in closed selection procedures or, as in this case, directly.
It’s an ironic twist that the project developer decided to stage a pseudo-competition after having commissioned an architecture firm already. And it’s even more ironic that the design resulting from this parody of a competition ended up itself looking like the parody of a typical architecture competition entry – though one that would usually thankfully lose.
– Text by uncube correspondent Anneke Bokern