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Architectural Competitions Part 4

The history of architecture has been shaped by competitions. Competitions have become one of the primary means by which architectural commissions are awarded; they determine which buildings are executed and which architects are promoted above others.

The history of architecture has been shaped by competitions. Competitions have become one of the primary means by which architectural commissions are awarded; they determine which buildings are executed and which architects are promoted above others. An architectural competition is one in which architects are invited to submit designs for a proposed building. The entries are judged by a professional assessor and, theoretically, the winning design is built. Competitions have played an integral role in the development of architectural history and taste.

This article considers how competitions affected architecture in the North East of England. The first architectural competition held in Newcastle was for St Nicholas’ Cemetery on Wingrove Avenue in 1855. This was won by the 23 year old Archibald Matthias Dunn. The competition system gave young and inexperienced architects the chance to make their name and this was certainly the case with Dunn. This was his first commission and established him as a major provincial architect. The design is replete with symbols of Newcastle’s identity, including sea horse finials and an image of St Nicholas’ Cathedral.

St Nicholas’ Cemetery, with sea horse finials derived from Newcastle's Coat of Arms

St Nicholas’ Cemetery, with a representation of St Nicholas' Cathedral above the entrance

In most competitions, only one design emerges as the winner. This means that each competition generates a range of unsuccessful designs. A huge amount of time, effort and talent goes into these designs, which never come to fruition. Altogether, this builds up to a huge body of work – alternative buildings and cityscapes. It can be fascinating and revealing to look at alternative schemes.

In 1874 a competition was held for Sunderland Town Hall on a site in Mowbray Park. Two winners were announced, but no assessor had been appointed, so the profession was highly critical of the process. Neither of the winners was the design the committee most liked, by Frank Caws, as this was disqualified for exceeding the stated cost. Members of the Council then pointed out that the park was to be open freely to citizens and that council offices would infringe this. The whole scheme was abandoned and the Council was humiliated.

Frank Caws' unsuccessful design for Sunderland Town Hall

Eventually, Sunderland built a town hall on Fawcett Street. This competition was judged by Alfred Waterhouse and won by the little known architect Brightwen Binyon, who had worked in Waterhouse’s office and so was known to the assessor.  Competitions were dogged by accusations of corruption.

Sunderland Town Hall, designed by Brightwen Binyon

In 1877 a competition was held for the Union Club in Newcastle. It was won by M.P. Manning, whose design was in a French Renaissance style, which was fashionable in this period.

Union Club, Newcastle, designed by M.P. Manning in French Renaissance style

The Middlesbrough architects Alexander and Henman produced a Gothic design for the same building. This was published in the Building News. In this image, the building is shown in conjunction with St. John the Baptist’s Church, which indicates that the architects were trying synthesise their building with the surrounding townscape. However, secular Gothic architecture is rare in Newcastle, which is dominated by Neo-Classicism and its derivates.

Alexander and Henman's Gothic design for the Union Club

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Comments (6)

Very informative as usual.thanks

Excellent work.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Abdel and Martin.

I like the north of England very much, great to read about all these historical facts

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Competition really shape a great part of the history of architecture, the Sunderland Town hall design was awesome!

Well detailed information about this topic. Thank you for the education.

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