Architectural Competitions Part 3
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Architectural Competitions Part 3

The history of architecture has been shaped by architectural competitions, which have become one of the primary means by which architectural commissions are awarded.

The history of architecture has been shaped by architectural competitions, which 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. In practice, things rarely went so smoothly.

In the Victorian era there was a huge increase in building activity. Towns and cities needed town halls, churches, schools, hospitals, museums, art galleries and banks. These were built by councils and other public bodies, which thus became major forces in patronage. The mechanism they chose for selecting designs was the architectural competition. In theory, this gave the client a range of alternative designs to choose from, without having to pay for them. Officially, competitions were anonymous, which gave the architect an equal chance to win the competition on merit.

The competition system was inextricably linked to the professionalisation of architecture. In 1838 the newly founded Institute of British Architects established a committee to report on the management of competitions. The 1839 report condemned the loose way competitions were conducted, but their recommendations had little immediate effect. In 1872, the Royal Institute of British Architects set up another committee to review the competition question. The recommendations of that committee became the first definite regulations for competitions. They advised the use of a professional assessor appointed by the President of the RIBA. By the end of the century, the RIBA had almost complete control of the system. It could insist that an architect must refrain from entering a competition unless the conditions had been approved by the Institute's Competitions Committee.  The records of this committee are now preserved in the RIBA Archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and represent an invaluable resource for architectural historians.

After the RIBA intervened in the competition system, it became usual to appoint a professional assessor. One architect made a separate career for himself as an assessor: Alfred Waterhouse judged or advised a total of forty-four competitions. He was President of the RIBA in 1881-91 and was therefore in a position to nominate assessors for competitions. Waterhouse won a major competition himself. In 1867 a competition was held for Manchester Town Hall. The city of Manchester used the Gothic style to distinguish itself from its nearby rival Liverpool, which has a core of Neo-Classical buildings, and Waterhouse submitted a Gothic design. He won the competition, due mainly to his plan, which responded skilfully to the awkward triangular site.

Manchester Town Hall by Alfred Waterhouse.  Waterhouse was actually born in the rival city of Liverpool. 

Waterhouse achieved maximum accommodation by placing the public hall in the centre and grouping three wings around it. The entrance was placed under the clock-tower and the public rooms are amassed on the main front. The council chamber is at the corner and the sides of the triangle incorporate offices. A vaulted corridor runs around the inside of the triangle and this was designed to be fire-resistant.

Triangular sites produce acute angles, which are very problematic for architects. Most entrants in the competition placed a turret on this corner, which was a standard solution. Waterhouse’s solution was more thoughtful. He softened the corner by assembling multiple angles and bay windows. This was a slight of hand, but it works extremely well. Inside, the Great Hall has a hammer-beam roof and frescoes by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Maddox Brown celebrating the historic and scientific achievements of Manchester.

With all their inherent problems, we have to ask why competitions persisted? Firstly, it was a challenge and few architects could resist the chance of a quick road to fortune and glory. The system also generated new ideas. In 1861, the French architectural writer Cesar Daly said 'We require the competition as indispensable for ascertaining periodically and definitely the direction of architectural ideas.’ For an architect, a competition was a chance to make his name. The system gave young and inexperienced architects the chance to display their abilities. One of the greatest upsets came in 1839 when twenty-five year old Harvey Lonsdale Elmes won the competition for St George's Hall in Liverpool. In the end, the building had to be designed with the assistance of the well-established C.R. Cockerell. The final result, however, was one of the great achievements of Victorian architecture.

The superb St George's Hall in Liverpool, one of the greatest Neo-Classical buildings in the world.

The popular image of the competition system is that architectural merit was frequently compromised by bureaucracy, but it did produce some highly individual and progressive buildings. The Natural History Museum at Oxford (supervised by John Ruskin) and Glasgow School of Art (designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh) were examples.  These are among the greatest and most original buildings of the Victorian period, proving that the competition system was capable of producing great architecture on occassion.

Natural History Museum at Oxford

Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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Comments (12)

Wow, Michael your articles are always something of value. This is another amazing piece of work. I have to say, that your articles offer a crash course in Architecture. If you do not mind, I wanted to forward your link to our Architecture department at the college. I hope that is okay; feel free to let me know.

I personally like symetrical buildings so Glasgow School of Art does not appeal to me. You have presented this article with detail for complete enjoyment to read.voted up.

Thanks for another lesson on architecture. Keep this coming, for I certainly learn from them.

I had no idea that architectural competitions were so prevalent, or so significant.

Very interesting and valuable information about the history of architectural competitions....Thanks for extensive research

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Powerful article on the history of architecture. Surely the competition results to magnanimous creation and brilliant designs. The St. George's hall is really wonderful and the Glasgow school of art really deserve its pattern.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks for your comment, Martin. Thanks, Roberta. Glasgow School of Art was a break from symmetry and reveals the influence of Japanese art and design, as well as Mackintosh's growing interest in abstraction. I love it, but everyone's taste is different.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James and Mr Guims. Your comments are highly valued.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Ron and Abdel. Your comments are very much appreciated.

Excellent job on this article. Voted up.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, Caryn.

I had no idea that such things existed, but some of the buildings in question are more than deserving of a prize!

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