What we can learn from this American design competition

The contest for a university for the deaf in Washington DC actively encourages collaboration and public involvement

35 What we can learn from this American

I am just back from a trip to Washington DC after launching a competition. Landing at Saarinen’s Dulles airport, it was a delight to be transported back in time by a building that is essentially corporate yet humane and elegant.

Washington itself is a city of great contrasts: the luxuriant timeless Neo-Classical architecture surrounded by areas of great deprivation and civic disconnect. The contrast makes for an architecture of extremes and of inequalities.

But, speaking to Washingtonians, there is an inherent optimism and an incredible energy, which is winning. Things get done. There are ambitious neighbourhood regeneration plans and grass-root entrepreneurial initiatives.

Our commission from Gallaudet University in Washington began with a call in June last year, the day we launched the Guggenheim Helsinki contest. The university asked us to design a competitive process that would regenerate its historic campus and make its ambition for genuine user and stakeholder engagement a reality.

Gallaudet is the only bilingual liberal arts university in the world where education and research programmes for deaf and hard-of-hearing students are conducted in American Sign Language and English. The campus – originally designed by the brilliant landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted in 1866 – is a short dash from the White House. For 150 years Gallaudet has been both a leading academic institution and an internationally recognised centre for deaf culture.

Over the past decade, Hansel Bauman, the university’s executive director of campus design and planning, has evolved a set of design principles, DeafSpace, to help architects address the specific design circumstances of deaf culture – where vision and touch are the primary means of spatial awareness and orientation. These principles are hugely relevant to the hearing world, encouraging the creation of environments that are more human and more responsive.

Bauman challenges us to see those aspects of the built environment typically experienced through sound – ‘everyday experience is heightened and … the link between sense-of-self and sense-of-place, often lost in the noise of our modern lives, is reconnected’.

DeafSpace already presents more than 100 distinct architectural patterns, classified into three experiential categories: space and visual language; orientation; and cultural expression.

Engagement and openness are defining values at Gallaudet. We recognised that we had to create a process that actively involved students, stakeholders, the global deaf community and local participants in the project.

Just as in the UK, the American system for design competitions is still evolving. In Washington, David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is nearing completion and is going to be a massive hit; while elsewhere in the city there is considerable controversy about the design selection process for the Eisenhower Memorial and its funding.

But if we tried to replicate Gallaudet’s competition in the UK – or indeed anywhere in the EU – then we would have some challenges.

Public engagement during the process is complicated, and managing contact with separate user and stakeholder groups would be tough. Some UK clients are terrified that an OJEU competition equals risk, or believe they are unable to be open with stakeholders.

For architects who enjoy open engagement and user involvement in the process, the US approach is refreshing. Because each state has a licence system, an out-of-state designer has to work with a local ‘architect of record’. In this way the structure of the profession makes collaboration a routine way of working. The public is vocal and issues are openly reported.

A good competition should promote engagement as well as protecting the spirit of competitiveness. Simply giving architects a brief and hoping for a successful outcome is isolationist; the promoter has a wider social responsibility.

Jack Nasar, professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, believes that meaningful outcomes in design selection are a product of a public outreach and involvement before, during, and after the competition. Success in the design is part of a wider philosophy of ongoing and regular engagement with stakeholders.

Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a leading independent organiser of design competitions.

Reprinted kind permission, the Architect’s Journal, London, UK.