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Chicago Architecture Foundation

Still a loser...

BurnhamNationalCemetery.jpg

A little over a month ago I reported about how I lost a competition to design an accessible route to San Antonio's City Hall. Today I'm proud to report I've successfully lost another competition: this one to imagine a reuse for an abandoned church on Chicago's South Side.

Every year or so the Chicago Architectural Club sponsors a design competition to address some existing design issue in the city. The challenges are usually pretty compelling and I've submitted entries into past competitions. For this year's Burnham Price Competition I proposed converting the old Saint Stephen's Church into a new National Cemetery for the city of Chicago.

The rapid growth of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a dense urban landscape that was unable to accommodate the traditional “garden cemeteries” favored by the National Cemetery Administration. But just as it pioneered the concept of the skyscraper by building up to contain the living, it seemed natural that Chicago would embrace the idea of building down to house the dead. The church's main worship space would be restored and a fabric “reflector cone” would be suspended inside to evenly distribute daylight onto the inside surface of the existing dome. A circle of lilies would be planted around a large hole cut into the floor to allows light to filter down to the twelve levels of crypts below. 

Like most competitions of this sort there's no chance than even the winning entries will be built, but it was still fun to imagine what could be. As an architect, that's something I get to do almost every day.

At any rate, you can download a PDF of our entry boards here.

Regarding Competitions

this is not a winning entry because it was never actually entered

As a practicing architect, I am deeply ambivalent about design competitions.

On the one hand they are clearly exploitative. Hundreds of architects and their teams spend weeks if not months developing designs where there is only a small chance of receiving any type of compensation for their efforts. 

On the other hand, competitions do allow smaller firms the opportunity to work on projects of greater scale and importance. They allow architects to stretch their design muscles by exploring ideas that their "real" projects rarely allow. For younger designers working in firms where they aren't doing much design work, it provides them with a chance to gain design experience and expand their portfolios. And every once in a while, they actually win something.

When I was fresh out of school I entered a number of competitions. I never won any of them, but I came in second several times. What I came to realize was the value of these efforts came not from the potential recognition or prize money that might result, but from the actual experience gained by producing the deign. Every time you design something, you get a little better at doing it and you learn how to better communicate your ideas.

Whatever skill I may have as a designer today is a result of the six-and-a-half years I spent in architecture school, the ten years I spent working at various architecture firms, and yes, the sum total of all the time I spent working on competitions I did not win. It's a hard habit to break and I still myself drawn agains my better judgement to enter competitions today. Only now I've learned I don't actually have to enter them.

Earlier this summer I learned of a competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that was for a new center focused on architecture, design and education. I was intrigued by the challenge and paid my $100 registration fee. I spent the next month-and-a-half developing a design that would not be housed in a tower in Chicago's loop as the competition brief suggested but rather in a long, horizontal structure that ran alongside the Chicago River. The exhibition galleries and presentation theater would actually float on a barge and so have the capability to travel to other cities, expanding the cultural reach of the institution. Formally the design related to both the curve of the river and the broad-shouldered structure of the bridges that span over it.

I was really excited with where the design was heading, but I was running out of time. Unlike when I was younger, I couldn't stay up for three days straight to get it done. I couldn't sequester myself in front of my iMac to knock out the final renderings, print out the requisite presentation boards, box them up and FedEx them to Chicago to be there by today. As much as I may have wanted to do that, I had birthday parties to take the kids to and real jobs with real clients who needed attention. As the Labor Day weekend approached I made the difficult decision to abandon the project and not spend all weekend rushing to finish it but rather go outside and play catch with the girls.

Part of me is disappointed that I didn't see this effort all the way through. Part of me wonders about the possibility - however small - of what would have happened if I completed the submission.

But at the end of the day someone will win. There are no doubt scores of architects willing to enter this and countless other competitions. Many of them are capable of winning, but I alone am capable of being the father of my daughters. I am only given one Labor Day to spend with Sammy when she is 5 and Darcy when she is 2 and so I decided to spend it with them.

Maybe that's hurting my career in the short-term but I'd like to think it's making me a better person, which in the long run makes me a better architect.