In 2008 the government of the principality of Andorra announced the five-strong shortlist to design its national art gallery. The building was to be a Bilbao moment for the tiny state and the architects involved reflected that ambition: a stellar line-up of Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Dominique Perrault. As part of the process, the rules stated that the architects had to allow a documentary crew to follow the design process at their offices. The Competition is a thought-provoking, irreverent and very funny film about the realities of architectural competitions and the machinations of high-profile companies.
The project was conceived by Angel Borrego Cubero, an architect and founder of Madrid-based practice Office for Strategic Spaces (OSS). "I had won a competition in 2007, to design the civil registry for the Justice Campus in Madrid," says Borrego. "During the three months of the second phase of the competition, I wondered why no one has made a documentary about competitions. There is no other profession that competes this way for work so regularly. So I said to the office, the next thing we do once we have finished the competition is a documentary."
Within a week, Borrego had secured a grant to make the film, and then spent half a year looking for a competition that would grant him the access he needed. "I had an inkling it would be a more high-profile competition – an invited shortlist with known practices rather than an open competition." By chance Borrego took a call from a friend who was aware of the competition prepared by the Andorran government, they liked the idea and, after flying to meet the jury to ensure them that he was "not stupid", the process could begin.
"I knew I wanted architects to film the process, not film-makers. So we put out an open call and selected five people who are familiar with the way architectural practice works," says Borrego. We spent September 2008 running through a crash course in film-making and cinematography – light, sound, colour balance and the key shots we wanted." There was to be one camera in each office, decisions of what to shoot were made on the fly. Borrego ended up with over 200 hours of footage from inside each company and had full access to the judging process.
Borrego has created a film of contradictions and juxtapositions that conveys the reality of the workplace and the fraught process of designing without a dialogue between architect and client. From the title sequences that splice footage of the architects on international TV shows (including, in Gehry's case, The Simpsons) with a shot of a steady hand, painstakingly writing out their names and the title, it feels like Borrego is playing a game.
"Any competition is as good as its run ... the standards vary," says Foster to camera early on. "Sometimes they are fantastic, sometimes they are a little suspect." And with that sage insight the screen fades to black and it is revealed that Foster dropped out of the competition a week later. His role is reduced to the shortest of cameos.
The other signature architects make fleeting appearances throughout the film. Undoubtedly, they are busy people. The grunt work is carried out by small teams who work until the small hours of the morning, and the influence of the principal in many cases remains vague. Hadid never appears in person although there is a brief appearance of her associate director Patrik Schumacher in a meeting; Perrault talks about the site, but there appears to be little interaction between him and his staff when developing their idea; Gehry barrels around his office showing off the hundreds of models his staff have used to explore the concept before promptly ending the interview and dashing off when questioned about daylight.
The star of the film is, without a doubt, Nouvel, who appears to have provided the most access to his team and emerges from time to time to critique the work. You find yourself waiting eagerly for him to turn up to offer gems like: "Fuck, make some holes!", "I don't know what I want, but it is not working", or "This is absolutely ridiculous, you have never seen a museum in your life." His rants turn him into a vicious pantomime villain. "We had plans for very thorough access, to look in precise detail, so people could think they have learned something," says Borrego, reflecting on the process. "But it became more character-driven, a story more than a documentary."
credit Zaha Hadid Architects
Perrault's team create an unwieldy tower that looks like a macro detail of a snowflake; Hadid's team produce a Hadid tower in Hadid style, the process of design and critical decisions unrevealed, but we do learn there is a large stuffed toy tiger in the storeroom at her office; Nouvel's team work late into the night to create a rather lovely €40,000 model of a tower that their employer clearly hates; and Gehry's team produce a tower that is inspired by the rocks found in the Andorran mountains that loom over the city. It looks something like a fossilised dinosaur shit.
Most endearingly, there are banal encounters that dispel the myths of creative endeavour – when Gehry's staff are moving a table and all the models topple over, the late-night pizza delivery to the office, the despondent cigarette in the courtyard after a bad crit. Then, in contrast, there are the moments that hint at the competition between the architects – Perrault in interview refers to the other entrants as his "very nice friends", while his staff exclaim, "We must beat Gehry. Beat Gehry!" Nouvel's staff, after a particularly uninspiring meeting, crumple up a piece of paper, dump it on a massing model of the tower and say, "It's a Gehry on a Zumthor." Gehry's staff reveal that Hadid is a perceived threat – scrambling to get a model out of the judging room before her staff arrive to set up. It's deliciously gossipy – a reality TV moment for design types.
It's in the final stages of the film that the true role of the starchitects is revealed. In the presentations to the jury, Nouvel, Perrault and Gehry arrive to present their schemes in person. Hadid sends her apologies, but was double-booked for a keynote speech at the Cannes real estate show MIPIM – make of that what you will. Perrault is effortless, gliding through his presentation and stopping to sign autographs before jetting off. Gehry unwittingly undermines his design – saying, it's an idea, we can really do what you want – and falters under intense questioning.
Nouvel ends up cosied down on a row of chairs with the jury, and Hadid's envoy is visibly unnerved when the national media rush in to film and photograph him while he presents. The architectural competition makes a lottery of winning work – for every winner there are numerous losers who have invested time, money and energy into creating something consigned to a drawer forever. Even winning does not guarantee it will be built – for every Sydney Opera House, Helsinki Central Station and Palace of Westminster there are countless winners that have not been built (has anyone visited the National Museum of Andorra?). Yet it is one of the few time when, armed with a loose brief and their style of work as a distinctive brand, architects are encouraged to present themselves as an auteur. Competitions are a battle of ego as much as skill, that caused Jeremy Till, the head of Central St Martins, to remark in an Architecture Foundation debate earlier this year that the RIBA's continuing dedication to the competition process "is allowing architects to prostrate themselves on the altar of potential fame".
"In the end, the competition process captured was such a heavy, heavy thing," Borrego says. "The film shows so much work by so many people – the showmanship which has to happen at a precise moment; how accomplished the architects are at presenting; how the politicians want to turn the jury into an event. You begin to understand all the parts." Borrego's team were a passive presence in the formation and delivery of an idea in this intense and specific method of working. "We needed to stay independent. We had no contact with the architects afterwards. We also didn't try to be mean to anyone. We tried to give a fair representation of what we found," Borrego says. "We really, really tried."
Maybe the reason for this film is best summed up by its star – Nouvel. In a bizarre encounter, the behatted architect berates his hapless project manager Gaston on the design, telling him "it is terrible", before jumping up and down and shouting, "Jump, jump, jump". Nouvel then turns to camera, peers into the lens and states, deadpan, "I hope you captured the mystery and deepness." The Competition has definitely captured the mystery; the deepness is up for debate.
credit Ateliers Jean Nouvel