Sunday, 2 June 2013

The biggest architecture competition noone knows about

It was probably the largest architectural competition in history. The competition was announced on 7 January 2002, and the organisers received 1557 entries from 82 countries. The second stage of the competition had 16 European firms, 1 from Asia, 1 from the US, 1 from Brazil and 1 from Egypt expand their proposals. Unlike many international competitions won by smaller firms, this one didn't betray its winners, and the building designed by Heneghan Peng Architects of Dublin, is under construction.

It is the Grand Egyptian Museum, sited on the edge of the Giza plateau, site of the most famous, and possibly most imposing structures ever erected by humanity. The challenge to come up with something that could relate to the great Pyramids – neither diminishing their curtilage, nor unnecessarily humbled by their silence presence – appears to have been successfully handled by the competition winners.
The project has a nearly billion dollar pricetag, and self-evident world cultural significance. The brief and the design response attempt to reconcile the defining parameters of a public architecture of the age, where materiality, virtuality, and the indeterminate hyper-linking of information and experience have to be brought together in an enduring instrumentality. What more could a project have to engage the critical interest of the global architectural community?
Yet, if I hadn't flown into Cairo for a two-day environmental monitoring workshop last weekend, I would have known nothing of this project. I drilled down in Dezeen, combed through ArchDaily, googled with all the combinations of search terms I could think of. I turned up no headline articles in the archipop sites. Slightly better were some second tier sites such as e-architect, which at least summarize in a cogent way the architects' rationale.

I did find several dozen pages of descriptions by their authors of unsuccessful designs. A number of schemes would certainly have produced some breath-taking spatial experiences – for instance Antarctica of Melbourne proposed an inverted pyramid excavated into the ground plane, which under the unrelenting heat of the Cairo sky would rival some wide-screen cinematography of science fiction. But here lay what might be a possible clue: none of the other schemes I saw and read about, came near the 'Aha!' moment clarity of the winner. I remember having the same reaction to a much humbler competition (See Winners for Green Square Library competition) where I actually subjected myself to the masochistic exercise of opening the majority of the entries, made available as they were on-line, by the sponsor. In both competitions, the most striking thing about most of the entries was the variety of formal gestures, founded on shrill but simplistic aphorisms that seek to pass for profound theoretical stances.

I digress.  I was trying to work out why a remarkable scheme is getting so little exposure, and I was probably being a bit too cynical. I'll keep it simple instead.  This is a building to watch.

The development of the design, and construction now involve global consultants Buro Happold and Arup. The exhibition masterplan, exhibition design and museology is by Metaphor and Cultural Innovations Ltd.

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