Emory Report

 October 13, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 8

Architects have been shopping
their visions for 2,500 years

The rivalries of architectural visionaries and their sponsors are the foundation on which great legends are built. Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, attests to modern man's infatuation with architecture and the egos that drive its design and construction. However, this is neither a Western nor a modern phenomenon. The love affair between men and their monuments is rooted in antiquity and continues today across the globe. These cultural icons document-and influence-the way in which we see ourselves.

Architectural competitions have been staged to elicit the best ideas from contending architects for over 2,500 years. The practice seems to have originated among the ancient Greeks and been consciously revived in Renaissance Italy. In her graduate seminar, "Architectural Competition: Past and Present," associate professor of art history Sarah McPhee explores how the meaning and practice of architectural competitions have evolved. She presents a series of case studies to her class, which range from the celebrated Italian competitions of the late 15th to 17th centuries-among them the competition to complete the cupola of the Florence Cathedral and the projects to complete St. Peter's Basilica-to contemporary competitions for monuments such as the Vietnam War Memorial.

"The objective of the course is to help students understand the role competitions have played in different societies over several millennia and the evolving role competitions have had in the evolution of architectural design," McPhee explained. Students, who come to the seminar with varied academic backgrounds, are expected to read text in the language of the competition and to master the analytical vocabulary of architecture.

Each of the seminar's five students examine a pre-1900 competition and a present one. Class tools include a range of research materials such as original manuscripts, secondary sources, original drawings, live interviews and case studies through which students gain an appreciation for design aesthetic. "It's particularly exciting for them to study current competitions [in the media] on a moment-by-moment basis," she said.

Twice during the term students give formal presentations of their research. They are studying the recent contest for the Bridgewater Building in Manchester, England; Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park; the competition to finish the facade of 15th-century San Lorenzo Church in Florence, Italy; the Paris Opera; and Walt Disney Symphony Hall in Los Angeles.

Students are able to gain a historical sense of how competitions relate to larger issues of architectural practice, including the role of the architect as artisan, the internal politics of patron institutions and the ambiance that influenced period decisions, McPhee said. Scholars believe the competition for the Acropolis in the 5th century B.C. had much to do with public debate over the role of national monuments. In contrast, Renaissance competitions were held mainly to elevate the status of architects. The Baroque period saw the rise of academies in Italy. Architecture became a vehicle for teaching young architects how to emulate their predecessors and moved competition from the realm of structure to the sphere of artistic education.

Noting this is the first time such a course has been offered at Emory, McPhee said students have been very receptive and engaged by the material they've studied. "We've had very lively discussions. The students seem very intrigued by the role of competitions in forging national identities. They are surprised by the multiple ramifications competitions have had in the architectural profession," she said.

The seminar has been a natural extension of McPhee's doctoral dissertation completed at Columbia University. Part of her work, done on site in Rome, was an examination of a pivotal competition for the Vatican under the auspices of the pope, an advisory committee of 10 cardinals and Congregazione della Fabbrica, which oversees every aspect of what gets built on the side of St. Peter's. She is currently writing a book on the subject and delights in sharing with students her fascination about the societal influence of architectural competitions.

-Lyn Allgood

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