19 April 2010

Competition Up-Date: Ex Aequo (2nd Place) on the MNBAQ

Copyright all images: BarkowLeibinger + Imrey Culbert Architectes

We are hitting our stride in placing second - or Ex-Aequo - on the international museum circuit. This is not always bad news: those that place first are usually not paid the promised funds for these invited competitions, but have them deducted from the first contract phase. This means - as is the case of the recent competition won by OMA for the National Museum in Quebec (MNBAQ) - that the group of runner-ups can hope for payment in the next weeks after a grueling 6 month selection period. To those not in the profession this may seem a questionable business model: Unpaid RFPs to land in a select group that includes two design phases, model production and an oral with no financial advance. Yet this is the dominant practice today if one is to secure a coveted museum project abroad (in the US, the practice is on pre-selection and interviews, with a few rare exceptions such as the Smithsonian's NMAAHC and the on-going SFMoMA expansions).

In the specific case of the MNBAQ, we set-out again to find a good partner to aim for the invited Stage 1, who had not yet done a museum project but would bring to our team experience in industrial/efficient/green design, for a 12,000 new building aimed at a very low square foot-cost (1/3 of the norm stateside). BarkowLeibinger fit the bill nicely. We created the team for the RFP, complemented by our frequent collaborators: Buro Happold, ArupLighting et al to make the first round out of 108 teams from 19 countries. The odds, as in any lottery, were highly weighted against all of us, without star power. But we aimed right, in the sense, that we read the PR announcements correctly, then looked into the specific invited jury members, the various local press announcements on the project aims over the course of the last 2 years, to expect that the jury would select half of the teams from within Canada, the other half abroad, one from each country perhaps.

Phase 1 line-up turned out indeed to include 15 firms and each team had 2 months to present a design. Phase 2, narrowed the selection down to five firms, of which we were one: BarkowLeibinger+ImreyCulbert; OMA, Rem Koolhaas; Nieto Sobejano; Allied Works Architecture; and David Chipperfield Architects. Here we were pretty pleased having bested a few favored architects working today: Gigon Guyer Architects of Switzerland, David Adjaye Associates, Kengo Kuma and BIG among others.

At the end of Phase 2, another 2 months of design, model making, schematic design engineering and cost estimating - including an oral presentation - gave the project to Rem Koolhaas out of the New York office under partner Shohei Shigematsu. The OMA scheme harkens back to the simplicity, 60'ies inspired typologies that Koolhaas played with in the mid-80'ies, minus his fabulous rhetoric, perceptive programmatic reading and clear genius - yet lost on us here was the following project description submitted with the design: “Our ambition is to create a dramatic new presence for the city, while maintaining a respectful, even stealthy approach to the museum’s neighbors and the existing museum.” There is nothing stealth about the OMA project, and actually little need for dramatic presence either on the site - largely a parkland considered a national monument where the final military campaigns were held between the British and French in 1759 (the British won) and disparate buildings, from a former Prison, a Church and Presbytery, to a failed 1990 expansion entrance to the museum compound and a large Neo-Classical building, the first phase of the museum when it sole focus was the Natural History of the region. Pressed up against a 19th Century church and requiring the demolition of its monastery building, the OMA project could have applied its rhetoric of being stealthy (sic) in such a context - instead we see an entirely glass-clad building stacking up to a huge cantilever at the front entrance. A project that will certainly come in over budget.

Despite this, the project's response to the competition brief is truly a good scheme, providing for the variation of gallery formats for art that spans Inuit artifacts, to industrial design, to Quebec romanticism painting, to traveling exhibits from the Louvre or the Rodin Museum in Paris. In other words, a traditional, provincial take on an encyclopedic museum, that has struggled for 75 years to find an identity of its own (it’s most recent naming - MNBAQ - is the last and most recent iteration as a Beaux Arts Museum). So, perhaps Koolhaas/Shigematsu's scheme will indeed be a catalyst for greater cultural tourism in Quebec, as the town's fathers hope for and its single women director. In any event, with more visitors or not, it will be an outlandish presence along Quebec's main drag to its historic center. Let's hope it improves in the next design phases, or that the environmental concerns of a region blanketed by snow most of the year, will obligate more radical changes to the design to reduce operating costs and to better serve its neighbors and its art. Our second place, for the second time to OMA, is not that bad a place to be just now.

Note that the invited jury members included: Architects Xavier de Geyter and Nasrine Seraji.

To see the OMA project go to: