Sleepless nights for interns, tearful tantrums, and structures that resemble fossilised turds. A new documentary called The Competition exposes the world of iconic architecture at its worst

© OSS Office for Strategic Spaces - After succeeding in a big international competition, in a process, which was akin to a thriller, Angel Borrego Cubero decides to make a documentary of this recurring architectural procedure. For the last four years, intense work was dedicated to find, document and edit one into film format. “The Competition” is the first movie of this Spanish director and is also the first film documenting the tense developments that characterize architectural contests.
With an application form open to anyone who had won the Pritzker Prize, “or similar qualifications”, the callout attracted the likes of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel – as well as the Pritzkerless but plucky Dominique Perrault.

The documentary, to which the architects agreed as part of the entry requirements, charts the surreal process by which “iconic” projects are conjured, over a matter of weeks, by bleary-eyed interns, in a mysteriously haphazard manner.

It is a routine, familiar to anyone who has worked on competitions of this kind, that jumps and jolts between utterly different proposals: one minute the answer is a ground-scraper; the next it is a willowy tree. We see Gehry's assistants diligently screwing up scraps of paper and piling them into crumpled totem poles. Perrault's staff, stuck for inspiration, turn their model upside down, and hey presto, it makes sense! Nouvel's team start sketching a gaping yonic gash through the centre of their building: “In section, when it looks like something sexual, we are close,” quips the designer.

There is an air of desperation throughout, as the competing teams grasp blindly for novelty forms, trying to second-guess the desires of a client they have never met, in a context they have never seen, for imaginary future users they will never know. The entire process is exposed as an absurdist endeavour, fatuous shapes dressed up with just enough detail to be convincing for the jury presentation, seductive images geared towards massaging the vanity of a culture minister.