Interview with Peggy Deamer
CHARLES KANE (M.Arch ‘16)
Peggy Deamer, Assistant Dean of the YSOA, architect, writer, and founder of the Architecture Lobby, took some time to answer questions before she began her sabbatical.
CK: In your article for the Avery Review titled “The Guggenheim Helsinki Competition: What is the Value Proposition?” you clearly describe your argument but for those that haven’t read it, could you briefly outline your perception of the architectural competition format?
PD:It keeps us in a state of playing Russian roulette with our careers with the hope that the free labor we put into competitions will yield the big reward. It’s like gambling and architects shouldn’t base their business model on gambling. We live by that model too much–that we could win the competition and become a Maya Lin. The hours that we put into competitions are hours that we throw away. If we were willing to put these hours into something more socially viable and a more visible contribution to the public realm it would do more for both us and the discipline of architecture. This group in London called Assemble simply decided to do their own projects in public spaces. That is an example of transferring hours otherwise spent on competitions to something in the public realm.
CK:How have designers and competition organizers consciously or unconsciously contributed to this system?
PD:It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The competition holders get press. It is not merely that they want the best design; they get all the media associated with the call for the competition, the stages for the competition, the announcement of the winners. All that is free press for them. It goes well beyond searching for the best design. In a lot of cases, the competition holders get ideas from people that weren’t the winners. For example, if they love the approach of a particular entry, then they simply ask the winners to incorporate this aspect. Therefore, ideas are given away for free. The competition sponsor has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is worthwhile for them to feed the perception that they can make an architect’s career. Architects love this idea. They believe that even if I don’t win or I am a runner-up, at least it will be in the portfolio.
CK:So the sponsors receive free labor, free media coverage and distribute a nominal reward to the few winners.
PD:I think we know that the prize money received, never equals the amount spent on being a finalist. They are just crumbs that they throw out in order to indicate that the sponsors know the designers can’t do it for free. One positive thing I mention in the article is that when you are working for a firm and you have no opportunity to stretch your own design work and aesthetic, it is important to keep that up. One of the saddest things for talented people is that they can get lost in the firm. For example, if you want to apply for the Rome Prize, a teaching positions or a grant, you don’t have any of your own work to show. So go into the competition knowing that this isn’t about winning. I understand trying to keep your design muscles dexterous. However, I think it is still better to take your free labor and build or do it in the public realm; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical product.
CK:You quoted Derek Levitt’s list of “5 Things Architects Should Do Instead of Entering Open Competitions” and you wrote as subtext that architects should attend “community board meetings” or “go to your kid’s soccer game”. Could you elaborate on your point?
PD:That subtext was mostly to try to promote a work-life balance and emphasize that not everything has to be architecture related. You just need to be a human being. Be a good mother. Be a good father. Be a good co-op board member. I was trying to stretch his argument that advocates for a work-life balance.
CK: In the over 30 years between the Parc de la Villette Competition in 1982 and the recent Guggenheim Helsinki Competition of 2014, do you think that the opinion of these competitions from the perspective of designers and/or the general public has shifted?
PD:I do. This is not something that I have ever talked about with other people, but it used to be that design competitions really did give us insight into a changing parameter of architectural aesthetics. With Parc de la Villette, we were interested in what Bernard Tschumi would do—who came from critical theory and had written manifestos—and what an emerging OMA would do. I think there was real, genuine interest in defining architecture at the cutting edge as it was emerging from modernism. At this point, I think the aesthetic field has opened up so broadly, and it is so visible. We all know the capabilities of Rhino and the various computational tools so well that we don’t need to look to competitions to find it anymore. What we learn from competition entries now just seems uninteresting. Going through the Helsinki Competition, we can say “we know that trope, we know that trope”. There really was nothing new. It says something about the field of architecture. Maybe it is so open that avant-garde doesn’t need to come from formal virtuosity. It needs to come from somewhere else—besides formal dexterity.
CK: In your article, you mention Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic, social, and cultural capital and how they are absent from the current competition system. Do you think these concepts could be reincorporated into the competition structure or does one need to look towards other avenues to generate these alternative capitals?
PD:Interesting. I wasn’t implying that they should. He is very critical of capitalism. Absolutely, I think we should all be more astute about how our free labor and contribution to the competition system works within that. One thing that this article tries to do was to make people aware that the competition is not only about winning but also it is about a larger economic enterprise that has to do with cultural capitalism. We need to be aware of the Bourdieu discourse. In addition, I was trying to say that unlike him there is a possibility for cultural capitalism to work against capitalism—a rhizomatic, Deleuzian concept. I wanted to open up the stage to imply that within the framework there is the possibility of work that disrupts the capitalist system and that is worthwhile.
CK:Can we bring these lessons into the discipline and how?
PD:Yes. What would be considered avant-garde now isn’t formal dexterity; it is another model of practice (eg. Assemble). That is more interesting to me than the standard competition.
CK:You mentioned Assemble. What other groups or areas do see worth taking note of?
PD:In my head, I am spending a lot of time with the Architectural Lobby. We are trying to get student chapters and local chapters going. I believe that if you had an extra 40 hours, not spent on a competition, you could be protesting or exploring other models that allow architectural expertise to be deployed in more worthwhile places—an alternate way of contributing to the built world.
CK:Do you foresee any way to subvert or alter the competition format?
PD:It was interesting to see Michael Sorkin’s alternate competition to the Helsinki one. That is a positive result from the Helsinki competition. I see this as a positive model—an ideas competition without winners. That seems viable, but what paying institution would sponsor something like that? Who would say “we think we want a museum, but would be the consequences of bringing such an institution to a city like Helsinki?” That would be a cool competition and that was what Michael Sorkin was proposing.
CK:As emerging professionals, what can we do to change this system?
PD:You can approach it in terms of 40 hours. What do these 40 hours do for my career, as opposed to what happens if I win? You need to be much more strategic about the use of your time. Perhaps you want to put something in your portfolio. Say, you gather together five other people because you want to see how you work with these other people. If you want to start a firm with them, it’s a trial. The goal isn’t winning. How does this time further your career goals?