The [Orientalist] Design of a Competition
Reading the Room
Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) exposed the imperial gaze’s patronizing representations of the “other.” This gaze exoticizes and distorts non-Western peoples as inferior species in need of guidance from “superior” Westerners who lead human civilization forward. Unfortunately, such a way of seeing is very much ingrained in our contemporary architectural imaginaries. Although architecture and its pedagogy encourage creativity in the speculation of alternate futures, they can reinforce stereotypes by reasserting orientalist imagery.
Competitions provide an unmatched degree of agency, whereby architectural designers can reimagine space, subjects, and contexts to engage with significant issues. Without the cumbersome details of professional practice, their entries represent the field’s most innovative works. In competitions, no two propositions are the same. Yet, in African “themed” competitions, the homogeneity of submissions suggests that architects worldwide believe in (or have indeed constructed) some unified Africanist aesthetic—one of precarity and environmental hostility. Common impressions are remote poor villages on rugged terrains, constructed exclusively with crude sticks and handcrafted bricks, under sepia-toned skies. These imaginary environments are typically populated by cattle grazing in school playgrounds with partially clothed children, young women carrying water on their heads, and people wearing random traditional attire not actually from the area.
As a conceptual tool, this orientalist image is projective of how the global architect desires to impose restrictions on African visual and material culture. The architectural speculations of African futures are limited. To the individual designer, cultural assumptions or internalized prejudices precondition this limit in architectural production. At a global scale, institutions endorse these assumptions and frame them in their competitions. The design of a competition itself not only sets the parameters to contain the creative designs for the competition, but it assumes a prescriptive role through the imposition of constraints. Constraints are necessary devices to ground even the most abstract architectural speculations with at least a sense of realism. They are liberating at their best: such was the Oulipian preoccupation to tighten rules in order to free art. However, some constraints are unnecessary, some are prescriptive, and some are unnecessarily prescriptive.
What follows is a reading-assemblage of phrases from the guidelines of an international architecture competition. The competition is set in the context of a humanitarian program in a rural sub-Saharan location, and is managed by a Western institution that has organized similar competitions in past years. Those precedents feature projects that correspond with the problematic visual representations discussed above. In effect, a set of otherwise practical instructions casts a shadow reflecting what the organizers’ paternalistic eyes desire to see.
”be easy to self-build using unqualified staff, without the need for heavy machinery;”
They assume their subjects to be incapable builders who do not deserve dignity and professional assistance. Apparently, the closest administrative region or indeed the whole country itself has no knowledge in building.
”the use of natural materials available in the surrounding area, or waste and recycled materials, is preferred;”
Under the pretext of environmental concerns…
”only ground floor. Therefore, no upstairs floors are permitted;”
… the subjects shall live in romanticized primitive huts.
”be easy to construct using sustainable technologies that are adaptable to self-construction, which do not therefore require the use of heavy machinery or complex equipment;”
The jury panel consists of internationally recognized architects, of whom none are from the region in question, and whose portfolios indicate strong inclinations for timber constructions. Except they work exclusively with the world’s most prestigious engineers.
”promote sustainable and ecological construction technologies;”
If without qualified staff, then with what labor?
”be integrated into the social and cultural environment of the location.”
Context-sensitivity is taken too far, to a point where the status quo is unquestioned.
Where did the speculative determination go?
Maximilien Chong Lee Shin is a Master of Architecture student at Rice University (’25), originally from Mauritius.