The Value of Architectural Competitions in New Hampshire

By Michael Kowalchuk

As I enter my second year as an emerging professional in New Hampshire, architecture school is more and more a distant memory. In most cases, this has been a positive experience. No one can sustain an average of four hours of sleep a night, consistent X-Acto knife wounds or ceaseless criticism without compromising their life expectancy in some way. On the other hand, professional life lacks the theoretical whimsy of the academy and all of the impossible cantilevers that come with it. As I become more confident with producing drawing sets and construction administration, I have found that the good old architectural competition has been a great way to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

I’m also writing as a young designer in a design climate that errs on the side of the conservative. In New Hampshire, it is hard to avoid the colonial past. The AIA NH Emerging Professionals Competition is a great way for young designers to critically engage with a local design challenge in a meaningful way. This is the second year I participated and despite the horrible flashbacks to late nights and feelings of perpetual self-doubt, I am so pleased that AIA NH recognizes the value of new ideas and gives young designers this opportunity.

In this year’s competition, I teamed up with a good friend from school who is based in Boston. This year’s competition offered an open ended program which allowed for a greater degree of design/intellectual flexibility. Ostensibly an inter-modal transportation center serving Greater Manchester, our project emphasized the potential for community development through the integration of refugee/immigrant housing and a regional market. The idea was that disparate, transient communities (tourists, commuters, immigrants, etc.) may find common ground beyond the way they travel. This cultural mashup fosters community growth where marginalization and segregation typically prevail. The project also recognized that architecture can productively intervene in current issues instead of taking a backseat, merely aesthetic role.

Contemporary buildings can contextually relate to the historical buildings that we love without inappropriate imitation. Oftentimes, superficial styles that do not relate to contemporary building practices are what the public expects. While not always appropriate, contemporary design can just as successfully relate to our distinctive natural environment and cultural history. Design competitions create space for this argument without requiring a final building to be realized. Whether one wins or loses (we lost), architectural competitions are a visual opportunity to engage with the debates that define our local built environment. This is vitally important in New Hampshire, where the conversation seems to be stuck at times and overburdened by the weight of historicism. Beyond their polemical value, they are a fun way for new designers to test out contemporary designs as well as sharpening our technical/design skills.

Design competitions create an independent platform for architects to voice their opinions when they are oftentimes beholden to the decisions of their clients. They create an opportunity for architects to present ideas to a wider, critical public which may not always understand our ideas at face value. The Federal Building in Portsmouth is having a bit of a midlife crisis and perhaps a design competition would convince a skeptical public that the building may have a brighter future, even if the knee-jerk reaction is to tear the mid-century Modernist building down. In the case of the architectural competition, less is not more. It would be great if competitions become a staple of architectural culture in New Hampshire and AIA NH is doing its part in encouraging this among emerging professionals. Check out our board below and please visit AIA NH’s website to see the winning entries.