Architecture: Buildings that will be and might have been

Paul Wells on Rem Koolhaas’ winning design and which buildings got the shaft

I was distracted last month when the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), which gives visitors to Quebec City a well-assembled but very limited selection of prominent Quebec paintings through the ages, announced Dutch star-chitect Rem Koolhaas as the winner of an international competition to choose the architect who will dramatically expand and reboot the museum. It’s a big project. The international character of the competition was unusual for Quebec. In reading up on the selection of Koolhaas, I stumbled across a resource all architecture geeks will want to know about.

That’s the L.E.A.P at the Université de Montréal, the Laboratoire d’Etude de l’architecture potentielle, or Laboratory for the Study of Potential Architecture. It’s based on a simple, elegant idea: architecture competitions can be a powerful analytical tool for studying trends in building design, because of course they tell you what got built but also what got considered and rejected. With enough cases in the database, researchers can start to measure, not just guess, which esthetic, economic and political considerations go into the choice of a given design in a given era.

It’s L.E.A.P. that allows us to see, not only Koolhaas’s design, but those of the architects he beat. The MNBAQ competition page (in English; sometimes I cut you guys some slack) is here; it shows, not only dozens of plans and drawings for Koolhaas’s design, but similar amounts of detail on the other 14 designs in the competition. The project criteria seem designed to drive any architect crazy: the 1933 museum was already expanded in 1991 to bridge to an 1861 prison a few dozen metres away. These three elements, built decades apart, are set well back from the Grande Allée. The new building isn’t next to the other two. It’ll be right out on the Grande Allée, connected by underground tunnels to the rest, serving as a face and front gate for the whole jumble. Koolhaas’s design is luminous and boxy:

Elsewhere on the L.E.A.P. page you can see, not only the four other short-listers Koolhaas beat, but the full field of 15 entrants. Koolhaas and his Quebec team partner beat, for instance, the British architect David Chipperfield, whose design is perhaps a bit too self-consciously classical in inspiration:

and Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works Architecture, whose design is typically bright, fascinated with the possibilities of materials and surfaces, and (to me) a bit ’60s Kennedy Centre retro in its appeal:

To me, (and always understanding that much of a competition like this has to do with the interior use of space, not just with the splash the exterior makes), there’s room to wonder whether Koolhaas would have won if his name was Smith and nobody had ever heard of him. I’m fond of the Cloepfil design (as I was, grudgingly at first, of his design for the Cantos Foundation’s promised National Music Centre in Calgary); I think one other short-list entry was more attractive than Koolhaas’s; and I think the MNBAQ jury dodged a bullet by rejecting one truly hideous finalist. But you don’t need to take my word for it; you can rummage around the L.E.A.P. site and decide for yourself.

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