Almost as soon as it officially began in 2000, the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program earned a reputation for its uncanny ability to call attention to architecture’s emerging practices. The star-studded roster of past winners includes SHoP, nARCHITECTS, WORKac, SO - IL, and HWKN, and the list of finalists is equally noteworthy. Aside from the potential publicity, the competition is uniquely appealing in that it offers designers a chance to build their proposals as temporary installations, free from the restrictions of building code and clients, in the populated and politically-charged context of New York City. During its relatively short existence, the competition has proven a prominent presence in architecture culture, and many of the former finalists cite YAP as a catalyst that accelerated their careers.
SHoP's 2000 winning proposal, Dunescape
The Barclays Center in Brooklyn by SHoP
Without an equivalent to the Venice Biennale or Serpentine Pavilion in the US, we have few forums where ideas can be tested as controlled experiments under similar conditions each year. As 2008 finalists THEM [Lynch + Crembil] told Architizer, “Architecture (particularly in the US) is suffering from a lack of creative opportunities for designers and firms. Without frameworks/invitations leading to interesting built projects, our discipline is withering … the level of participation and publicity surrounding YAP shows the need.” That framework is key as a conduit to creativity, or as 2013 shortlisted participant Leong Leong noted, “This is a very unique competition because the constraints...are tight and the exposure is so high for very young design firms with limited experience.”
Leong Leong's 2013 proposal, PS1 FORUM
Leong Leong's design for the US Pavilion at the 14th Venice Biennale. Image by Naho Kubota.
As a contemporary art institution, PS1 celebrates the relationship between architecture and the visual realm, rather than trying to break them apart. The architecture sets the stage (sometimes literally) for PS1’s Warm Up summer concert series, a fusion of architecture, art, and experimental music that also acts as the museum’s primary fundraiser. “Just the fact that the project is classified as art opens up unique opportunities for exploration,” noted Ilias Papageorgiou of the 2010 winning firm, SO - IL. He asserts that their, Poledance, “would have been impossible to achieve under NY building code and probably any building code.”
SO - IL's 2010 winning proposal, Poledance
The exploration in destabilizing museum norms has influenced their later work. Papageorgiou explains: “For instance, at the art museum we are building now in Davis in California, variable light and shadow conditions are used to create a dynamic field of spaces, that blur the established boundaries of inside and outside. It’s a reflection on the surrounding Central Valley landscape and on the museum typology."
The competition also provides winning teams with an opportunity to engage an active public, one that far exceeds the crowds of scale figures photoshopped into most hypothetical renderings. According to Jeremy Edmiston of two-time finalist SYSTEMarchitects, this possibility to “engage in the discussion of public space in an art institution through architecture,” was a primary attraction of the competition. “It was an opportunity to test our ideas at a scale and through a program we had not been able to get up to that moment,” agreed Edmiston's former partner, Douglas Gauthier.
For 2007 winners Ball-Nogues Studio, the competition provided a unique opportunity in that it was patently temporary and experimental: “Since Liquid Sky, we continue to think about the nature of temporary, installation architecture. We believe this is very important to consider — YAP projects have short lives. We are skeptical of the view of YAP as a kind of surrogate, or an exercise for young architects who will one day start making “real” buildings.”
Liquid Sky by Ball-Nogues. Image by Mark Lentz
Many participating firms view the competition as a moment of clarification and distillation in their careers, a pivotal point in which they discovered a line of inquiry now central to their work. Though few firms said the competition led directly to new projects, many mentioned that it provided credibility in future pursuits and improved their overall design process. Benjamin Aranda of Aranda/Lasch, a 2005 finalist explains: “In a lot of ways our entire practice is kind of a built result of that little project.”
Some of the more established firms, including WW and Office dA, had already completed several commissions but saw the competition as a way to translate theoretical work into built form. "We had just completed the MoMA fabrications exhibition and it was a great experience." said Nader Tehrani, formerly of Office dA. "This seemed to be an opportunity to extend that mode of research and experimentation."
For newer contenders, including 2014 finalist LAMAS, even the application process, which requires nominees to submit a statement and a portfolio of just a few projects, caused them to become “immediately introspective.” Though the inspiration for their 2014 shortlisted proposal, Underberg, came from previous explorations in their practice and teaching, the competition led them to define the direction of their studio. “We brainstormed ideas throughout that we have since picked up and kept the thread going, including hydrographic printing on 3D surfaces. We’ve acquired funding for a research project to continue this as a direct feed from the PS1 project.”
Physical model of Underberg by LAMAS
LAMAS experimenting with 3D Hydrographics
The openness of the brief, which stipulates proposals must provide shade, seating, and water, allows room for the architects to identify what is important to the discipline each year. “You really focus on how to be relevant in architecture and current with discourse,” said LAMAS. Conceptual similarities between projects in a single year offer evidence that the PS1 courtyard acts as a forum to examine some of the discipline’s most pressing issues. In 2009, four of the five proposals addressed the battered economy in some way, and the 2008 proposals predominantly focused on an issue that MATTER Architecture Practice shortlisted that year and again in 2011, referred to as “the ‘green dialogue.’”
MoMA PS1 is consciously responsive to the changing demands of the discipline and tends to reward proposals that push beyond the proposed program. In an interview with 2001 winner Lindy Roy noted, “In terms of past winners, the one that comes to mind is WORKac (2008). They had to shift the program and address the changing nature of it...YAP demands reinvention.” Successive proposals continued to push the boundaries, including Interboro Partners’ 2011 winning project, Holding Pattern. They reached out to the community to form partnerships, offering to donate elements of their installation to local organizations according to their needs. This extended the reaches of their installation beyond the confines of the courtyard, and included the donation of sixty red oak trees from the New York Restoration Project, which the firm later planted around the city. Though it was not standard practice during YAP’s first few years, the solicitation of donations has since become a major aspect of the competition.
Holding Pattern by Interboro Partners
Aside from the parameters of the competition brief, the site itself has inspired new lines of inquiry. The set for each YAP project is PS1’s vast, triangular courtyard in Long Island City, Queens, which is surrounded by high concrete walls and lies open to the elements. It provides an opportunity to challenge the popular conception of architecture, whose aim is often containment. Instead of sealing space, the installations amplify the interaction between the architecture and the atmosphere. As a result, many of the architects explored the creation of multiple environments within the site. Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, one of 2014’s shortlisted firms, reinterpreted the varying conditions of New York City's party scene in a series of distinct rooms.
"The competition was definitely an establishing point for the firm,” said Eric Bunge, partner of nARCHITECTS. He traced aspects of the firm's interest in landscape architecture and public space to their 2004 winning proposal, Canopy, in which they explored the creation of micro climates within the site. nARCHITECTS continues to investigate these topics as their practice evolves, and have incorporated them into their current work at Navy Pier with James Corner Field Operations.
Canopy by nARCHITECTS
Rendering of Chicago Navy Pier winning proposal by nARCHITECTS and James Corner Field Operations
YAP has also set itself apart as a standard of competition culture itself. “Many competitions end with a board being sent off and this culminated in a presentation to the selection committee,” noted EASTON+COMBS, who made the 2010 shortlist. Several firms reflected positively on this aspect, including THEM, who said, “Being invited to participate and showing a strong project to the jury was already a significant reward, even if we didn't win.”
Due to the notoriety of the Young Architects Program, many contenders exert significant effort and expense to meet the intense time constraints and expectations. “It is worthwhile but also extremely demanding on young practices,” said 2013 shortlisted participants Leong Leong. Gage / Clemenceau, now Mark Foster Gage Architects and Bailly & Bailly, expressed similar sentiments: "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves for this competition...not only since it was in our own back yard, but we were starting to get larger commissions at that time, so having something a bit more experimental and built at PS1 would have been the icing on the cake. Since we didn't win, our expectations were dashed, but the design and renderings were very marketable and published and exhibited widely, so we still found great benefit in participating."
Aurum, 2007 entry by Gage / Clemenceau
While many design competitions geared toward young firms provide no payment to competitors, MoMA PS1 distinguishes itself by offering financial compensation. It is widely known, however, that participation in the competition places heavy financial strain on the competitors.
When asked whether they would suggest any changes to the competition, WW responded, “Recent entries have been very exciting, which makes us a little loathe to suggest a need for change. SO - IL’s wobbly wands were fantastic. And Caroline O’Donnell’s Mayan lattice was terrific. Nonetheless, the onus of fundraising is a heavy burden to bear for an architect in the midst of a very accelerated production process. Without fail, each of the winners has had to take on the impossibility of the budget.”
“We knew it would be extremely stressful to build such an ambitious project in a short time with a minimal budget and it was,” said O’Donnell, principal of CODA. CODA’s 2013 project, Party Wall, successfully utilized a massive donation of skateboard manufacturing waste to clad a towering steel structure. After donations, the embodied cost of built installations is often substantially more than the budget offered and enforced by MoMA PS1. When asked about potential changes to the competition, CODA suggested “a better match of expectations to funding.”
A rendering of Party Wall by CODA
Though it might be argued that the participants' investments are recouped through ensuing publicity, we must still question why some of the nation’s most talented practitioners competing in such a high-profile competition might result in negative fiscal compensation. Due to budget and time constraints, most teams relied on unpaid volunteers for both installations and proposals.
Despite its noteworthy position in art and architecture, perhaps there is little more that MoMA PS1 could do to counteract the trend of devaluation that is prolific throughout the culture of design competitions. As an art institution and non-profit organization, it is also subject to the realities of fundraising. Finalists THEM noted, “the funding offered was a token of respect — very important in a profession that is constantly being taken advantage of and too often prostituting itself. Anyway, what would have been enough? There is an inescapable arms-race aspect to this competition, like every competition.” Nearly all the interviewed firms refused the artist fee, heaping it instead onto the project budget. Though he conceded the expectation of return for participation tends to exceed results, Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues noted that the opportunity must be examined in terms of the power and influence an architect has in the profession.
HWKN's 2012 winning proposal, Wendy, in the MoMA PS1 courtyard. "WENDY turned out to be the perfect project representing six years of exploratory design work from our firm. It became the statement for who we are," said HWKN partner (and Architizer co-founder) Matthias Hollwich. "All of our projects include DNA of Wendy in one way or another."
Wendy installed in Abu Dhabi
No doubt, YAP alumni are molding the minds of architecture's next generation. Tom Wiscombe of the 2003 winning firm EMERGENT Architecture teaches at Sci Arc, O'Donnell teaches at Cornell, both Ron Witte and Sarah Whiting of WW are at Rice, Michael Meredith is an instructor at Princeton — the list continues. In practice, YAP alumni are just as prominent. Leong Leong designed the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. Lindy Roy completed a project along the coveted High Line before it was hip and trendy. nARCHITECTS are defining the waterfronts of Chicago and Seattle. SHoP is making its mark on New York's skyline with several gargantuan developments, and, by extension, so is MoMA PS1's Young Architects Program.
subWave, the 2001 winning proposal by Lindy Roy
Lindy Roy's High Line 519
2003 YAP proposal by SYSTEMarchitects
SYSTEMarchitects first explored a tensile, pre-fab roof system in their 2003 YAP proposal. They later utilized this research in their design for a house in Australia in 2006 and BURST*008 (above) at MoMA's Home Delivery exhibition in 2008. "Green buildings are not slick and fine lined. Our work deals with "fat lines," mixing high-tech fabrication with the rustic and tactile."
Light-Wing, 2003 winning proposal by Tom Wiscombe of EMERGENT Architecture
National Center for Contemporary Arts by Tom Wiscombe. "I have always been interested in objects inside of other objects," said Wiscombe. "If you look at my 2013 NCCA, Moscow project, certain aspects of PS1 are still present. It deals with an aggregation of huge chunky objects pushing into and out from a soft "sack". The synthetic material effects, the nesting, and the container/contained concepts in that project were clearly already at work in my PS1 project."
Spiral Settee, WW's 2005 proposal for YAP. "For WW, Spiral Settee was above all else an intersection of public space and form. The potency of that intersection was then, and remains now, central to our work."
WW's Kaohsiung Pop Music competition entry. "At PS1, we were very interested in the possibility of a strong figure (the singular figure of the spiral) that can sponsor myriad micro-figures (the hooks, breaks, an alignments that occur along the spiral’s arc). These are techniques that we continue to try to cultivate today in very different contexts and with many evolutions."
The Grotto, 2005 proposal by Aranda\Lasch. Their quasi-crystalline work is about a search for infinity, which they were already experimenting with in The Grotto and have since expanded upon with new materials and technology. "We've committed ourselves to search for this kind of endlessness and finding projects within that."
The Morning Line by Aranda\Lasch
The Pleasure Garden, 2008 proposal by THEM [Lynch + Crembil]
Lux Nova by 2010 finalists EASTON+COMBS
2012 Aldgate Landmark pavilion proposal by EASTON+COMBS
Rooms: No Vacancy, 2014 proposal by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and MAIO