Public Calls for Submissions – tools that can contribute to urban planning

Olívia de Oliveira
Photo: Alain Kissling

Public calls for submissions with rules that are clearly defined and transparent. This is how these architectural design contests are run in Switzerland, for building subsidised homes, schools and day-care centres, old age homes, sports and culture centres, office buildings, prisons etc. The intention is to pick the best – not necessarily the cheapest – designs. Submitted anonymously, they offer young talents the same opportunities as renowned names, encouraging innovation and enhancing quality.

Commenting on these procedures and their possible implementation in Brazil, a webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, September 2. Hosted by Swissnex, the international exchange platform run by Switzerland's State Department of Educational, Research and Innovation, this event brings together Lausanne Municipal Architecture Department, architect Nicole Christe; Jacqueline Schwarz, also an architect who sits on the Swiss Engineers and Architects Society (SIA) Calls for Submissions Commission; and Gilson Paranhos, former President of the Brazilian Institute of Architects (IAB). This session will be mediated by architect Olívia Oliveira, who was interviewed on this topic.

After graduating from the Bahia Federal University, she continued her studies at the Instituto Universitario di Architettura in Venice and the Escola Tčcnica Superior d'Arquitectura in Barcelona. Currently living in Switzerland, she has sat on several adjudication commissions for architecture contests, as well cooperating regularly with the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne and Zürich, as well as the ALICE space conceptualisation laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne. She is also a partner in the Butikofer de Oliveira Vernay Architectes architecture firm.

During her interview, she suggests that Brazil starts to use public calls for submissions for architecture projects, protecting its cities against predatory real estate speculation and uncontrolled market swings, pork-barrel politics and corruption.

1) How and when did public calls for submissions become an urban planning strategy in Switzerland?

For over 140 years, public calls for submissions have been common practice in Switzerland. The initial principles underpinning the organisation of competitive bidding procedures were published in 1877 by the Swiss Engineers and Architects Society (SIA – Société Suisse des Ingenieurs et des Arquitectes). Until 1996, these contests were run only for huge buildings or major public facilities. Their focus shifted when Switzerland ratified the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA-WTO), which encompasses any construction project funded by public money: subsidised housing, schools, day-care centres, old-age homes, sports and culture centres, office buildings, prisons, neighbourhood plans etc. More recently, the private sector has also been using calls for submissions for co-operative housing construction.

2) What benefits does this strategy of the cities?

Above all, impressive quality in terms of architecture and construction, as the buildings resulting from public calls for submissions are based on the best designs, rather than designer fame or lowest price. Projects are built to very strict civil service specifications that are established during the submissions phase, particularly compliance with new energy standards. This keeps these concerns well to the fore from the drawing board onwards, with the entire project implementation process overseen, ensuring top quality work with positive outcomes. From the urban planning standpoint, a call for submission is a tool allowing governments to control urban land and its use, ensuring sustainable democratic management of cities. Through this approach, governments can set an example of not only how to build well, but also public money should be spent, with accountability and transparency.

3) How are these calls for submissions publicised? Do you believe that this strategy involves society as a whole to a greater extent in these decisions?

Published officially through specific platforms, these calls for submissions are accessible to everyone. But prior to this is another – and perhaps the most important – phase: preparing and organising this procurement procedure. In Switzerland, this takes place through dialogues among politicians, architects working for government departments, and the future users of the public facilities to be built. These groups of people follow through on the entire process, from the initial definition of the programme, sitting on the adjudication commission and then the construction commission, overseeing the many different phases of each project and its construction, right through to the inauguration of the completed building. This process involves ongoing dialogues among the contractor, architect and the users. More recently, some experimental submission procedures have sought wider participation from society. Whichever approach is used, the entire population always votes on allocating budget funding the construction of a new public building; if this balloting is unfavourable, the project is simply not built, despite having been selected through a competitive call.

4) Is there any possibility of foreign architecture firms submitting designs in these events?

Yes indeed, for firms in every country respecting the international standards defined through the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA-WTO). These calls for submissions – particularly the open contest that are anonymous – offer equal chances to everyone, thus encouraging a steady inflow our professionals. The best design wins. Even Swiss embassies are built according to the designs submitted in international calls for submissions that are open to all.

5) Do you believe that this strategy could be adopted successfully in Brazil? Why?

Yes, I do, and I really hope that this takes place. Indeed, this would be fairly urgent, as a way of shielding our cities from predatory real estate speculation and market trends, while also battling against cronyism, pork-barrel politics and corruption. Government departments must work smoothly with a solid technical staff of architects and urban planners, qualified to steer politicians towards more effective and democratic ways of administering cities.

Although Brazil has many excellent practitioners and architecture schools all over the country, their skills and qualifications are underused. The calls for submissions run for all public works should be based on the expertise and collective intelligence of these professionals. This would also be a way of enhancing the value of Brazilian architecture once again, returning to the important role that it played during the 1950s, when it was a global benchmark during the years after World War II.

6) From the viewpoint of somebody who has lived in Europe for decades, what are the main urban planning challenges that you see for major cities in Brazil?

Struggles against the market-city and real estate speculation, which have swept uncontrolled across urban land, are downgrading the quality of life in Brazilian cities in just a few years. Sadly, I note this every time I visit Brazil. Urban planning includes the responsibility to produce cities that are more inclusive and less violent. Urban policies must be implemented that ensure the social function of the city, the right to a sustainable city, with social equity. One of the priorities lies in planning social housing policies that are based on the right of use, in contrast to the right of ownership.

7) What are your expectations for UIA2021RIO next year?

My initial expectation is that it will be possible to hold it in 2021, with the current public health situation in Brazil being brought under control. I am confident that the World Congress of Architects has much to contribute, particularly as a time for joint reflection, practitioners in this field, politicians and civil society. We will be bringing an exhibition to this event, presenting the calls for submissions culture that is so firmly rooted in Switzerland, with several guest speakers and discussants. All this is scheduled to take place at the Palácio Capanema.

The webinar organised by Swissnex offers glimpses into harp Switzerland plans to participate in UIA2021RIO. The Executive Committee of the 27th World Congress of Architects has invited Olivia de Oliveira and her partner Serge Butikofer to organise an exhibition at the Palácio Capanema, in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

To watch this webinar, access: https://www.swissnexbrazil.org/event/the-architecture-competition-part-of-the-culture-in-switzerland/



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