Architectural competitions aren't simply a way for clients and designers to pair off. The best ones open windows of potential, signaling how the future might look and who the architects are that might bring it to life.
That's what is so instructive about the unusual - and unusually public - competition to select an architect for the new Emeryville Center for the Arts.
The six entries now on display at Emeryville City Hall are vibrant provocations, pushing us to rethink how a cultural building can define and engage a community that still is taking shape. But they're also classic examples of information overload. The architects are so eager to make an impression, they don't know when to stop.
The proposed arts center at 40th and Hollis streets would sit next to City Hall in one of the few Bay Area cities that isn't afraid of growth; Emeryville is home to Pixar's gated campus and hundreds of freshly minted townhouses, as well as the faux urbanism of Bay Street along Interstate 80.
This easy-rolling persona creates the sort of atmosphere where the young arts organization - which will occupy a site purchased by the city in 2006 - can take a chance on adventurous design. It restricted the competition to six emerging local firms that haven't yet been able to work at the scale of a complex that would include a 250-seat theater as well as galleries, classrooms, a cafe and space for the city's historical society.
The architects received the competition guidelines in September and presented their designs last week to a competition jury that includes the former city manager and an executive from Pixar. The winner will be announced next week.
Old shell, new moves
The site already contains a building, a one-story brick structure from 1942 that last housed a machine-parts fabricator, and five of the six teams use it as their starting point.
My favorite concept is from Aidlin Darling Design, which contains the theater space within an addition that lifts from the shell accordion-like, edged by a diagonal path to a landscaped roof where outdoor movies could be shown. The overlapped spaces would be inviting, with an architectural form distinctive enough to hold its own amid the visual clutter of nearby blocks.
Functionally, the most intriguing approach belongs to Jensen Architects. The firm bisects the shell with an open terrace running east to west, framed by a theater along one side with a ground-floor glass wall that could part to create an indoor-outdoor performance space within the masonry.
The other four proposals radiate the same sense of ambitious experimentation. They range from the faithful restoration of the original structure by Schwartz and Architecture that would pepper the roof with art installations, to the move by Edmonds + Lee Architects to replace the existing structure with a three-story cube wrapped in metal mesh along 40th Street, making room for a new plaza between the arts center and City Hall.
The common thread in all this? The architects grasp that arts can play a dynamic role as a young city like Emeryville carves out an identity. These aren't static containers for culture; they're meant to send off sparks.
What's frustrating is the disconnect between the clarity of the design concepts and the overpackaged clutter on display at City Hall.
This is the public face of the competition, a chance for each team to distill its concept on three poster boards. But to varying degrees, each firm responded as though it were trying to dazzle trend-savvy architectural insiders. The boards are jammed with data and diagrams, along with eye-glazing examples of what critic Robert Campbell once called "ArchiSpeak," such as Envelope A+D's explanation that "program clusters create a mutable space in between fostering interconnections and exchange."
I'll take their word for it.
The problem isn't arrogance so much as overenthusiasm. Today's computer technology makes it easy to add one more image to a board, or squeeze in another paragraph by shrinking the point size of the text.
Design students would decode the conceptual barrage in a flash. The rest of us either muddle through or grumble that the images look weird.
But even if you come out more confused than captivated, this competition deserves attention from anyone in the Bay Area who cares about architecture's larger role in society.
Buildings aren't simply vessels to be filled. They can be catalysts for culture and community - and we're lucky to have architects exploring fresh ways for this to happen.
'Architecture Out Loud'
The design concepts for the Emeryville Center for the Arts, will be on display weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 17 at Emeryville City Hall, 1333 Park Ave.
-- Information is at www.emeryvillecenterforthearts.org