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Who's Who In The Design Contest

September 12, 2004

The folks determining the shape of the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration are in an enviable position. Out of a field of 43 designers who submitted credentials earlier this year to be considered for the job, the center's board of directors whittled the list to eight, and then cut it by half. I say "enviable" because all four firms now preparing design proposals are world-class, and that means that the winner - no matter whose it is - should result in a top-notch building for downtown Hartford.

When I spoke with Theodore S. Sergi, the center's enthusiastic president, he speculated whether it would be wise to take ideas from the range of schemes and fuse them together - sort of a hybrid approach to design. With the high caliber of the architects preparing designs, each solution will no doubt be strong, unique to the task of fitting a 160,000-square-foot building into the northern edge of the Adriaen's Landing site, with direct access to Founders Bridge and Riverfront Plaza.

My advice to Sergi and the board, when reviewing the designs later this month, is to resist the temptation to mix and match schemes, pulling ideas off of one building and sticking them on another. This is the reason committees tend to come up with camels instead of racehorses. And that's what Hartford needs on this site - an agile, powerful thoroughbred design that will be the product of one architect's vision working with many people.

Rather than hoping to settle on one design that meets all of the items on the board's design wish list, the members should select the architect who is most open and eager to work closely with the center's board, various building committees and staff over the next few years. (The facility is projected to open in 2007.) The board should pay close attention next week to how the architects and their team members present themselves as well as to their designs, and judge whether a marriage of a particular architect and the board would be fruitful.

The concept proposals to be unveiled on Sept. 20 - although they will surely be intriguing - will be more valuable as indicators of the architects' creative approach to this tricky design problem than as end-of-story, buildable solutions to the center's complex program.

Is there anything that we know about the four finalists that might indicate who would be the better choice?

Each design firm submitted a statement of qualifications. The spiral-bound brochures are interesting in how each firm displays its expertise and makes the case that it would be the best choice for the job. The firms present in colorful photos, drawings and text past work that is relevant to the Science and Exploration Center. They also include statements of design philosophy, the foundation of all the work that they do. In these respects, the submissions by all four firms are impressive.

The firm Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner stresses its work in environmentally sustainable design. One of the goals for the new center is that it be energy- and resource-efficient and that "green" design and construction be part of the educational mission of the new building. This is admirable.

The material offered by Cesar Pelli & Associates shows buildings this firm has designed for urban centers that have created lively, engaging and memorable places of civic value. This too, will be critical if the new science center is to be a destination for people who aren't all that interested in science: a magical place that draws you in.

Moshe Safdie and Associates presents many handsome projects that capture the special qualities of the places where they are built. Safdie takes the approach that every building should reflect the history, color and architectural character of its context. This, too, is a good fit for Hartford.

Zaha Hadid Architects is the only one of the four that falls short of making me feel that this designer is right for Hartford and the goals of the center. Her brochure contains no insightful analysis of the site, nor a compelling discussion of the design challenges of the center and its place at Adriaen's Landing (as the others do). And (rather surprisingly) the brochure's cover letter is written by a project architect in Hadid's London office, not the architect herself. All three of the other submissions are accompanied by letters from the firm principals: Behnisch, Pelli and Safdie. It's a small but highly symbolic omission. Is Hadid too busy to care enough about this project?

When the center's board members meet soon to pick a winner, they should keep in mind that this is the opportunity to decide whom they want to spend the next two or three years with on a journey of exploration and creativity.

The best solution to this important site is going to come from a collaborative process in which all sorts of people should be involved, including state educators, local and state officials, and the people of Hartford (to name a few). The board needs to make the best choice for the long haul.

Michael J. Crosbie of Essex is the author of more than a dozen books on architecture, among them "Architecture for the Gods, Book II" (Images, 2003). He is a member of the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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