"New York Horizon," the winner of the 2016 eVolo Skyscraper Competition. eVolo

This year’s winning entry in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition would require digging up the entire park.

Never mind that tearing up Central Park is a non-starter. Set aside the fact that it’s one of the most beloved parks in the world. Disregard all the structural and infrastructural reasons why it would be next to impossible to strip Central Park down to bedrock.

Consider, for a moment, a proposal to do exactly that: to remove Central Park and the earth underneath Central Park in order to reveal the firmament below. A submerged, mirrored, horizontal skyscraper would be erected, or rather laid out, to frame this raw terrain in the heart of Manhattan. That’s the winning proposal in this year’s eVolo Skyscraper Competition.

“New York Horizon,” the first-place entry by designers Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu, would repla—

—wait a second. Hold up.

This idea is impossible. It isn’t a good idea to tear up Central Park. That’s a bad idea. That’s an immoral idea. Or it would be an immoral idea, if it were a serious proposal, but it is not. It is deeply unserious. But that isn’t the problem, really. The problem is Contestism.

"New York Horizon," designed by Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu, has won the 2016 eVolo Skyscraper Competition. (eVolo)

“New York Horizon” cannot happen. For starters, City Water Tunnel No. 3, which delivers water from the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers to Manhattan, runs right underneath Central Park. That’s one recently completed, $5 billion reason why the park can’t be stripped down to its foundation. The 2, the 3, and the F trains are several more infrastructure pieces that run under Central Park. The unearthed severe natural landscape would be criss-crossed by a series of tubes.

The Met—the Met is right freaking there! This proposal would involve moving the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This contest-winning landscape rendering is incomplete, since it is not strewn with the bodies of warrior-preservationists who would gladly give their lives to fight for Central Park. I won’t even imagine the environmental concerns involved with reducing a major urban park to bedrock.

So what, then, is “New York Horizon,” other than a folly? Tearing up Central Park is a radical, virtually apocalyptic proposal. A dire experiment to make us reexamine our values, maybe. Yet this rendering is polite, even sunny. It’s as casual, cheerful, and aspirational as any rendering of the luxury condo towers along the park’s perimeter.

A dramatic, critical, dismal proposal might be ominous, with a dark palette—like, Batman v. Superman dark—to illustrate its social commentary. Or perhaps bright pop to indicate biting satire. But in this rendering, rosy-fingered dawn touches softly on the boulders where Central Park once stood, while the city remains unchanged. What’s wrong with this picture?

“New York Horizon” is a prime example of Contestism—a trend in architecture that flows from the convergence of open-design competitions, cheap rendering software, and viral media. The eVolo Skyscraper Competition is hardly the only game in Contestism, but the winning entries tend to follow the same model. Contestism means spectacles that are neither straightforward nor satirical. Instead, they’re shallow and excessively social.

Consider the second-place winning entry: “The Hive: Drone Skyscraper,” a project that involves aerial vehicles constantly flying into a tower, in New York City. Even if it were useful or feasible, the idea is just slightly touchy, no? Especially in a New York in which nothing else is changed. The design stands out because it looks as if a 22nd-century tower has been plopped down into a pre-9/11 New York.

“The Hive: Drone Skyscraper,” designed by Hadeel Ayed Mohammad, Yifeng Zhao, and Chengda Zhu. The design won second place in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition. (eVolo)

Now, there is nothing wrong with wild, unbuildable, impossible, even obscene design. Lebbeus Woods inspired a generation of architects and design thinkers with his drawing practice and theoretical architecture. The Southern California Institute of Architecture and the Cooper Union are schools that prioritize bold theoretical thinking. Elena Manferdini is a young architect whose practice is grounded in drawings and design and growing as a result of her emphasis on art. Theory is healthy and necessary for architecture.  

Contestism is something else. The architecture critic Alexandra Lange calls the genre of socially sharable design “meme-tecture.” Writing about Internet-ready renderings—and the role that publications such as CityLab play in their dissemination—Lange asks some vital questions:

There's nothing inherently wrong with architects playing this game, making sure their rendering rises to the top of public consciousness, for example, when a competition is covered. But I wonder if the viral mentality begins to seep into design proper, simplifying and shining, so that each building moves closer to the easily digestible.

Viral media has most definitely infected the open design competition. From London’s bridge fetish to the Guggenheim Helsinki, open design contests are responsible for producing some of the worst architectural renderings of the last year. As I wrote for a Fast.Co forum on overrated design, open design competitions encourage architects to volunteer their labor in an effort to grab the eyes of jury members and popular audiences alike. Open design contests encourage gambling. Factor in the accessible rendering software that lowers costs and barriers to use, and the trajectory converges at Contestism.

The problem with Contestism isn’t "New York Horizon” or any one single example. The problem may very well be the contests themselves. With so many cheap and tacky renderings flooding the Internet today, it can’t be long before up-and-coming architects rebel and turn to a different aesthetic.

What form will new design ideas take, if not commercial renderings? Maybe architects will revive experimental drawing or embrace traditionalism. Maybe the next idea about sharing ideas will be an idea that no one has ever had. That one should win some competitions.

“Data Skyscraper: Sustainable Data Center In Iceland,” designed by Valeria Mercuri and Marco Merletti. Third-place winner in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition.

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