September 19, 2004
By TOM PULEO, Courant Staff Writer
Downtown science center planners are pinning hopes for a world-class building on a design competition popularized in Europe but slow to gain footing in this country.
As the four finalists prepare to unveil plans Monday, science center president Theodore S. Sergi says such competitions bring out the best in contending firms and leave executives with multiple options.
The University of Connecticut held a competition for its new fine arts building earlier this year and selected Frank Gehry over three other world-renowned finalists, including London-based Zaha Hadid, who also is a finalist for the $150 million science center planned at Adriaen's Landing.
The science center's board of directors is expected to choose a design by the end of the week.
Monday's public presentation runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. At the forum, board members will be getting their first look at the completed plans and will be able to question the architects.
Some industry experts, however, say Hartford must be careful to avoid the pitfalls of a design competition - one of them ending up with a cut-and-paste Frankenstein of a building. By paying $50,000 for each plan, the Connecticut Center for Science & Exploration retains ownership rights and is free - after choosing a winner - to crib design elements from the runners-up.
Patrick A. Pinnell - a Haddam-based architect and planner and a member of The Courant's Place board of contributors - said competitions turn out successful in about two-thirds of the cases.
"The biggest problem is that it may keep anything from being done - period," Pinnell said.
Besides Hadid, the other three finalists are Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects, New Haven; Moshe Safdie and Associates Inc. Architects and Planners, Boston; and Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner Inc., Venice, Calif.
As an extreme example of how things can go wrong, Pinnell pointed to the ongoing tug-of-war over what will replace the former World Trade Towers in New York City.
When architectural luminary Daniel Libeskind won that project's design competition, architecture advocates considered it a high point because aesthetics had featured prominently in the high-stakes project. But Libeskind's plan has since fallen victim to the design ideas of developer Larry Silverstein's own architect, David Childs, who put the focus back on commercial space.
Although the circumstances are somewhat different, Pinnell said egos and politics are something to be avoided in any town.
Science center officials brought in Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University, to advise the board of directors in its search.
Stern talked about the hybrid approach, saying, "The [architect] selected may not be the one asked to go ahead with its particular scheme."
Sergi said the massing of so much talent can only be a positive.
"What will the science center try to teach?" he asked. "Imagination, creativity, discovery. So it seems natural to have a selection process that taps the same thing. It's a brainstorming."
The estimated cost of construction is $100 million.
The finished center would include exhibits exploring the Connecticut River, health and medicine, outer space and the relation of science to the state's arts and heritage venues.
The science center would become the second-biggest in New England, behind the Boston Museum of Science (420,000 square feet).
Nationally, it would fall into the medium-size category.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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