About the cancellation of the competition for the memorial to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan
Survey versus Competition: Simulacrum and Democracy
September 11, 2023
Jean-Pierre Chupin, Canada Research Chair in Architecture, Competitions and Mediations of Excellence, Université de Montréal (www.crc.umontreal.ca )
Jacques White, architect, retired professor at Université Laval, trainer and professional advisor for multidisciplinary and architectural competitions
When it comes to judging art or architecture projects, an online survey is a “simulacrum of democracy” that cannot replace either a design competition or a real jury! Strongly condemning Russian-organized elections in the occupied territories of Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently declared loud and clear that these procedures constituted a “simulacrum of election”. By cancelling the result of a competition for a veterans’ monument, and replacing it with an online poll, his government has dangerously lost its way in a travesty of democracy that we must now reflect on in order to better react and, above all, prevent from happening again.
Let us start by recalling that the art, architecture and design communities have been up in arms since the announcement, on June 19, of the cancellation of the competition for the commemorative monument to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Their frustration seems all the more legitimate given that the jury’s choice was overturned solely on the basis of an online survey that was rife with confusion. Claiming to give a voice to veterans – an honourable thing if ever there was one – the federal government has discredited the jury’s decision in a design competition, sacrificing in the process a fundamental principle of our democracy: respect for a qualitative collective judgement by a representative, impartial and informed jury.
If this case were to become a precedent for public commissions, no architect, designer or artist would agree to their proposals being fed to an online survey. To judge the complexity of projects for public spaces, buildings open to the public and, in this case, public monuments, a survey will never be as reliable, fair and transparent a procedure as a well-organized competition. As academics and architects well-versed in competition practices, it is important for us to denounce the dangerous confusion between opinion and judgment. An anonymous online survey, even if accompanied by a series of questions, is not the equivalent of the deliberations of a jury representing the interests of the public, made up of members informed of the multiple issues at stake, who debate all the proposals – themselves designed by multidisciplinary teams – for long hours, and make a well-argued consensus judgment in the name of the collective interest. We could sift through the survey questions, compare them with the competition documents and demonstrate without difficulty how those in the survey remain superficial, closed and non-operational, while those in the competition target fundamental questions, open to design and useful in leading to a solidly argued judgment.
The survey was carried out in a very short space of time, based on the distribution of project files, the complexity of which sometimes eludes the experts themselves. Even more dubious, the survey was controlled by so-called thematic questions, each formulation of which would have been an impossible design challenge for artists and designers. For example, one question asked which concept correctly expresses “the strong support offered by families, friends and communities at home during the mission.” Respondents were also asked which proposals: “acknowledge the efforts of Canadians in standing together with the Afghan people to help rebuild their country and encourage understanding of the significance and scope of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.” Art, design and architecture cannot represent everything in a straightforward, simplistic and unequivocal way, especially when it comes to national symbolism. It would have been simpler and more honest to ask respondents to name their favourite project, but in doing so, it would have been more difficult to camouflage a purely political choice behind a cloud of opinions whose subjectivity would then have been obvious.
A poll is not a collective judgment! Only the qualitative judgment of a jury constitutes a deliberative construction – a collective intelligence – and this is what makes it one of the most important democratic devices. It is true that many competitions – but this was not one of them – include a clause allowing the client not to follow the jury’s recommendation. Its sole purpose is to counter any interference or irregularity in the competition process that might discredit the outcome. But in this case, the opposite is true: the sponsor interferes in a democratic process that it has previously approved by discrediting it, without valid justification. What would we say about a sports result or a film award that was cancelled out by an online survey after the fact? What if a democratic election were overturned by an anonymous online poll? What if a court judgement were overturned by an online survey pointing to the “real” culprit? Would not this all amount to revolting public lynching?
The honor of veterans is respected neither by the disreputable refutation of a well-established procedure, nor by a political choice with an unconvincing outcome. This is not the primary aim of our analysis, but comparing the two proposals the differences are clear, as are the tensions between abstraction and figuration they embody. It is quite clear that the choice of figurative imagery was presented as popular and “validated by veterans”, the better to place it in opposition to the choice of a jury of experts deemed abstract. The fact is that the jury included a veteran, a representative of military families and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as a museum director, an architect, a historian and a landscape architect. There is even something contemptuous of the Canadian public in considering that a commemorative monument would be better served by literal images loaded with armour, helmets and shields, than by pared-down images evoking human sacrifice through timeless plays of light and shadow. With several other commemorative monument projects in the pipeline at Veterans Affairs Canada, it would be urgent to open the debate on contemporary creation in the service of heritage and citizens.
Everyone loses out in this sad affair. The veterans, first of all, because you do not express “Canada’s deep gratitude for the sacrifices made by Canadians who served in Afghanistan, including those Canadian Armed Forces members and civilians who lost their lives or were injured”* by flouting a procedure designed to protect boldness, integrity and impartiality. Then there is the government, which has a duty to set an example in all its procedures, and to respect the commitments set out in its own terms and conditions for awarding public contracts. Citizens are also the losers, as the solemnity of the visit to the monument will long be blurred by controversy and doubt, and it is indeed confidence in a qualitative judging procedure that is the loser in this monumental failure. Finally, let us not forget the teams who devoted long hours and put their soul and expertise into their proposal, legitimately believing in their chances of seeing it evaluated fairly, in compliance with the announced rules. We can all the more understand their immense disappointment that, contrary to good competition practice, the government has not yet had the courage to share the jury’s report.
This sad situation is not irreversible. We see several complementary outcomes:
First of all, and since public funds are also at stake in this affair, let us at the very least demand that the jury’s report be made public as quickly as possible. Out of respect for the competitors, the members of the jury, and in a way for all architects, designers and artists – people of honor and principle at the service of the community – this report will constitute the first stone of a real public debate, impossible without it.
But there’s more. Out of respect for the veterans, let’s ask the government to reverse this bad decision and award the project to the winning team.
Finally, to ensure that this situation does not taint future calls to design and build monuments, as well as public buildings and spaces, we call on the government to respect – and even generalize – a truly qualitative and democratic procedure: the juried project competition.
*Extract from the first question of the online survey.
Petition launched by a group of artists: