Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Losers' Club

My favorite pianist is a fellow named Yakov Kasman. I had the chance to hear him play Mussorgsky at a small church in Lompoc, California; the power and utter absorption of his playing is wholly unlike anyone else I've ever heard.

I discovered him when I was watching a PBS documentary on the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in which he was a competitor. The competition gets hundreds of audition tapes, brings in dozens of players, knocks the field down to 24, and then the work starts. If I remember correctly, they play public performances with a string quartet and with the Fort Worth Symphony. They give a performance of a brand new piece specially written for the competition, a piece that none of them have ever heard before. And they give a recital of material of their own choosing.

The six finalists are all better piano players than any of us have ever met, better than anyone else in their city or state or country, better than all but a handful of people who've ever lived.

Five of them lose.

Kasman finished second, but to my tastes, was the most remarkable classical musician I had ever come across. Now, the fellow who won, Jon Nakamatsu, is a hell of a pianist. I have a CD of his work, and think it's fabulous. But Kasman is supernatural. And a loser.

I've been reading Jack Nasar's book Design by Competition (1999, Cambridge University Press), a serious study of architecture competitions and the buildings that come from them. He was spurred to study this because he's at Ohio State, and had a front-row seat at the competition and creation of the Wexner Center. There were five firms invited to participate in the competition: Eisenman/Robinson (the ultimate winner), Arthur Erickson, Michael Graves, Kallman McKinnell & Wood, and Cesar Pelli.

People at OSU pretty much despise the Wexner Center. It cost about four times as much per square foot as the average building on campus, and came in at 270% of its estimated cost. It costs about 30% more to heat and cool than other buildings on campus, about 30% more for everyday maintenance and cleaning. It leaked badly and immediately. It's reported to be a horrible place to look at paintings, it has problems with sunlight damage to artworks (a problem shared by a fair number of high-end museums, most notably Meier's High Museum in Atlanta), and the staff hates it as much as the visitors.

Nasar showed all five of the final entries to people unfamiliar with the Wexner. Eisenman's design was rated next to last. He also grabbed entries to other major design competitions, and showed the winning design and one of the other finalists to 50 architects and to 50 laypeople. Both the architects and the laypeople thought that the losing designs were, on average, superior (the laypeople especially so).

Nasar then goes on to describe the jury process, with some remarkable quotes from jurors. Here's one from the landscape architect Martha Schwartz:
At first we went through every one in about ten seconds. That's awfully fast. But by the time we started getting into it, we realized that we could see whether or not there was any merit in a project in even less time. We actually got it down to about five seconds.
It takes five seconds to be a loser, to be judged as being without merit. At least at the Van Cliburn competition, you got to play for a few hours before they threw you out.

Jon Nakamatsu, the ultimate winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn, gave a wonderful talk at an amateur competition for which he was a juror. It was a talk about losing. You can see it here.

There are some things we should compete over. Seeing who can throw a rock furthest out into a lake, for instance. But basing a multimillion dollar investment that will impact thousands of lives on the judgment of five people in a windowless conference room with stale coffee and no empirical criteria for success... maybe not such a good idea.

1 comment:

Professor Batty said...

I've been thinking about this post since I first read it. In Minneapolis, where I live, the New Guthrie Theater Complex (Jean Nouvel, architect) underwent a similar genesis. The final result, while winning awards, has not warmed the hearts of patrons, indeed, many long-time subscribers have given up. It is frightening to many, with harsh and lobbies, poor signage and accessibility, and an over-all lack of human scale. In this case the end-users of the space are the losers, evidently selection committee had some other criteria for its design than its intended use.