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Portsmouth sea defences targeted in ‘elephant cage’ contest for young designers

Portsmouth image by steff
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Project Compass has launched an open competition for young designers to brainstorm ‘enlightened and informed’ sea defences surrounding Portsmouth

The competition, which is open to UK-based architects, engineers and landscape architects aged under 40, seeks ‘integrated’ proposals to rethink and enhance the city’s newly proposed £60 million ramparts.

Selected participants will develop their ideas alongside Dutch counterparts during a collaborative, international and multidisciplinary design charette based on the ‘elephant cage’ concept, which places designers in competitive teams.

According to the brief: ‘Better design solutions are sought that can enlighten and inform Portsmouth’s future response to climate change and UK coastal defence strategies in the wider context.

‘The purpose of this competition is to unlock opportunity and potential, advance knowledge, and develop trans-national networks of expertise across architecture, engineering and landscape design around clearly developed visions that address how the impacts of climate change and the strategies for its mitigation maybe better engaged through integrated design solutions.’

The island city of Portsmouth is almost entirely flat and so at risk from flooding amid rising sea levels caused by climate change. The historic maritime settlement is home to a major port and naval base, and has a population of 205,400 with a greater density than that of London.

The city’s existing sea defences are reaching the end of their life expectancy, and proposals are being developed for a £60 million package of replacements. Early plans indicate new defences could include 3m-high walls in some places to separate the city’s coastal open spaces from the sea.

Concerns have been raised over the walls’ potential impact to the island’s prominent southern frontage, which stretches from Old Portsmouth and Southsea Common to Fort Cumberland and features 40 listed monuments. There are fears that the new defences could limit views of the sea, block an entrance to South Parade Pier and also interfere with ceremonial events such as the Royal Navy fleet review.

The Anglo-Dutch competition, backed by Architectuur Lokaal and the University of Portsmouth, seeks ‘better and more integrated solutions’ to the sea defences’ public realm that could add value to the investment, boost local support and attract private enterprise. The ‘elephant cage’ procedure – developed in the Netherlands – places designers together in competitive teams ‘to elicit a creative ferment of new, fresh and informative design ideas over a short time’.

Three UK architects, along with three UK engineers and three landscape architects, will be selected to participate in a two-and-a-half day charette in Portsmouth alongside an equal number of Dutch competitors. During the event, several teams composed of mixed expertise and nationality will work up schemes in response to a detailed brief.

Three UK and three Dutch specialists will be on hand to provide advice, together with masters’ students from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Architecture who are completing technical, social, environmental and contextual research on the project.

All proposals from the event will feature in an exhibition and be presented to local stakeholders and city representatives. Following the charette, participants will also be invited to visit the Netherlands next March to present their findings to Dutch experts, and witness various sea defence projects in the country.

The deadline for applications is 6pm on 28 October.

How to apply

A competition website will be launched this Friday (30 September) and in the meantime interested parties may request a copy of the brief by email.

Contact details

Email: elephantcage@projectcompass.co.uk

Q&A: competition organiser and first-round judge Walter Menteth of Project Compass

Why are improvements needed to Portsmouth’s proposed sea defences?

The uniquely distinguished Portsmouth frontage is to be protected by much-needed new coastal defences to address climate change-induced rises in sea level. Government funding for sea defences is ringfenced to the defences themselves, without mollification. Where they stop they do so along much of their length with a shear wall on the landside which, when viewed from the city, will be over 3m high in some locations, with irregular and constrained access. The wall will also sever access to the Victorian pier. As the city’s population rises the overall implicit severance of the city from the sea has the potential to diminish the seaside economy, amenity and leisure potential of the popular seafront. There are a growing number of international examples of how more naturalised landside landscapes can be considered to address such public-realm barriers. The aim of the exercise is to explore all these and other new and as-yet unthought of potentials.

How will the ‘elephant cage’ process produce a better outcome?

The ‘elephant cage’ is a unique process because it has an international dimension, drawing together collaborative teams of architects, landscape architects and engineers from the UK and the Netherlands, who may be mentored through the procedure by specialist expertise, which in this case covers the design of water management, coastal interventions and landscapes. The teams, supported by students, work in competition against each other to develop distinctly different responses. There is no one solution as each team develops different scenarios in competition, giving a depth and breadth to the design outputs and allowing the public a choice in the consideration of the opportunities. The competition returns to the Netherlands in March to allow engagement with further Dutch expertise and examples of coastal design strategies, along with the presentation of the Portsmouth work there.

What sort of designers are you hoping will apply?

We hope that young talented, and emergent design architects, engineers, and landscape architects apply, so they may contribute creative, innovative and original design thinking towards the growing impacts of a prescient climate-change problem. This is now and the future, but we are still struggling with what the best design solutions are. This is an important opportunity for participants to engage, network, embed and acquire knowledge and skills, which it is hoped will inform the city to adopt better-value solutions. Moreover it provides an opportunity to develop exemplary skills having equal application in other parts of the UK.

Which other important commissions might a competition structure like this be appropriate for?

This competition process is ideally suited to testing option scenarios, exploring complexities with a wide-scoping, developing innovative speculative thinking, and fermenting progressive development that can contribute towards enhancing a brief and setting aspirations for better value.

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