Jörg Martin Merz, ‘The Competition for the Peace Palace at The Hague, 1905-06: A Case Study of Internationalism in Practice’

The Peace Palace at The Hague, inaugurated on August 28, 1913, was the first major building erected specifically for an international organization, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), established at the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899. It paved the way for the headquarters of the League of Nations and the United Nations in Geneva and New York, respectively, but despite its innovative function, the building was carried out in a historical style recalling Dutch Renaissance town halls. This was the outcome of an international design competition advertised in August 1905 and decided in May 1906 by an international jury of six architects from the principal countries (NL, GB, F, D, A, USA) chaired by a former Dutch minister of state (Karnebeek) in his capacity as a chairman of the Dutch Carnegie Foundation which had been founded to manage the funds provided by the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie toward the construction of this building.

To understand this seemingly paradoxical result it is necessary to outline the aspirations of the Hague Conference and explain the decisions taken on a national or an international level. While the institution (PCA) was established by the whole “civilized world” (delegations from 26 countries) the idea for a building was only pushed by a few individuals from Britain (Stead), Russia (Martens), and the USA (White, Holls) who had attended the conference and secured the support of the philanthropist as well as the consent of the Dutch government and the PCA. The initiative was not, however, pursued by the latter – as one would expect – but by the Carnegie Foundation whose board of directors and administrative council consisted exclusively of Dutch politicians. This “national trust” was motivated by the foreign philanthropist and by the presumed importance of the project to advertise an international architectural competition. Assisted by a Dutch state architect (Knuttel) the board elaborated the programme and selected the jury. Furthermore, they invited leading architects from the signatory powers of the conference, but when pressured by various architectural associations the competition had to be opened world-wide.

216 entries were submitted from 18 nations which were all recorded in a list in the archives of the Carnegie Foundation. This list will be examined regarding the nationalities of the architects and with respect to the procedure of the jury which narrowed down the number of projects to 44 and to 16 in the first two rounds and finally to six which were awarded a prize. The prize-winning drawings and forty additional entries were published in a rare folio-volume in 1907, to which can be added some more projects preserved in the Nederlands Architetuurinstitut in Rotterdam. These drawings display stylistic options ranging from historicism to early modernity, and they express different views regarding the appearance of the building. Obviously the jury voted with strong national biases, since the awards almost exactly corresponded to the jurors’ nationalities. Only the first prize, which was eulogized for its Dutch style, was deceptively submitted by the French Louis-Marie Cordonnier. Ultimately, the effect of the elaborate international procedure was primarily to attract attention. It seems that a Dutch solution was favoured from the beginning. After all, the PCA was established on Dutch soil and assigned to the Dutch Foreign Ministry. As in the case of other buildings for international organizations the host country enjoyed a privilege regarding the planning and construction.

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