In what could be one of the most exciting design competitions of the year, Greenpeace is challenging architects to don arms and take up the front line in the fight against climate change.

The environmental activist group has launched a “battle of the architects” to create an “impenetrable fortress” to physically block the construction of a third runway at Heathrow.

The structure will be built at the centre of the site in west London, where airport operator BAA hopes to construct a $12.7 billion runway and sixth terminal.

Greenpeace bought the plot of land on which the stronghold will be built last year, before distributing its ownership to people across the world. There are now over 60,000 beneficial owners of the runway land, with more people signing up every day on the Greenpeace website, creating a legal headache for any government trying to push ahead with Heathrow expansion.

Now the one-acre plot will see the construction of a fortress intended to defend the land from bulldozers and bailiffs. The structure will support owners of the land, local residents, seasoned campaigners and anybody else who wants to peacefully block the construction of a third runway.

Australia’s own activist-architect, Andrew Maynard, told Architecture & Design that he hopes to enter the competition.

The winner of the Greenpeace competition will effectively be pitting themselves against architectural giants Grimshaw, which is masterplanning the expansion and the new runway.

However, larger firms, such as Norman Foster Architects, will probably choose not to engage in the competition, Maynard said, because being “radical” is seen as being “too dangerous”.

There is a rebellious streak in many Australian architects and, according to Maynard, this has much to do with the disparity between architectural education and the experience of practice.

“Architectural education is, in its very nature, left of centre. It discusses broad social issues. Students will design at least one social housing project. From here, going into practice can be quite a shock for people. We go into what is essentially real estate speculation — the fortress of the right wing — and, suddenly, all of the broad ideals we were playing with are pushed aside for a skill set of good design that is used in a corporate or commercial way.”

While Maynard, like most architects, is very aware of his position in “that machine” he loves an opportunity to “stick it to the man”.

“I can get very excited about something like this [Greenpeace competition]. It’s great to do something that is not simply charitable, but that causes a bit of trouble,” he said.

The competition is spearheading a “mass movement of ordinary people”, Greenpeace executive director, John Sauven, said.

“We can raise the funds to build it, now we need the right design. We're looking for a structure that is immovable and allows local residents and seasoned environmental campaigners to peacefully block the diggers. It might be underground, it might be over-ground, it might be both, that's up to the panel of experienced judges from the worlds of architecture and activism to decide. This is a battle of the architects. The other side has a budget of billions but in the end only one structure will be left, and it won't be a new runway."

One of the judges, Professor Neil Thomas, the founder of renowned structural engineering consultancy Atelier One, said the competition is “one of the most fascinating design briefs ever”.

“Architects are being asked to design a structure that will become iconic the moment it's finished. Then, very soon after completion, it could face the possible threat of bulldozers and bailiffs trying to tear it down.”

The contest is open to architects, architectural students and architect-led mixed disciplinary teams. Given the nature of the brief, the judges are actively encouraging engineers, artists, landscape designers, sculptors and other professionals aligned with associated bodies to collaborate and submit designs.

Greenpeace is also inviting the public to submit ideas via its website on how to defend the land in a ‘mass brainstorm' to come up with the best concepts.

Also on the judging panel is experienced environmental activist Oli Rodker, a veteran of the 90s road protests, when campaigners built ingenious structures to block the construction of roads and bypasses across the country and eventually forced the abandonment of a multi-billion pound government road building programme.

The deadline for submissions is April 23rd, with the winning design announced soon afterwards. An exhibition of the entrants will be held in a central London gallery at the beginning of June.

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