Tips on design competitions from a sage observer
Sharon McHugh

In the introduction to the forthcoming film, The Competition, directed by Madrid architects Angel Borrego Cubero, the public is treated to a behind-the-scenes look at five international practices vying for the opportunity to design the National Museum of Art of Andorra. What we see is a hectic environment peppered with hot tempers and curse words flying as each team readies its design for submission. It’s not a pretty sight but it’s familiar territory for anyone who has entered a design competition. So why do architects put themselves through it? The endless nights, the frenetic atmosphere, the high costs of entering and the remote chances of winning?

While the odds of winning a competition are indeed slim, with some estimating the success rate as 1 in 10 (which is in my estimation is extremely optimistic!) there are many upsides. Perhaps more than other method of procurement, competitions reward ideas above anything else. For architects serious about their craft there is much to be said about a process that rewards ‘thinking over inking’ and substance over style.

Just ask Farshid Moussavi, who in spite of entering 218 competitions and winning very few, favors design competitions over other procurement methods. In a recent article she penned for the Architectural Review, Moussavi said she prefers winning work this way because, 'competitions are driven by a desire to go beyond what already exists. It’s a chance to design ‘unthought of architecture''. In addition to being an excellent forum for exploring ideas competitions are the ‘procurement method du jour’ of younger architects who are often shut out of interesting opportunities for lack of experience. The fact that competitions eschew experience in favor of rewarding ideas is heartening to those who believe that they can design anything, from a toaster to a stadium, if only given a chance.

While the advantages of design competitions are many they come with their own set of challenges and not everybody is a fan. David Burney, an architect and the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction for NYC is one who has mixed feelings about design competitions. “We do very few competitions” said Burney of his department which procures design services for public projects in NYC ranging from police stations to libraries. “One of the most productive parts of the process of designing a building is the relationship.’” said Burney. He points out that with many competitions there is no dialogue with the client so after a winner is selected you often start over from scratch, making it an expensive process with a good bit of wasted resources. Burney says there are exceptions like sports stadia, where the program is pretty much fixed and the success of the project is less dependent on dialogue. “Two stage competitions


are better in this regard”, says Burney as there is some dialog built in to the process.

Architects electing to go the competition route would be wise to become ‘good readers’ of the competition brief and to educate themselves as best they can on the particular contests they choose to enter. To help architects through this task, we spoke with Stanley Collyer, the Editor-in-Chief of Competitions magazine and a seasoned observer of design competitions. Through his work with Competitions, Collyer has witnessed the judging of many global design competitions and judged some himself. What follows are his general observations about design competitions and his advise to architects on what to look for when selecting a particular competition to enter.

Know the difference between open and invited competitions and competitions in the Northern Europe, the UK, and the continental United States

Not all competitions are created equal. Competitions in the US are particularly risky considering how few of them result in a commission that actually gets built. In continental Europe, there are laws that govern competitions, such as in Germany, Denmark and France, with “France being ‘the place to be’ as far as architects are concerned as there architects are involved in the process from beginning to end and there isn’t some construction manager involved in between”, said Collyer. Many competitions in the US are invited competitions for larger projects, says Collyer. Collyer cautions those thinking about entering such competitions to be prepared for sticker shock. One well known US practice, which will remain nameless, told Collyer they wouldn’t even consider entering a competition unless there was a compensation of $100,000 to do so. That’s the estimate it put on the time and materials of entering. Collyer says clients are currently offering $5,000 - $10,000 to firms for entering. “In a tough economy firms may be willing to accept this but when times get better they may not bother”, he added. Given the high costs of preparing competition entries, architects would be wise to size up the politics, the competitors, and the jury before entering.

Look at the jury make up and who the competitors are

Sizing up the jury is not always easy to do but one should be able to get a general sense of who on the jury might favor one’s approach to projects and who might not. With regards the jury composition, one sign of caution is a jury that seems to have been put together with little forethought, other than having big names on the judging panel. Another thing to watch out for is a jury with an mix of traditionalists and modernists.” Some might bring in a traditionalist to appease the client and if you’re a modernist you may have problems”, said Collyer. Another thing to look at is the list of firms invited. “Do they have a similar philosophy?”, said Collyer. If they don’t one should proceed with caution. Lastly, with regards competitions in the US. the track record is not very good. Many winning entries for US competitions never see the light of day. When this happens the best one can hope for is that the designs will be exhibited and widely publicized. Collyer says when this happens stay in touch.” “There was a competition in the Nashua, New Hampshire that never got built. The firm that won stayed in touch with the client and eventually got the commission. The place where American architects are currently having the most success is Taiwan. Projects recently won


there by Neil Denari and Asymptote for example are being built. Harder to do but equally important is to look at the client to see if it has financing in place for the project. In the U.S. , the competition is often the very same process used to raise money for the project. If you are a firm located out of town it may be good to ally yourself with a local firm. Especially when local monies are allocated for a project, teaming with a local firm can be good politics.

Politics and the ‘Reversal of Fortune’

Politics are part and parcel of design competitions just as they are elsewhere in life and there’s no getting around it. We all know stories of competitions that have gone awry due to politics. And I have one of my own. I followed the design competition for a new municipal building in my community of Princeton, New Jersey. The winner of the competition, or perhaps better said the firm that got the commission and eventually built the project was KSS Architects. But the winner was actually Richardson Smith, Architects, another local firm doing good work. This was one of those cases that Collyer warns against where the jury composition heavily favored politicians, with architects in the minority. Architect Peter Waldman who was that competition’s jury chair of went on the record about the results, reporting that the local politicians overturned the decision of the experts.

We all know too well that this happens more often than many of us like, such as the widely reported reversal of fortune for the Vinoly-led Think team that thought it had the Rebuilding job at Ground Zero in the bag only to have New York Governor George Pataki and the Port Authority rule otherwise in a last minute change of heart that resulted in the project being awarded to Studio Libeskind.

Foster sums it up

Architect Norman Foster, one of the competitors for the National Museum of Art in Andorra, summed up design competitions in this way... “Any competition is only as good as the way it is run, as good as the people organizing it, writing the brief, selecting the people to judge it and the process for judging it. And there standards vary. Sometimes they are fantastic...and sometimes they are a little suspect.”

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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