Editorial: Keep It Competitive

On  March 21, we finally announced the winners for the AN/SCI-Arc competition, A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions For Los Angeles. I’m incredibly proud and inspired by the wonderful ideas that were proposed. They suggest fresh, smart ideas for the city, and help bring architecture into the realm of transit design and city planning, not just window dressing for the plans of engineers and city officials, but a vital unifier, helping to solve the challenges of transit, neighborhoods, and the city.

The value of competitions in architecture cannot be underestimated. The United States prides itself on being the land of opportunity. Yet when it comes to architecture, it more often feels like the land of the famous and the well-connected. In LA, smaller, talented firms usually get relegated to residential design, and they rarely get a chance to make an impact on the community.

Well-run competitions can help break down these barriers and promote the best architecture. This is common in Europe, and it works quite well, establishing public architecture as a center for excitement and civic pride. In France, for instance, all government buildings must be chosen by concours, or competition by law, while most of the major cultural facilities in countries like Spain, Germany, and Italy are now chosen via competition.

Not only do competitions allow smaller firms to get their start, but they also encourage creativity. Hundreds of innovative ideas can be spawned by such a challenge, well beyond what one or two firms could ever imagine. The more people we give chances to, the better the chances for good design.

Not that competitions are nonexistent in the U.S. The GSA’s Design Excellence Program is a good example of how skilled juries have transformed the architectural quality of many U.S. government buildings. If you look at the competitions page on our site, or on other sites like Archinect, you’ll see that there are indeed plenty. But the majority are not for real projects. Ideas competitions like ours are incredibly valuable, but to really get things moving, we need competitions for buildings in the private and public sector.

Of course, competitions aren’t perfect. Some juries tend to gravitate toward the splashiest, most graphic designs without investigating the ideas behind them, or how they would affect occupants. But choosing a skilled jury and providing the right funding—this doesn’t favor those with deepest pockets—can remedy that. One thing is sure, we need a change of culture, and competitions are a direct way to get that ball rolling.

At the end of the day, it’s worth the extra effort. Architecture needs to be about getting the most talented people and the best ideas produced. The way to do that is to open up the field to everyone.

Sam Lubell