Kick the Architectural Competition Habit

Kick the Architectural Competition Habit

“There is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession. A fair amount of it is kind of generated through the procedure of competitions, which is really like a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know any other profession that would, kind of, tolerate this…‘You are important. We invite your thinking. But we also announce that there is a kind of 80 percent chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted.’”
-Rem Koolhaas in Urbanized


As our team moved steadily forward to the final round of the Navy Pier redevelopment competition in 2011, I began to question why any architects, landscape architects, or engineers would put up with such an arduous ordeal for the limited promise of somewhat uncertain rewards. These words come with all due respect to my collaborators, colleagues, and the competition organizers. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I also admit that my newly founded practice benefited from the public exposure, and even somewhat financially. The experience left me with lingering concerns about how not just emergent practices, but also the leaders of our profession have become captive to the systematic exploitation of design competitions. This is not a critique of the small-scale ideas competitions that young architects enter with the hope of a small prize or perhaps even a boost to their careers. This is about the high-end contests reserved for prestigious and large-scale projects, which tend to require substantial qualifications just for the privilege of entry.

My concern grew into alarm after viewing presentation videos from last year’s competition for 425 Park Avenue with Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, and Norman Foster. The schemes they presented were unremarkable by their own lofty standards. OMA’s project was particularly disappointing given Koolhaas’ status as the preeminent living theorist of the Manhattan skyscraper. Based on three stacked and rotated cubes, their proposal retreated to a simplistic formalism that lacked any of the challenging narrative or internal programmatic complexity we have come to expect from the best of OMA. One could counter that the constraints of the office building type limited the architects’ ability to innovate. Perhaps. But if that were the case, then why stage the competition at all? The recent competition for the Prentice Hospital site in Chicago also produced less than compelling results and should raise similar concerns, even without the imported celebrities.

The New BIGness.

OMA’s entry for 425 Park Avenue may be symptomatic of an increasingly common condition. The bluntly stacked and rotated cubes seemed reminiscent of some of the recent production of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Of course, Ingels is an OMA alumnus, and this is not an accusation of plagiarism. But it seems that BIG’s success in several U.S. competitions, including the Kimball Art Center (winner), Brooklyn Bridge Pier 6 (winner), Navy Pier (finalist), and St. Petersberg Pier (finalist), seems to be effecting the broader field even when they are not in the game. The simple diagrams, surreal formal effects, and easy imageability of their work has forced some of their more established competitors to enter an arms race of gigantic object-scapes. For example, Michael Maltzan Architects, a practice known for works of wonderful subtlety, actually trumped BIG’s looping “Wave” with its own gigantic bowl shaped “Lens” in the St. Petersberg Pier competition. Maltzan’s proposal has since then fallen victim to an unsurprising combination of budget cuts and local politics. Coincidentally, BIG’s winning proposal for the Kimball in Utah seems to be heading in a similar direction. Monumental victories easily turn into monumental targets after the high of the competition has faded. Hindsight suggests that those of us who competed against BIG at Navy Pier may be fortunate that none of our monumental proposals enticed the jury, which chose James Corner Field Operations’ more restrained proposal, the first phase of which is already under construction.

Despite such exceptions, the evidence is building and the case becoming clearer: The competition industry in the U.S. is having equally as bad or worse effects on the conception of architecture than we already know it has on the business of architecture. The old argument that competitions drive architectural innovation is no longer credible. Developers, cultural institutions, and government agencies have mastered the use of design competitions as publicity campaigns. Their claims of searching for the best ideas is just an alibi that unfortunately continues to seduce too many of our best talents. These drawn out exercises also make very little practical sense when it should be easy enough for clients to choose between architects as distinct and established as the group assembled for 425 Park Avenue by picking up a few monographs or even just looking at their websites. The real justifications are simple. Developers and institutions gain fantastic and relatively affordable publicity from the mad traveling circus of design competitions. By helping them attract financing and donors, we encourage the proliferation of these sham exercises where enormous projects are fully rendered without contracts, necessary approvals, or even clear programs. We clearly have an addiction to architectural competitions, but there is always hope for rehabilitation. While too many senior architects are irreversibly hooked on this mode of practice, the next generation has access to better venues for generating ideas and building our reputations, but we may need to learn some new lessons first.

La Villette…au revoir.

Architecture students in the 1990s were nursed on the twin triumphs of Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de La Villette in Paris (1982–83) and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin (1988–89). They reinvigorated the old myth that design competitions are how both great architects and great projects are made. We turned a corner a decade or two later with the World Trade Center competition of 2002. Once Libeskind’s winning design for Ground Zero had been marginalized, one could hardly doubt that the design proposals had never been the real purpose of the WTC competition. But the contest was actually a great publicity machine for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and Silverstein Properties. Many of the world’s best architects were jonesing to compete, with one conspicuous exception: Frank Gehry declined the invitation and was publicly castigated by Peter Eisenman for criticizing the inadequate compensation offered to the design teams. Mr. Gehry was both admirable and correct in his protest, but trying to explain the financial downside of design competitions to architects is equivalent to explaining the negative effects of heroin to professional users. Eisenman was quoted in a 2007 New York Times article as saying, “To me, when I stop getting invited to competitions is when I quit. That’s what makes me alive.” Not only do many architects not care about the downside of competitions, but we also enjoy chasing the high. The economic arguments will continue to fall on deaf ears, but competitions are also affecting the core values of the profession in ways that should concern us, even when the time and money wasted do not.

200 architects enter, one architect leaves.

Unfortunate episodes like the WTC contest demonstrate how competitions encourage the false but common attitude that one architect’s success depends upon another’s defeat. Such an ideology of winners and losers is typical of our neoliberal age and especially effective at breeding animosity among would-be colleagues when the stakes are high. To make matters worse, teams for major competitions have become bloated with collaborating architects and their attending consultants in attempts to appear hyper-qualified. Unfortunately, this can then also cause competition within teams, first for control over the design, and then for bigger shares of the work and fees if they happen to win. And finally, senior architects seem to be competing now against very young firms for minor institutional commissions such as temporary museum installations. These competitions are inevitable money losers for firms of even moderate size, yet they still enter the chase with hopes of publicity or possibly a larger and more profitable commission down the road. I declined to enter, but bore witness to such a contest last year in Chicago. This unfortunate kind of generational warfare stifles innovation by making it increasingly difficult for more new voices to enter the field.

Rewriting the brief.

Heroic myths forgotten, we should recognize that the best competition winners—and also rans—from recent architectural history tend to have been the products of research that was developed over time and in advance of the contests. Before winning Fresh Kills and the High Line, James Corner had already researched, drawn, and written Taking Measures Across the American Landscape (1996). Before their famous La Villette entries, Bernard Tschumi had already conjured the Manhattan Transcripts (1976–81) and Rem Koolhaas had written Delirious New York (1978). Fortunately for all of us, today’s emergent practices have a robust network of resources and institutions dedicated to supporting the production and publication of speculative work. These include research universities, galleries, peer-reviewed publications, as well as a growing assortment of fellowships and residencies. Unlike competitions these creative and intellectual programs tend to hold collegiality and mutual support as core principles. Obviously there are more efficient, gratifying, and cost-effective ways of nurturing our practices than participating in competitions. Yet here I emphasize the seemingly less obvious fact that the same holds true for the quality of our work. In the same New York Times article Thom Mayne answered, “I’m not sure how you’d replace it,” when asked what to do about the architectural competition system. Old addictions die hard, but for the next generation I offer a New Year invitation to join me in rehabilitation. The course of treatment is simple: early, complete, and permanent retirement…from architectural competitions.