Derek Leavitt (@architectderek on Twitter) recently posted an opinionated blog entry on "Why Open Architecture Competitions Are Bad for Architects". The author outlined why entering competitions is detrimental not only to the individual, but also to the field of architecture.
Competition has been a defining characteristic of architecture for centuries. Without competitions to spur creativity, a young woman would have never submitted her graceful yet powerful black line…and we would be without the Vietnam Memorial. Without architects using competitions as a way to test urban gestures, a young team would have never submitted their idea to use just a portion of their allotted site, leaving the rest for a public plaza…and we would be without the Pompidou Center in France. And, dating quite farther back, without an Italian man initially losing a competition and then determined to further his architectural understanding, we would be without the grand achievement of Brunelleschi’s dome.
The point is that although competitions are demanding, and at times may seem unfair, they are a staple in our profession which pushes the field forward. With this in mind, we will attempt to argue in favor of the open competition, in the hope that we can persuade and inspire you to keep listening to your instinctive competitive nature and keep compiling those entries.
First, we combat The Money + Time /Devaluing Profession Argument. While we do understand that architecture is a “business”, with the aim to actually make a living, one’s sound financial standing is not the underlying reason for becoming an architect; for, if we were purely concerned with the monetary side, few of us would be in the profession.
We are in the profession because we are passionate about what we do. Although a firm is losing money by devoting creative energy to a proposal that will not generate income, competitions should not be ruled out because they don’t pay. Often times the “real world” can be suffocating as there are client meetings, codes to abide by, budget constraints and deadlines. The freeness of a competition should be a welcomed breath of fresh air in the sense that you are truly designing for yourself.
And, the results of competitions, not just the winners, increase the understanding of the profession. Within the architecture realm, other firms and students can learn from the various approaches. But, probably one of the greatest things about competitions is that they provide a way for the non-architect to relate to what we do. Just take the competition for Ground Zero in New York. Dozens of competition entries were put on display in the Winter Garden at the Financial Center, as families and people not related to architecture walked around admiring the creativity. Perhaps the young children and their parents could not fully understand the technicalities of the drawings, but they could relate to the imagery and understand the idea…and thus, the competition allowed “outsides” to become excited about architecture.
Second, the No Reward Argument. It may be a little disconcerting when it seems as though the same standard names always win. Some call it politics, but that’s just how it works. If you aren’t the winner, how do you qualify ‘reward’? Although quite cliché, the sense of pride and accomplishment one receives from forming a proposal is the reward. Think about it…generally competition time limits are very short, stressing the designer to think creatively in a short period of time. Being able to do that is no small feat. Plus, if we use the competition to try a new rendering program or go back to the days of intensely diagramming, our reward is being able to use new tools to communicate our ideas.
Third, the Too Much Competition/Too Little Attention Argument. Of course there will be dozens, even hundreds and thousands of other participants. While it may seem unfair that the jury cannot spend the time to truly understand a proposal, the beauty of architecture is that we have been trained to communicate months of thinking using a graphical language. It shouldn’t matter if the jury spends 1 hours, 10 minutes, or a mere 30 seconds looking at the proposal. Our graphics should be strong and clear enough to fully illustrate what we are trying to convey. The competition allows us to strengthen our graphics as a way for us to evaluate our success in depicting our intentions.
Lastly, we tackle the Conceptual Argument. Competitions provide architects with the ability to escape the realities of the “real world” and spring back to our roots of why we ever started on this journey. When it comes down to it, the competition is about the idea, and it is so crucial not to lose sight of the importance of the architectural idea.
But the strongest and most successful ideas are those that can be developed into something tangible. To claim that competitions yield merely conceptual notions that do not amount to anything built is just simply untrue. Take, for instance, Herzog and deMueron’s Bird’s Nest or SANAA’s recently completed Rolex Center on the campus of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. These proposals surely started as conceptual thoughts and then developed into physical structures that did not lose their design quality.
The power of an idea should never be taken for granted. Even competitions aimed at purely generating “ideas” keep us on our toes and constantly thinking. Antonio Sant’Elia and the Italian Futurists understood that their designs would not be built – but that wasn’t the point. Their drawings and sketches were channels for the thinkers to depict a new urban image of revolutionary ideas. It was an expressive way to get people to start thinking and challenge the conventional.
As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The architect must be a prophet… a prophet in the true sense of the term… if he can’t see at least ten years ahead don’t call him an architect.” Competitions give us this avenue to evaluate conditions and then experiment, play and explore. Hopefully, architects will not loose their motivation and will continue to see the value of the competition.
Architectural Competitions are a glorious waste of time… Do a lot of them
I try to enter a few Architectural competitions each year. Apparently, my ego must be pretty resilient. I never win (never even get close) and yet, I just keep entering again and again. Oh, Architectural Competitions, Why can’t I resist your charms?
Well, maybe because:
- They allow for freedom of thought. They are a great way to flesh out ideas you aren’t able to explore in your day job. Unless you happen to have an amazing day job, in which case, I don’t really want to hear about that right now.
- Competitions often focus on urgent social and cultural issues. Like disaster recovery, homeless housing, urban renewal, city planning, or environmental consciousness. Working on them is a great way to stay socially active and thoughtful. It’s a way to express what you stand for and “design like you give a damn”.
- Deadlines are your friend. Face it, you’re never going to finish that painting you started in 1997, are you? A competition will give you a deadline and an exact list of the required documents to submit. It will give you a structured way to channel your creative energy. And, ideally, you’ll assemble a team to help you, and keep you on track. Because, you (my friend) are lazy.
- They give you that warm, pleasant feeling of accomplishment. Maybe even a sense of pride. And, your mom will be proud of you. Well, not my Mom. She’ll make me feel guilty for not spending that time making some money to feed her grandkids. She’s got a good point actually.
- Competitions will make you a better designer. You’ll get better at your graphics. You’ll step up your game when it comes to presentation materials. You can even use it as an excuse to try out that new rendering software, or build a chipboard model like you used to do in school.
- You could win… Well, not me, but maybe YOU could win.
So, go dig around and find a competition to enter. You’ll feel better.