The Greatest Losers: 7 Architecture Competition Entries That Deserved to Win

Architizer’s A+Awards makes a point of celebrating great works of unbuilt architecture, with powerful conceptual proposals invited for every typology.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

By their very nature, architecture competitions inspire emotions of every kind, from exhilaration and awe to regret and — at worst — bitter resentment. As a time-honored method for awarding large, public commissions, the competitive format has been a pillar of the profession for centuries. Yet it has never ceased to be criticized by architects and media commentators alike, many of whom argue that competitions amount to mass exploitation of the financially fragile.

Of course, it is worth remembering that some design competitions have given rise to some of architecture’s greatest icons. Jørn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House brought the relatively unknown 38-year-old architect to worldwide attention — his design beat out 232 other entries and, despite a tumultuous construction period, went on to become one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.

Joseph Marzella’s Brutalist structure (left) narrowly lost out to Jørn Utzon’s pearly white shells in the competition for a new opera house in Sydney’s famous harbor; images via the Daily Mail and Wikipedia.

Most would probably agree that Utzon’s sail-inspired design rightfully triumphed over the second-place entry, a machine-like monolith proposed by Joseph Marzella. However, there have been many other occasions throughout history when the runners-up in architecture competitions can consider themselves very unfortunate not to have come out on top. In these cases, the creative work of architects often feels unfairly wasted, and designs that deserve to be seen are left in the proverbial shadows.

For this reason, Architizer’s A+Awards — the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products — makes a point of celebrating great works of unbuilt architecture, with powerful conceptual proposals invited for every typology. Simply put, amazing architecture deserves recognition whether it is completed or not — and the A+Awards gives every project its moment in the spotlight.

So, as you consider which of your unbuilt projects to submit for this year’s A+Awards, peruse these inspired losing competition entries, and imagine what might have been …

Via Asif Khan

Guggenheim Helsinki by Asif Khan, Helsinki, Finland

The competition to design the Guggenheim’s newest cultural icon in Helsinki was met with unprecedented interest, as a staggering 1,715 different entrants staked their claims for architectural immortality. The winning design by Moreau Kusunoki is an understated, elegant proposal, but there were plenty of other powerful submissions vying for this prized commission.

Amongst the six finalists, London designer Asif Khan’s ethereal concept stands out as a stunning, almost transcendental proposal for the next edition of this famous foundation. Khan describes the translucent structure as a “quiet animal,” its draped facades flowing up from the ground, an architectural extension of the water gently lapping in the harbor. By night, the museum would transform into a lantern, its otherworldly form constituting a contemporary artwork in its own right.

Via The Why Files

World Trade Center by the THINK Team, New York, United States

What has been called “the most challenging architecture project in history” began with one of the most publicized design competitions to date. Following the tragic events of 9/11, the commission to design a new World Trade Center complex in New York was eventually won by Studio Libeskind, with SOM delivering the site’s soaring architectural set piece, 1 WTC. However, many believe that some of the losing competition entries for this sensitive site were more powerful than the pragmatic structures present today.

One such proposal was submitted by the THINK Team, a collaborative group comprising a number of renowned architects including Shigeru Ban and Rafael Viñoly. THINK called for a pair of towering lattice structures, memorializing the tragedy while reconstructing the skyline with an optimistic symbol of freedom and light. The design was originally selected by those in charge of regenerating the area, but ultimately shelved in favor of the vastly more commercial scheme you see today.

Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec by Allied Works Architecture, Québec City, Canada

OMA triumphed in this noteworthy design competition to design a large expansion for the National Museum of Fine Arts in Québec City, Canada, the firm’s stepped pavilion beating out four other finalists for the commission. One of the most striking designs from the losing entries was that of Allied Works Architecture, which produced an elegant vision for the site based on a single charcoal drawing.

The proposal is formed by five interlocking, cantilevered concrete shells that open to Grande Allée, Québec’s principal street, and creates what the firm calls “a bridge between city and museum, between architecture and landscape, between old and new.” This distinctive form would have created an iconic new landmark for the city, its meandering programmatic path taking visitors on an artistic journey.


Flinders Street Station by University of Melbourne Students, Melbourne, Australia

Breaking away from convention, the competition to design the new Flinders Street Station in Melbourne — the Australian city’s primary train terminal — was opened up to a public vote. However, the winner of the “People’s Choice Award” was not selected for the job. That honor went to HASSELL and Herzog & de Meuron, whose perforated canopy of concrete vaults was chosen by a select jury — overriding a public poll that had accumulated 19,000 participants.

This decision caused uproar among the public, who had preferred a design by three local students: Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. The University of Melbourne attendees proposed covering the terminal with a vast green roof, forming a public park with outdoor amphitheaters and other performance spaces in the heart of the city.

Via SkyscraperCity

The Scottish Parliament by Richard Meier & Partners Architects and Keppie Design, Edinburgh, Scotland

The Scottish Parliament became one of the most infamous construction projects in recent U.K. history thanks to an inflated budget, an incredibly complex design and the sad death of its designer, Spanish architect Enric Miralles, when the project was not yet complete. What few realize, though, is that renowned architect Richard Meier almost secured the commission for this key governmental complex in Edinburgh.

Developed in collaboration with local firm Keppie Design, Meier’s proposal — one of the losing finalists on a short list of five — was characteristic of the American architect, sporting simple geometries and crisp white detailing throughout. A curved volume evoked the cylindrical elements of Meier’s Getty Center and San Jose City Hall, and vast walls of glass ensured that the whole facility would be flooded with natural light.

Via Business Insider

The Hive by Hadeel Ayed Mohammad, Yifeng Zhao and Chengda Zhu, New York, United States

As ideas competitions go, the annual Evolo Skyscraper Competition is one of the most well known, and often sparks a huge debate each time it announces its winner. This year was no different — the first-placed project, a “horizontal skyscraper” surrounding New York City’s Central Park, polarized opinion with its controversial subversion of the high-rise typology.

The second-placed submission arguably provided a more compelling vision of a future skyscraper, tapping a much-publicized emerging technology: drones. Taking the place of Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue, the Hive works as a huge docking port for commercial and personal quadcopters, helping to deliver packages to residents across the city. Covered with different-sized modules, the ever-changing facades possess organic qualities, as drones glide in and out from the core like pollen on the wind.

Via designboom

Mountaintop Gallery by Sou Fujimoto Architects, Yashima, Japan

Closely fought architecture competitions continue to proliferate to this day, and proof can be found in the shape of a particularly notable international design contest in Yashima, Japan. The Mountaintop Facility is planned to regenerate the area as a new cultural hotspot — perhaps akin to nearby cultural destinations like Naoshima, home to a host of Tadao Ando–designed museums.

Takashi Sou’s Kyoto-based studio SUO won the commission with a looping pavilion in steel and timber, but the second-placed proposal by Sou Fujimoto Architects was even more striking in the eyes of many. Fujimoto conceived a floating, semi-transparent plane of mesh as a vanishingly thin observation platform overlooking the surrounding forest.

While these memorable losing projects may never come to pass, they offer up a provocative and often inspiring vision of an alternative architectural reality. Got one of your own? Submit it for the upcoming 8th Annual A+Awards.