Young Architect Guide: How to Win Design Competitions

Could you be the next Maya Lin?

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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There’s nothing worse than a competition.

Or nothing better. I don’t know.

On the one hand there’s the lack of sleep, the frustration, the working for free, the lack of sleep; on the other hand, there’s the chance that whatever you cook up in your fever dream could actually be built. Competitions, especially open and blind design competitions, make you think that the world could actually be fair for once and reward the humble genius idling in obscurity.

For the sake of this audience, I’m going to talk primarily about open competitions, the cattle calls that young professionals and students enter in the hopes of becoming America’s Next Top Architect. There are hundreds of them running at any given time and it’s hard to know how to pick which ones to enter, or whether or not it’s a good idea to enter them at all. It’s a wild world out there.

Entries to the competition for the London rival to the Eiffel Tower. Image courtesy CityMetric.

Every competition is different, but they generally fall into one of four categories:

Student competitions can be a great way to get a scholarship or some flashy portfolio images, but don’t expect to see foundations getting dug.

Ideas competitions typically don’t result in a built project either, but they can generate a lot of publicity and encourage out-of-the-box concepts. City officials or urban non-profits will sometimes use ideas competitions as a way to outsource brainstorming to the underemployed design world’s schizophrenic hive mind.

Many of these competitions come with hefty money rewards. With the right mix of showmanship and visual seduction, a design idea can sometimes get legs of its own if it can excite the right people, but most of these competitions are conversation starters, not conclusions.

Moreau Kusunoki’s winning design for the Guggenheim Helsinki competition; via Architizer

Open building competitions offer the most tantalizing promise: that an undiscovered designer will be plucked from their corporate nine-to-five job and propelled into the starchitecture stratosphere, on their way to a Pritzker and canonization. The catch is that this rarely happens. It would be safe to say “never happens” if it weren’t for the exceptions that prove the rule (see: Maya Lin). Open building competitions are often run by clients who have little to lose by awarding an unknown and inexperienced designer the project, which can also mean that the clients have little resources to see the project through.

Closed or invited competitions more frequently result in an actual building, but that’s why it is so hard to get invited to them. Being able to actually build a building requires a lot more sophistication than laying out a rough floor plan and putting together some splashy renderings, and serious clients want to make sure that whoever wins their competition can see the project through.

HASSELL and Herzog & de Meuron’s winning entry for Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. Australia; via Archello

Once you’ve figured out what kind of competition you generally want to enter, it’s worth taking some time to look at who’s running the show. As you’re scrolling through Bustler, first look at the client and jury, if any. Obviously a competition with a jury that has a lot of relatively high-profile names is likely to be serious and get a lot of attention, but don’t shy away from non-juried competitions run by reputable organizations.

Groups like the Van Alen Institute or the Regional Plan Association know how to run a competition and reward winners properly, and they usually base their competitions around culturally relevant issues. Recurring contests, like the eVolo Skyscraper Competition, may not get anything built, but at least the results are going to be well publicized and discussed. That competition for a gallery for an arts foundation in the Berkshires may seem more exciting with more promise of a real building, but if the client is inexperienced or not serious, the results are likely to slide into the night.

“New York Horizon” by Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu, winners of the 2016 Evolo Skyscraper competition; read more about the project here.

But what about the dream that competitions proffer — the dream that you might be elevated into the pantheon of the architecture greats? It is a dream that is as old as architecture itself. The Acropolis was supposedly designed through a competition, and modern competitions have their roots in Renaissance contests, like for the dome of the Florence Cathedral.

Competitions have resulted in some of history’s most significant buildings, and some competitions have become benchmarks of architectural progress, assembling contemporary titans to solve a single problem, giving voice to the range of styles and ideas at work at a given moment. Think of the Chicago Tribune Tower, Yokohama Port Terminal, or Parc de la Villette competitions. But these glitzy, history-making contests are usually invite-only and favor at least somewhat established names. Most public competitions are like black holes of creative energy, sucking the light of a generation into a dark pit, never to be seen again.

A still from the documentary “The Competition”; via Uncube Magazine.

Competitions are exciting for young architects and students because they hold out the tantalizing possibility of instant success. They cater to a young creative person’s sense that they are a genius waiting to be discovered, that their real life — their fully realized life of greatness — is just around the corner. But most open building competitions are actually boondoggles, with winners waiting for years for money to materialize. Even closed competitions with elite competitors with Pritzker Prizes often don’t end up with anything real.

That’s not to say they aren’t worth entering. Just know what you want to get out of them and be strategic. There are more efficient ways to get clients, there are more efficient ways to make things, and there are other ways to get ideas out there and seen by other people. Try an ideas competition that has a creatively social agenda. Or, rather than designing another Guggenheim, maybe you could look closer to home and figure out what architects could be doing in your own neighborhood, on your own block or somewhere close by with a real need. Then post what you did online and start conversations with people who want to do the same.

Little projects might not offer the potential for instant fame, but they could do a world of good.

Architizer's 12th Annual A+Awards are officially underway! Sign up for key program updates and prepare your submission ahead of the Main Entry Deadline on  December 15th.  

Top image: Maya Lin with her winning entry for the Vietnam War Memorial competition; via Academy of Achievement

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