March 21, 2010


“Why have architectural competitions? For practitioners, they offer the chance of a job without the grief of negotiation or self-promotion, and they can sometimes jump a small practice to the next level. For clients, competitions provide the opportunity to choose from many alternatives, show sympathy with architecture, and – in most cases – do it on the cheap. For the public, competitions carry the seal of meritocracy, seemingly outside familiar cronyism.” (Michael Sorkin, Architectural Record, 11.03, p.63) Does your sponsor firm undertake competitions? Why or why not? If so, please discuss the risks and benefits of competitions using as an example a competition your firm has taken part in.

The group discussion on “why we have architectural competitions” included Randy Brown, Chris Turner, Meg O’Mara, and I.

Randy began the conversation by breaking down architectural competitions into two separate categories: paid and unpaid.  The differences are obvious, but a few of the things I learned from the discussion that weren’t as evident were the number of similarities they share. Chris pointed out that networking is achieved from both paid and unpaid competitions. When accepting the challenge of an invited competition or even entering an open competition, the door has been opened to get the firm’s name out and into the public. Later in the discussion, Randy stated that not only do the sponsors of the competition benefit in the end, but the architects and firms who partake in it receive something as well. Entering open competitions that we (RBA) have no prior background experience in doesn’t mean it’s going to be a slaughter house and we won’t gain anything from it. Instead knowledge gained from researching about a specific genre of projects is something that we can add to our company’s resume for later projects.

When it comes to competitions, Randy made very clear that you have to be very cautious of who is on the jury; it is vitally important to have at least one architect as a jury member.  If there isn’t an architect as a jury member, RBA tends to steer away from those competitions to avoid wasting time.

Time is the double edged sword to competitions. It never seems to fail that a competition gets added to the list of things to do at the busiest time of the year. Even if RBA is swamped with work, it can’t be justified not to enter the competition. This is because, if it’s not a paid competition, we are at least doing paid-work while working on the non-paid competition. Sometimes RBA is forced to “gamble” and enter a competition during less hectic times and take a loss. But, if we end up winning, or receive business in the end from it, it’s all worth it. One of the projects where RBA took a risk with a competition was the Judson College art school competition. This was a paid-invited competition to design a portion of Judson College outside of Chicago in Illinois.

After hearing the discussion on paid and unpaid competitions, I’m a little surprised how much thinking must take place even to just accept or decline the competition. Coming from a background experience of next to nothing of working in firms, I always assumed that anytime a firm was asked to participate in a competition that they would immediately jump on board. But what I learned was that by accepting before thinking about the pros and cons of the competition could end up as a very costly mistake. By accepting every non paid competition you get could help you expand your knowledge, but it takes money to keep a firm working and with no money, you won’t be doing any work. In the end, I’m beginning to realize the nuts and bolts that construct the way an architecture firm works, but more importantly, how to make it successful.   Measuring success is dicey but I would say RBA has been very successful, just look at the remarkable built projects, a few of which started with a competition.

Leave a Reply