How Much Power Should The Public Have In Design Competitions?


The ongoing competition for the redevelopment of the landmark Flinders Street Station in , Australia has begun to raise some serious questions about the role of the public in architecture. The international competition, which narrowed down a total of 117 applicants to only 6 finalists, is due for completion in mid-2013. Each proposal will be put on display and the public will be invited to vote on their favorite design; what is raising eyebrows, however, is that the result of this public vote will be kept from the jury, who has the final say. The jury will not know what the public likes or dislikes when they place their own votes, and the public preference will only be revealed at the very end along with the jury’s decision. 

Although there are pros and cons for keeping this information from the jury members, some Australians feel very strongly about their station - and you can certainly argue that they should have a greater say in its future.

Read more about public participation in architecture after the break… 

Shane Green of The Age argues that when the public is the main user or consumer of a design, it’s just good business practice to give them an honest, influential vote. Awareness of the public’s opinion could help a jury towards a design that the majority prefers or distance them from one that the people are strongly opposed to. In this way, the people that benefit from the building most will have a better chance of getting what they want.

On the other hand, there is a reason the competition rules stand as they do. Many times the uninformed public favors a “safer” design over a more radical, forward-thinking one that will really push the limits of the design industry. Or the public can do the exact opposite and choose a very showy design with wow-factor but little practicality – a very important thing to keep in mind for this particular case, as it is the busiest, most important interchange in Melbourne’s public transport system.

Then there are the practical limitations. As opposed to a slowly-progressing design project under the leadership of one architect, a competition breeds – well – competitiveness, and that often translates into a solitary desire to one-up one’s competitors. Because the nature of most competitions is very high-strung and time-sensitive, firms have little opportunity for serious consultation with varying knowledgeable parties, including the public. A competition leaves no room for market-testing, which Mr. Green points out is “surprisingly uncommon in architecture” to begin with. So it looks like whether or not Melbourne’s becomes the next Guggenheim is up to the jury – and only the jury.

What do you think is the public’s role in design competitions? Leave your comments below and check out our earlier coverage of this controversial competition!

References: Major Projects Victoria, The Urbanist (12), The Age 

Cite: Porada, Barbara. "How Much Power Should The Public Have In Design Competitions?" 15 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • Trice

    In the case of a private development I feel it’s none of the publics business what an owner builds on his private property unless he or she is trying to push legal codes/ variances then I feel it’ll be ok for the public to opine… However in the case of a public building I feel the public should be able to have a say in the overall design. It’s public $$ so why shouldn’t they?? Architects don’t know everything and should be, in the case of a public commission, be ready to accommodate the public’s concerns. The OMA effect to architecture must end. Star architects can be very dangerous to the public

  • Pierre

    What does the general public know about Architecture, let alone about City Planning?!
    It takes YEARS to train Architects and City planners…

    My fears is that the general public would choose the cool looking shiny project instead of the right project.

    Why let an uneducated public do a professional’s job?
    Why not let an uneducated citizen perform a heart transplant then?

    • Lanndy

      Architects and surgeons are worlds apart. There shouldn’t be shiny projects short listed as this just exemplifies Architects typical arrogance and disregard for context.

  • Alex F

    Public opinion should be taken into real consideration before the design process, not after.

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  • Tim Gemperline

    What makes anyone qualified, in this case judging, is knowledge; what makes someone knowledgeable is education (this is a major part of being an architect, especially in communication/presentation); education is sought/absorbed when there is interest; interest is often determined by impact from and interaction with the subject (and to ignore the interested, impacted, and interacting as architects, because we’re architects, is a mistake and what leads to architects themselves deciding on the ‘shiny objects’ of design) – Maybe a reduced size, members of the public jury who themselves must qualify to vote on behalf of the full public is the healthy median in large, public projects; those who will hypodermically listen to/look at the architects’ material and at the same time will be truly impacted by the project in combination with the meat and bones architect jury, who are indeed trained and bring expertise to the operating table. This competition takes two extremes without connecting them meaningfully; designers and the public should not be in opposite corners.

  • Adrian Mateos

    People should be present somehow. Indeed public is present in many competitions through their politicians or representatives, but it is usually not enaugh. My point is that the whole procedure should be more transparent.
    Check out this related post:

  • Valod

    The Architect should just be allowed to go HAM.

  • mox

    To quote Frank Gehry.. ” I don’t know why people hire architects and the tell them what to do”

  • BenFigHen

    I’d vote for an intermediate solution.
    Step 1: Public vote, kept secret to Jury
    Step 2: Jury’s preliminary decision
    Step 3: Jury’s review of public voting + confrontation with own vote
    Step 4: Jury’s final decision

    This way I believe an independent opinion may be guaranteed for the jury as well as giving the public a chance of being seriously held in consideration.

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