The Indicator: Still Learning from Las Vegas

  • 20 Oct 2010
  • by
  • Misc
© MIT Press

There is much debate about competitions and their implications for design and the business of architecture. Regardless of where you fall on the pro-con spectrum, the fact remains that they have become institutionalized within the profession and the public expects architects to work this way.

Architectural practice is thus based as much on not getting projects as it is on getting them and getting paid. People in business would consider this a high level of risk. In some ways, given the chances of winning, an unacceptable level of risk and a business condition that merits critical reassessment. Plus, how do you do a strategic risk-assessment for something like design? Maybe not for design, but for the business of design this seems like something worth looking into.

More after the break.

There are upsides and downsides to losing lots of competitions—I won’t go into all of them here. I could have written doing competitions but by doing them architects are assenting to losing most of the time. Is this mentality unique to architecture? No. Chronic gamblers know a lot about this, too. Most businesses would not accept this level of risk. They don’t like gambling. It’s simply not good for, well, business! Apple doesn’t enter competitions to design computers or phones. No one expects them to. They put a lot of money in and get a lot of money back. Architects can routinely put money in and get nothing in return.

© Taylor & Francis

One obvious upside is a plethora of marketing material for going after paying projects. The downside is that potential clients might wonder why you lost so many times. Wouldn’t it look better if you won more? Well, to do this, you need to keep entering and entering and entering—as long as you have the energy and money. You are bound to win eventually. Maybe? And if you win one you can emphasize that in your marketing. You might be able to spin the single win as more important than the fifty you lost—as long as clients don’t evaluate architects the way they evaluate lawyers. Let’s hope not.

OK. So, to be fair, most of the upsides arise when you win. We don’t need to talk about that. You are happy and you might get paid, too—as long as the project actually pans out. Points like this have already been made clear in the debates.

Factors that haven’t been addressed are the broader implications of competitions within the culture and business of architecture in a time of recession?

While entering competitions during the recession might be a way to keep a firm’s name out there, score some marketing points, and keep people in the office busy, it also contributes to the outside perception that design does not need to be valued.

This corresponds to outside misperceptions about the amount of work and resources that go into design. Competitions de-commodify design, or at least make architecture’s status in the flow of commodities suspect and inconsistent. How do you assign value to something so fluid?

Why are architects at the bottom of the professional pay-scale when compared to doctors, lawyers, MBA’s and others? Isn’t good architecture as valuable as good healthcare or good legal representation? Is it possible that too much emphasis on competitions de-values what architects do and negatively impacts long-term financial success?

Within the profession, competitions contribute to a downward spiral of exploitation. Dana Cuff, in her book, Architecture: The Story of Practice, states that the culture of competitions has contributed to the creation of architecture’s minimum-wage workforce. The exploitation of talent and capital in the profession to pursue competitions results in low-paying jobs for junior architects, especially “interns.”

© MIT Press

This is because firms need to keep costs down when going after these long-shots. In most cases it’s a financial loser. Even with compensated, invited competitions, it is usually the case that offices go over-budget and end up pouring a lot of resources into an entry. The clients are clearly in the position of power. They lose nothing and gain a lot of free ideas.

Does the profession as a whole need to rethink how it approaches competitions as a way to re-value and re-commodify design? Think of it this way: clients have money because they don’t work for free. When architects work for free by doing open, non-paying competitions, they place themselves at risk, risk that transfers down through all levels of their workforce. By burning through resources and not generating profit to cushion themselves, firms become even more vulnerable to recessions. Architects are already vulnerable in such times. Does the culture of competitions make them more so?

A large corporate firm recently put up an ad for a temporary position for a design studio leader. The sole purpose of the “studio” within this firm is to enter competitions. They are vampires working for vampires on the outside. But, then again, what if they win?

, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Still Learning from Las Vegas" 20 Oct 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • robo

    One of the elemental benefits of the competitive process is it allows pursuit of design excellence & the exploration/choice of issues explored & concept developed – this unfettered by client meddling, preference, lack of understanding, politics, yada, yada…

    In a cultural mantra of ‘self expression’, access to information & corporate obedience clients who know their limits & look for truly professional expertise/input seem rare.

    Even the ‘best’ firms don’t win every competition – and that fact in and of itself is a raison d’etre for design excellence in the clients interest & architectural exploration.

    In the worst case scenario a client can become their own worst enemy as a non-technical or naive decision maker, without training or developed skill in judgement or worse, relying on a lowest common denominator of group preference without the benefit of informed jury dialogue…

    On the other hand finding an equitable compensation model for competitive procurement would seem critical, as the same uninformed client may also abuse the process in any number of ways.

    I view the two issues as separate unlike many of the critics of competitions – and both of value in further consideration…

  • MZ

    One issue is the architects economical effort and abuse of work power, but on the other side is the issue of giving taxpayer-financed, public planning commisions on private enterprises, such as architect offices. In case of other type of public commisions there are tender competitions as well – a well defined task, open or envited circle of entries – what decides is the pricetag. When public money is spent, everybody should have an equal chance to get the commision. But how should it be decided how public planning commisions are distributed? Price desides? Example: a city decides to build an extension to a theater – who may draw the plans? Every office in town gives a price offer – the smallest wins? Or should it be possible to give such commisions “free handed”? Either way, one thing would play no role: architectural quality.
    Doctors have (at least in Europe) a fixed fee-catalogue – you go to one it cost you (or your health-insurance company) the same as the other one. You don´t choose on the basis of fee, rather on the basis of competence, quality if you will. The idea of an architectural competition is exactly that: offices for public planning commisions chosen on basis of the architectural quality, not the lowest fee offered.