For decades, architectural competitions have been recognized as a great way for architecture firms to get their big break, or to make a name for themselves in the types of projects they might not have been considered for before. However, competitions come with a downside: it’s not always easy for firms to build them in to their culture. Design competitions take time, often don’t translate to billable hours, and aren’t always clear pathways to strengthening the firm’s balance sheet, and as a result they have seen something of a backlash in recent years.
Still, as the architecture profession evolves, it’s important we never lose sight of the remarkable value design competitions can bring to architects, firms and design culture. Regardless of their type, scale or structure, design competitions are key creative opportunities that can enrich our efforts personally and professionally, and as design leader of CannonDesign’s New York City office, I’ve worked with my colleagues to embed them into our work. We see numerous ways in which they can add value to our work, our firm and our clients – and they could do the same for you too.
Historically architectural competitions have led to the construction of some of the most culturally significant buildings of our times. From the Acropolis in Athens to The United States Capitol Building and more recently Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, competitions have allowed sometimes unknown designers the chance to complete major works of architecture. Even the losing entries have frequently had important lasting effects on design culture. The Chicago Tribune Tower entry of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer announced the impending rise of modernism in the early 20th Century. At CannonDesign, we even treat competitions as educational tools. Just recently, we found ourselves looking at an unselected Morphosis entry for a library in Berlin, analyzing and studying it in reference to an academic project we are beginning work on. Competitions display a wonderful continuity and delightful churn of ideas and experimental design strategies.
Despite the drawbacks, here’s a look at four key reasons design firms should work to engage in design competitions on a regular basis:
1. They Strengthen Firm Culture
Balancing architecture’s duality as both a creative pursuit and a service industry impacts firms in multiple ways. On one hand, working within client budgets, aggressive timelines and site constraints is an exciting challenge in and of itself. However, at that same time, those challenges can unfortunately limit a team’s ability to really push the boundaries with design.
Competitions often have far fewer “real-world challenges” in their early stages and allow design teams to fully flex their creative muscles. They’re able to dream, experiment and try new things on a scale that isn’t always available during day-in, day-out project work. This isn’t just good for creativity, it’s good for firm culture. Some of the most fruitful days in our offices have been impacted by work related to design competitions. The boundless creativity we find within design competitions has a knack for influencing our energy, communication and creative work on other projects, too.
2. They Inform Other Client Work
The renderings and schemes we develop during competitions may not always lead to built work, but they can influence other efforts design teams are engaged in at the time. For example, our team recently took part in a design competition for a World War I Memorial we ultimately did not win. However, during the competition we experimented with a fractured ground plane we later modified and repurposed for a landscaping feature as part of a design study for St. John’s University. Similarly, our World War I memorial design had spikey, beak-like walls at the entrance that we re-imagined as a special window for a new dormitory at Purchase College.
The World War I memorial is one recent example, but I could point to similar design inspiration that stemmed from earlier design competitions and ultimately impacted current work at Carnegie Mellon University, Dickinson College and Rutgers University.
3. Design Competitions Are Good Practice
While design competitions and billable client work are different, there are aspects that both share. Winning work as a design firm often requires presenting ideas in response to Request for Proposals (RFPs), Request for Qualifications (RFQs) and also in-person interviews. We treat all these steps as mini-competitions. Design firms invest a great deal of work, from creating models to sketching diagrams and perspectives as part of the process in securing an architectural commission. So much of this work happens and is generated similarly to how design teams engage competitions – research, visit the site, sketch, imagine, refine, and sketch more. Interestingly enough, for us this up-front work to win a project often directly influences the end result.
One specific example of this is our work with Dickinson College’s Kline Athletic Center. It’s possible to look at the final, completed building and then look back at the drawings and models we shared in the interview to see linear correlation in the design process. Treating the selection and interview process for this new campus facility as a competition allowed us to not only win the project, but inform much of the work to come in the months and years that followed. Bringing this extreme focus to winning work helps design firms down the line each and every day.
4. They Help Identify and Recruit Top Design Talent
On the wall next to my desk is a collage of sketches, renderings and images from many of our recent and current design efforts – from billable work with clients to open and paid competitions. It’s a must-visit stop when we’re interviewing new designers interested in our firm. It shows them the breadth of our work and they’re often surprised by our commitment to design and creativity. The fact that we take part in design competitions speaks to students and recruits, and some have seen it as a differentiator in joining our firm.
Moreover, I’ve always believed you can tell who is going to excel as a designer based on the work they do outside the office. I always look for design competitions within the portfolios of prospective recruits. The best designers are self-selected, see the world through the prism of design and are always in the hunt for new ways to directly express their passions. Design competitions allow this desire and pursuit to shine through as they step away from billable hours and simply think as creatively as possible.
John P. Reed, AIA is CannonDesign’s New York City Design Leader with more than 25 years of experience designing innovative cultural and public buildings worldwide. His creative drive and ability to delivery large-scale designs that break new ground highlight his architectural vision.