Competitions: What’s the Real Prize?

You win some, and you also don’t lose some. A recent conference on design competitions drew a range of views on what constitutes hitting the bull’s-eye.

By Elizabeth S. Padjen

Mohsen Mostafavi, Francine Houben, and Craig Dykers discuss at the Keynote Panel moderated by Cathleen McGuigan.

In the opening scene of the first episode of Mr. Selfridge, an American businessman, Harry Selfridge, tries on a pair of kid gloves in a proper Edwardian department store. When he decides he wants to try something else, the clerk asks what he would like to see. “Well, maybe I don’t know until I see it,” he answers. “Why don’t we get a whole lot of them on the counter and then we can see what we like?” The clerk explains that’s not how things are done. “Come on,” he cajoles, “let’s have a little bit of fun”—and soon a drawerful of gloves is heaped on the counter.

Clients shopping for just the right design, civic-minded organizations browsing the marketplace of ideas—it’s sometimes hard to let go of the notion that design competitions are at their heart a retail experience. How can we know what we like until we see it? And shouldn’t we all have a little bit of fun while we’re trying to figure that out?

Exploring the ways that competitions can reach beyond mere consumerism was the focus of a recent conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 23 and 24, cosponsored by the Van Alen Institute and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The event, dubbed “The Design Competition Conference” (surely “a” would have been more accurate, given the inevitability of future similar symposia), coincided with the release of the findings of a design competition survey conducted by Van Alen and Architectural Record magazine.

Mentions of Brunelleschi’s dome served as reminders that competitions, and their attendant controversies, are deeply embedded in design culture. Certainly no student escapes design school—whatever the discipline—without an exposure to the competition process, either through its simulacrum, the jury review, or by pursuing actual prizes. Some of the discussion was therefore unavoidably familiar. Yet the event delivered the intellectual goods by tracing changes in the context and uses of competitions, including recent claims, as noted by the Harvard planning professor and conference organizer Jerold Kayden, that “they are a superior process for securing innovative, creative, interdisciplinary outcomes best suited to the increasingly complicated questions of our time.” Even practices with a no-competitions policy may find themselves reevaluating their position.

One of the difficulties of any serious discussion of design competitions is the lack of good data, a situation that Van Alen set out to remedy with a survey. Results were collected as raw data, key findings, and 10 propositions (all available on the institute’s website) and were generally unsurprising. A lack of compensation is the primary barrier to entry? Competitions generally do not lead to paid commissions? Designers enter competitions anyway because of the opportunity to experiment and the chance of increased visibility? Same as it ever was.

The raw data did provide some insight. No one will be startled to hear that “designers are strategic about how much time and resources they spend on competitions.” But is it more significant to know that 61 percent of respondents estimate the anticipated expenditure of time and money before entering, or to consider the disturbing corollary—that 39 percent apparently don’t care that they could lose their shirts? Left unknown is whether this statistic says more about the financial illiteracy of more than a third of the design community, the financial comfort of a sizable chunk of its population, or the sheer desperation of its practitioners.

The survey received an impressive 1,414 responses from 65 countries, representing a range of disciplines. More than half of the respondents were under 44 years old, perhaps reflecting the enduring influence of what one young audience member called “the Cinderella story”—the rags-to-riches hope that long hours of unrewarded drudgery will at last be redeemed by exposure to an appreciative set of eyes.

Kayden and his conference co-organizer David van der Leer, the executive director of Van Alen, wisely decided to address the Cinderella factor head-on, effectively allowing the rest of the program to explore ways competitions might break new ground. The opening session featured the architects Craig Dykers of Snøhetta and Francine Houben of Mecanoo, as well as Mohsen Mostafavi, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Dykers and Houben each presented the familiar origin story: Both were under 30 years old when they won the open competitions that launched their careers and their firms—the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the case of Snøhetta (teammates used up their prize money on the flight to collect their winnings), and the Kruisplein housing competition, which Houben and two equally young colleagues won while she was still a student.

Both firms continue to pursue competitions, although their experience (hundreds of submissions in the case of Snøhetta) and stature allow them to better their chances of success—and remuneration—through more invited competitions. Even so, they win some and lose some—Snøhetta enjoyed a winning streak of 18 competitions, but has also lost 12 consecutive forays.

They are also more strategic in their choices. Houben spoke on the eve of the official opening of the already-acclaimed Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Boston, the result of a competition won in conjunction with Sasaki Associates that serves as Mecanoo’s first U.S. project. Dykers offered a matrix of factors influencing his firm’s decision making, noting a particular focus on acquiring connections through the process. But the process serves other purposes, too. “Sometimes when you’re in the grind of things,” he said, “the younger people need to stretch their wings—like if they’ve been doing toilet schedules for three months.” He estimated that 90 percent of the firm’s American portfolio involves invited competitions.

The Cinderella tale, with its come-all-young-maidens ball at the prince’s castle, is ultimately the story of an open competition. One of the most high-profile current examples is the Guggenheim Helsinki, which received 1,715 submissions and was the focus of a case study during the discussions. A sexy design problem on an urban waterfront in übercool Scandinavia—this is exactly the sort of potent blend of pheromones that drives designers into a frenzy.

Credit: Zara Tsanev / Harvard GSD
Mohsen Mostafavi, Francine Houben, and Craig Dykers during the Keynote Panel.

A good conference, like a good novel, benefits from the introduction of conflict, and here Marshall Brown, an architect and associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, played the role of designated antagonist with an eloquent open letter to the Guggenheim finalists. The line between opportunity and exploitation is often fuzzy; Brown has become known as an impassioned voice against the exploitative aspects of competitions. The search for the best ideas “is just an alibi that unfortunately continues to seduce too many of our best talents,” he said. “The real justifications are simple. Developers and institutions gain fantastic and relatively affordable publicity from the mad traveling circus of design competitions.”

Guggenheim Helsinki is perhaps the epitome of the retail analogy; a visit to its website leads to clickable thumbnails of all 1,715 submissions—like so many gloves heaped on a counter and ever so much fun. It makes no promises of an actual commission, as Brown pointed out, and in fact the project faces significant opposition in Finland, which makes Brown’s imagined alternative endings to the Guggenheim story especially tantalizing: “What if you decided not to complete your projects?… What if you all just walked away?”

Perhaps the most compelling counterbalance to Brown’s descriptions of “self-imposed captivity” came from the landscape designer and planner Gena Wirth, a principal at SCAPE in New York. Wirth described her firm’s participation in Rebuild By Design, the competition promoting coastal resiliency in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and one of the case studies that profiled ways in which competitions can be not only the best way, but perhaps also the only way to achieve exceptional results. “This competition was absolutely a gift to our office,” she said. “It allowed us to be a leader in the conversation around infrastructure, which so rarely happens. Infrastructure conversations are almost exclusively led by engineers and shaped by politicians.”

Wirth’s comments suggested a refreshing attitude: that competitions can be empowering. “We came into this competition with an agenda,” she said. “We had ideas we wanted to explore.” Some of those ideas had their genesis in Rising Currents, the 2010 exhibition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art that generated enormous publicity but no built results. “We did this proposal and this competition to see an idea executed,” she said. Acknowledging that the team would have been “heartbroken” if they had not won, she also described the firm’s Plan B for such an event: identify a small-scale product that could be executed regardless of the official outcome and that might contribute to the public good. Their answer? An oyster-gardening manual for use in the schools, which has already led to oyster-farming projects in New York Harbor as part of an ecological curriculum. Fine, use us, she seemed to say, and we’ll use you right back.

Frustrations with the limitations of the old black-box style of competition—throw a designer and a project brief into a room and hope a great idea emerges by the deadline, which is the Guggenheim Helsinki model—have led to what sometimes seems like the opposite extreme: lengthy, process-heavy, multistage formats featuring extensive public involvement ranging from serious midstage critiques and exhibitions to social events masking as public reviews. However cumbersome, participants—clients and winners, at least—seem sold.

The technique works well when community support is vital. In the case of the recent 11th Street Bridge Park Design Competition in Washington, D.C., for example, the process was designed to build community engagement and stakeholder support to overcome distrust and fears of neighborhood displacement. Won by OMA + OLIN—the public vote fortuitously aligned with a unanimous jury vote—the competition could serve as a national model for the problems of aging postwar bridges.

Jerome Chou, a landscape architect and the director of competitions at Van Alen, asked the obvious question: Could a similar result have been achieved by hiring OMA + OLIN outright to lead a planning and design process? “Just selecting the team wouldn’t have given [the community] the same ownership in the process,” answered Scott Kratz, the project director, citing a history of missteps and broken promises in the neighborhood. “If it were not an open and transparent process, it would have been a giant step backward.” That process included two years of preliminary work with people in the community and creation of a design oversight committee to continue public engagement throughout the course of the competition.

Another example is the Connect Kendall Square competition, intended to develop a framework for the design and development of open spaces in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, district, which was won by a team led by Richard Burck Associates. The first two stages focused on the selection of team leaders and then the teams themselves, which were interviewed to generate a short list of four entrants. During the design phase, the entrants met with city department heads twice in three-hour sessions, and twice with a community planning committee; the point, said Skip Burck, FASLA, in a later conversation, was to ensure that the proposals would be realistic and that the city could endorse any team selected by the jury.

Was the competition necessary? It’s not hard to imagine that a landscape firm hired through traditional procurement procedures could have come up with a satisfactory response—but perhaps not a better response. The process energized the creativity of participants, Burck said, because of the motivation to outpace other teams—competition in its simplest definition. The focus on team composition also pushed them to work more closely with a broader range of disciplines than might be expected, or even possible, in a more traditional design process—another goal of the city. “We came up with ideas that we’ve never generated before,” Burck said.

Credit: Zara Tsanev / Harvard GSD
Jerold Kayden and Reed Kroloff at the Future of Design Competitions panel.

In his introductory remarks, Kayden referred to the ubiquity of competitions in popular culture, citing in particular television programs such as American Idol, X Factor, and Project Runway. But it was astonishing to realize how extensively other sectors of our society are also embracing the competition model, not as a simple contest, but as a process for creating ideas or products.

Who knew, for example, that the White House, through its Office of Science and Technology Policy, has an “open innovation” initiative that promotes the use of prizes and crowdsourcing to meet technological challenges? Government programs tend to focus on “incentive prizes”—competitions that offer a monetary award to the first person or team to achieve a measurable goal. Frequently cited examples are the 1714 Longitude Prize, the 1919 Orteig Prize (won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris), and the Ansari X Prize (the $10 million prize created in 1996 for the development of a reusable suborbital space vehicle). Noting the effectiveness and growth in prize challenges since the 1970s, the Obama administration pushed for their adoption at the federal level and, in 2010, Congress reauthorized the America Competes Act, originally passed in 2007 and signed by President George W. Bush, which allows every federal agency to conduct prize competitions; more than 400 competitions have been held since then. Information on all federal competitions, which are not limited to technical challenges and even include photography, video projects, and logo design, can be found on the website

Indeed, an entire competitions industry has mushroomed in recent years. Nidhi Chaudhary, a vice president at HeroX, a spinoff of XPRIZE, described her work in developing an online platform for smaller-scale private-sector challenges, somewhat like Kickstarter. “HeroX was born,” she said, “for anyone to be able to design a challenge, run it, accept submissions, crowdfund the prize if they don’t have the money yet, and judge—all of that in an online space.” Much of her work includes “challenge design,” which has become its own subindustry. HeroX projects include GoFlyUp, for the development of a personal jetpack, and Innovate San Diego, led by the local newspaper in partnership with the mayor’s office. Others include corporations turning to crowdsourcing for operational issues, such as Netflix and Allstate challenges ($1 million and $10,000 respectively) to solve particularly vexing algorithm problems.

OpenIDEO, an online arm of the design firm IDEO, is another initiative promoting “design thinking” to solve complex social issues through challenges. Indeed, the online world is awash with competition platforms and crowdsourced challenges – some of which wobble from the cool to the downright goofy, such as these recent listings on the Architect’s Newspaper website: “Chicco and Desall invite all creative people to dive into the world of babies to develop evolutionary spaces and products…Awards: €2000.” (If you have such a product, perhaps you should develop it yourself.) “We are a big Italian food company and…we have launched ‘Game for Breakfast,’ the contest aimed at finding new creative talents that might help us discover new playful shapes for the biscuits most loved by families. The idea is to find a new biscuit that is not just for eating, [but] a biscuit you can play with….”

But it’s the growing embrace of the competition model by corporate America that should make design firms consider the possibility that traditional procurement systems may not even survive. Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, noted that, increasingly, corporations see competitions as part of a new tool kit that can change mind-sets, identify talent, and improve ideation. (Recent examples include United Airlines’s “bug bounty” offer of frequent-flier miles to anyone who can hack its website, and Amazon’s “Picking Challenge” for robot development.) Corporations have also noticed that simply participating in a competition can have ancillary benefits. Aulet compared the experience to race training: “I’m not going to win the Boston Marathon. But if I try…I might get in good shape; I might be healthier,” he said. “The competition is actually a head fake to do other things.”

The final panel discussion invited designers to recommend changes to design competitions. The most intriguing recommendation had been made earlier, in the propositions generated by the Van Alen survey: Use competitions to address big, intractable issues, such as racial segregation, land use, and health care. Van Alen, with its high profile and 120-year history of running competitions, is perhaps already in a unique position to implement some of these suggestions. Much of the discussion focused on competition deliverables—the costly arms race of renderings that often obscure as much as they reveal design intentions. “Renderings don’t speak truthfully about the project,” said Silvia Benedito, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Harvard, who noted that most German competitions do not allow renderings for that reason. Grace La, a professor of architecture at Harvard and a principal of LA DALLMAN (a firm that was also launched by a competition), skillfully skewered the familiar absurdities: “No more stupid balloons, shopping queens, and ridiculous meaningless flocks of birds,” she declared. But she, too, noted the way renderings distort perception, imagining the effect of deploying graphic entourage such as homeless people, the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and street cleaners. “Would this not stimulate the imagination beyond retail and recreation as primary protagonists for public space?” she asked.

Brown, of IIT, simply rejected competitions: “If you’re tired of abuse,” he said, “stop lining up for it.” He recommended a turn to other models for uncovering new talent, such as the curatorial system in the art world. Rebuttal came in the form of two words: High Line. Reed Kroloff, a principal of jones|kroloff, a firm that manages competitions, noted that the High Line could never have existed without the public support that grew out of a competition. “The High Line,” he said, “is as good as it gets.”

After the discussion of the explosive growth of competitions in other industries, it seemed as though the panelists had been asked to refine the ammunition used in the last war. Competitions aren’t going away; the question is who will control the rules of engagement. It’s a certain setup for a future conference, one that will undoubtedly include the sentiments expressed by Houben in her keynote panel presentation. “I hate competitions,” she said. “I also love them.” Same as it ever was.

Elizabeth S. Padjen is an architect and the former editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine.

Credit: 2015©Zara Tzanev at

One thought on “Competitions: What’s the Real Prize?”

  1. I have often wondered if clients for competitions would use the same method to choose a design for their own house. It goes to the essence of arriving at a mutual design vision through dialogue rather than the architectural beauty contests open competitions often create.

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