A Brief History of the Design Competition - BluPrint

A Brief History of the Design Competition

July 4, 2017



Toby Guggenheimer

When the Persian King Xerxes invaded Athens in 480 BC, he set into motion events ending poorly for his tribe—and for him. Driven from Attica a year later by the Athenian statesman, Themistocles, whose flotilla of 200 ships dislodged the occupying forces, Xerxes retired to the pleasures of his harem only to be murdered later in court intrigue.

Preoccupied with reconstruction for the next several decades, it was not until 448 BC that the Council of Athens saw fit to commemorate their good fortune. Familiar with the competition of war, athletics and commerce, Athens conceived a contest to solicit ideas for their victory monument. The resulting design was apparently constructed of parts salvaged from the broken entablature of the Temple to Athena and set into a niche within the reconstructed Erechthion upon the grounds of the Acropolis. The contest is credited as the world’s first architecture competition.

Satisfied with the participatory nature of the completion, Greeks employed this forum regularly thereafter, a strategy for commissioning architectural work in the classical world which appears to have largely ended with the demise of Greek hegemony. (In view of the widespread knowledge and respect for Greek culture, it is unlikely that competitions became entirely moribund during the Roman or Medieval periods but documentary evidence is not forthcoming). By the 14th century, however, the competition had made a comeback, especially in Italy.  Over time, competitions became more common and by the onset of the Renaissance, artists, architects and patrons embraced the rituals of this evolving institution. The public nature of competitions even enhanced the status of architects who enjoyed the attentions of powerful protagonists in the political, economic and religious spheres. Simply by organizing competitions, sponsors also tacitly acknowledged the value of the architect—and by extension, of design.

The public nature of competitions even enhanced the status of architects who enjoyed the attentions of powerful protagonists.

In the period of modern history extending from the Renaissance onward, the competition assumed many guises—and in Europe, especially, became, if not ubiquitous, at least a frequently employed forum for commissioning design.  From Italy to the lowlands and beyond, many of the most respected figures in architectural history, from Brunelleschi in Florence and Vignola in Madrid to Perrault in Paris and Berlage in Amsterdam, have been associated with and profited from the competition.  Even if some competitions were corroded by cynicism, favoritism, even outright corruption, organizers generally resisted political and other pressures.  One unlikely example occurred in the 1861 competition for the Paris Opera House.

READ MORE: Toby Guggenheimer talks about Lighting Design Competitions

Commissioned by no less a personality than Napoleon III, the jury rebuffed the interference of both the Empress Eugenie, who supported Viollet-le-Duc, and Baron Hausmann, Prefect of Paris and the powerful author of its radical reconstruction, who supported architect Rohault de Fleury. In the end, the then obscure Charles Garnier was awarded first prize for his densely textured homage to the arts—a building that quickly became one of Paris’ most beloved landmarks.

History of the Design Competition: The Paris Opera House (built 1861 to 1875) by Charles Garnier was selected after a two-phase design competition.
The Paris Opera House (built 1861 to 1875) by Charles Garnier was selected after a two-phase design competition. The initial design during the first phase came in at fifth place but was ultimately selected as the winning entry after the second phase.

By the end of the 2nd World War, the West had gained a distinct advantage over the Eastern block in reestablishing conditions necessary to support innovation in architecture; and many nations, France especially, saw in the competition an ideal structure for supporting this goal. In fact, her Law on Architecture, which identified architecture as a matter of public interest, mandates use of the competition for all public projects of a certain size and budget. At the heart of the highly formalized system are measures drafted to protect our profession, including a mandate that all competition architects be paid. The system also supports young architects who can compete for small projects.

Two events in particular illustrated to the French populace the efficacy of the competition as a method of obtaining surprising and delightful modern public architecture: the Centre Pompidou and La Villete. The first, a museum project held at the behest of a president anxious for an architectural legacy, not only restored a shabby quarter but also rehabilitated Paris’ reputation as a convivial home to the avant-garde. The second, aimed at transforming a tired abattoir district into a glittering cultural center, resulted in equally brilliant results—even if the competition itself was marked by political machinations of Machiavellian complexity.

Bernard Tschumi won a major design competition in 1982-83 for Parc de la Vilette, in which he drew inspiration from the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida in preparation of the design proposal.

Historically, the competition did not appear often in Asia but it is possible that a number of stone building models dating to the 8th century found in Mamallapurum, India, originated in competition. Now more widely employed in Asia, Japan was an early adopter, especially for showcase projects. During the 1980s, a number of well-publicized events were used by Japan to project an image of a self-assured nation, one fully recovered from the ravages of WWII, and supportive of excellent design—although nationalism often intruded in the selection process. An example is the Tokyo National Theater competition where several foreign architects, including Hans Hollein, Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman offered dynamic schemes favorably viewed by the jury. Yet the winner was a merely serviceable design by a local architect that did not represent the best of late 20th century design.

These few examples only begin to hint at the rich and complex variety of buildings which were realized around the world via competition structures, of which there are many, yet it is surprising that the nation that perhaps more than others celebrates competitive rivalry has shown little interest in the design competition, especially at the governmental level. With the exception of a few historically anomalous periods, American government has not been a progressive force in the development of that nation’s cultural life—neither in literature, theater, the visual arts, nor architecture. In fact, public efforts at promoting culture are often viewed with suspicion across the political spectrum there. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the people of the United States have produced the richest, but not necessarily the most beautiful, nation. Still, important competitions have emerged from that sector, especially for memorial projects imbued with sentimental or symbolic power; Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial notably.

History of the Design Competition: In 1981, Maya Lin won the public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 1981, Maya Lin won the public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., whilst still an undergraduate at the age of 21.

Any discussion regarding the design competition should begin with a recognition that it is an flexible construct that can accommodate any number of personalities and project types. However, without careful determination regarding the professional skills required of a given project, a competition, which is in the end a method of architect selection, may force into marriage a client and designer with profound incompatibilities.  A single-phase, open competition, for example, may not be the most appropriate method of architect selection for a highly complex building type. Without a guarantee that the winner has sufficient technical and managerial expertise, this kind of event is sometimes better suited for investigation of general concepts rather than producing fully realized designs. Reliance on the wrong format can disappoint both designer and sponsor. Therefore, a professional advisor, one well versed in all competition types, can help recommend the appropriate competition structure.

Types of Design Competition

Competitions can broadly be divided into two categories: those meant to stimulate ideas and those intended to support tangible building projects. Several distinct sub-types of competitions are also recognized, including: project competitions, idea competitions, student competitions, product competitions, prototype competitions and design-build competitions, while the competition can unfold as an open competition, a limited competition, an invited competition, the one-stage and the two-stage competition. Further variations include the charrette, which may be used to limit the competition period, and the regionally limited competition, which can limit the number of participants.

The Idea Competition

Among the most fluid of events is the idea competition. It is often used by the design community to test concepts that have not received sufficient attention. These rarely lead to built work but the popularity of this toothless variant illustrates that professional practice rarely affords opportunities for deep inquiry that architects and designer crave.

Another type of idea competition is found in the academe, and is often adopted by design teachers to help ameliorate the isolation facing students in geographically isolated schools and to defeat the snobbery of elite schools by demonstrating the democratic distribution of talent. Most significantly, of course, is that students can receive recognition on the grand stage of a national or even international arena. I like the student competition because it introduces the highly competitive structure of professional life while providing practice in creating pithy presentations that can communicate the germ of an idea clearly, efficiently and elegantly. Competitions can also be used to force students to clarify their design values and to integrate lessons of history, theory, technology and practice into their problem solving methods.

The Open Competition

The most common format used for both idea generation and project development is the open competition as it allows the broadest number and types of participants. The open competition sometimes solicits submissions from anyone interested but if the competition is for a specific building solution, the rules stipulate that submissions must be made by or in association with a registered architect.

Why would a sponsor choose the added expense, effort and risk of an open competition? The decision is often based on a suspicion that the best talent has yet to be unearthed and that the sponsor can mine the potential of the entire design community for a superior solution.

To maintain objectivity and to communicate a sense of fair play, the open competition is almost always an anonymous event. Without overt clues regarding designer’s identities, jurors can concentrate entirely on the merit of the work. Still, some sponsors with competition experience distain the open, anonymous competition because it does not verify an architect’s capacity to execute a commission. By the same token, well-known architects often avoid it because it does not allow them to capitalize on their valuable reputations. But placing unknown designers on an equal footing with more prominent brethren goes a long way to suppressing the possibility of favoritism by a jury.  The anonymous competition is therefore imperative when it is necessary to convince stakeholders that neither bias nor patronage has influenced the selection process.

The Phased Competition

Single stage competitions are used when a project is sufficiently straightforward to warrant confidence that a designer sufficiently competent to execute project requirements can be selected from the anticipated pool of entrants. Where the project is neither small nor simple, the two-stage competition can combine the advantages of the open and invited formats. In this type of competition, designers may be asked to submit a schematic design or even a portfolio of past work. This type of competition may work against the interests of younger firms but promotes a higher level of confidence by the client in the possibility of a successful outcome.

The Invited Competition

The invited competition, is, as the name implies, open to only a small number of firms or individuals whose participation is solicited. Not typically anonymous, the invited competition allows architects the dubious advantage of gauging their rivals, and thus, presumably, the sponsor’s taste in design. One advantage of this kind of limited competition is that the small number of participants makes possible client-designer dialogue of the sort that is usually forbidden. Some observers consider this an advantage. Others worry that interaction between client and sponsor can only violate the integrity of the competition event.

Ultimately, the most important task facing any competition is to entice designers to join, with a clear program, a legitimate jury, and an enticing prize.

This necessarily incomplete discussion can only hint at the history of success and failure of the design competition, the many formats available for use, and the manner by which to create such an event. Ultimately, the most important task facing any competition is to entice designers to join, with a clear program, a legitimate jury, and an enticing prize.

Whispering of matters closest to the architect’s heart, a good competition will stroke the architect’s ego and fan his curiosity by balancing the rigidly proscriptive with the generously ambiguous as a goad to participate in a communal quest for the perfect solution. 

This story first appeared in BluPrint Volume 4, August 2014. Edits were made for Bluprint online.

Download this month's BLUPRINT magazine digital copy from:
Subscribe via [email protected]