Are Architecture Competitions Still Relevant?

11th Street Bridge Park

Rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC, courtesy of OMA.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Few architectural topics spur widespread attention and criticism like competitions. Increasingly well-known and publicized, competitions are common throughout the design disciplines. Recently, international contests like the Guggenheim Helsinki or the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC, have brought renewed attention to these demanding and controversial endeavors. Simply put, competitions require considerable time and creative rigor. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, potential financial losses, as well as minimal chances for publicity, architects stand divided on their relevance.

Proponents argue that competitions advance innovation, freedom of thought, and allow young designers to make their mark. Those opposed feel that competitions devalue architects and the creative process. While a consensus has not been reached, designers have made impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue, including architects like Marshall Brown and Rem Koolhaas, or Karen Cilento and Jody Brown. Although the larger discussion on architectural competitions needs to be addressed, other compelling questions remain just below the surface.

Taking a sidestep to the broader debate, designers and policymakers can examine the value of architectural competitions within the licensure process. Students, young graduates, and seasoned architects alike all juggle countless demands, balancing academic, personal, and professional goals. Aspiring architects tackle exams and IDP requirements to advance their understanding and gain the knowledge, skills, and ability to practice architecture. However, many emerging professionals don’t realize that competitions can count toward IDP requirements, as well as help build a more comprehensive portfolio. Exploring personal capability and creative capacity, young designers can use competitions to showcase their skill in handling larger, more complex problems. Outside scale, these projects can display a generalist design ability across diverse programmatic briefs.

Aside from personal portfolio building, competitions have become professionally addressed by both NCARB and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). NCARB handles competitions a few different ways. First, they count for supplemental experience within each IDP experience area, except Leadership and Service. Completed under the supervision of a mentor, the competition must meet five criteria:

  • It must align to at least one of the IDP experience areas
  • Be for a “building” or “planning” project
  • Be part of a formally structured competition
  • Sponsored by a recognized business entity, governmental agency, or professional association
  • The aspiring architect must be appropriately credited on the competition entry.

If the competition fulfills these requirements, participants must also submit a complete Design Competition Verification Form (PDF) to receive credit. This can all be done whether or not aspiring architects are professionally employed.

Comparatively, the AIA has published a document on competitions and different ways to promote a healthy, well-run program. Known as The Handbook of Architectural Design Competitions (PDF), it addresses the many facets of competitions—from procedures and stakeholders to entries, management, and post-competition activities. This comprehensive document outlines the many advantages and concerns surrounding competitions, and is a valuable resource to understanding their complexity. As a guidebook for practice, it can help professionals from all levels make informed decisions about whether or not to undertake a competition project.

While the jury is still out on competitions, future discussions should begin with established resources and guidelines. Though competitions can be approached differently depending on local, national, or international guidelines, they’ve become increasingly associated with broad cultural and social issues that require systemic thinking. Here, designers and emerging professionals can use professional standards to their advantage, enabling them to complete experience requirements while simultaneously engaging with the problems they care about most. At their heart, competitions are about ideas. Whether or not they are found to be of value to the field of architecture, they become powerful tools to personal and professional development.

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