The Hidden Cost of Design Competitions
One reason so many architects love design competitions is that a finished concept can be produced without much involvement from clients and the public. Traditional architect selection committees—under pressure to appear objective—are routinely seduced by the logic of this age-old process of working in isolation. On the surface, design competitions aim to avoid messy human bias by focusing on each scheme’s perceived merits. But efforts to sell a remote designer’s finished solution can sometimes be bad for everybody.
While there are countless examples of beloved structures that resulted from such contests, I question three common assumptions that keep this hands-off approach alive:
1. An architects’ vision will be compromised through public engagement at the pre-design stage
2. Visionary, meaningful decisions happen without engaging everyone (including the architect) in a learning process
3. The public will be inclined to quickly grasp and embrace a sales pitch for the winning design scheme
As Web 2.0 participation reveals, people have an enormous appetite for making better choices by engaging in good conversation. I believe that clients’ interests would be better served through a selection process that involved spending quality time with each short-listed design team, rather than paying architects to work out competing designs in isolation.
A new era of selection criteria could include: How inquisitive are the designers who want to work on my project? How adept are they at sharing their thinking and de-mystifying their approach? How do they plan to engage the public in a conversation about shared aspirations, or defining the community’s self-image, or identifying the economic benefits of distinctive design?
Recent controversy around Santiago Calatrava’s proposed bridge design for Calgary raises interesting questions regarding naysayers, civic spunk and design process. The Globe and Mail‘s Lisa Rochon challenges Calgary to evolve into a “…a more visually enticing metropolis.” Cliff Kuang, writing for Fast Company in “How Not to Market a Big Public Works Project” advocates that city planners worldwide “…at the very least, hold a public competition to spur people’s imaginations.”
For years I felt uneasy about the risks of attempting to sell design answers to disengaged clients. Then I read Michael Schrage’s book, Serious Play, which provided my ka-boing! moment by explaining the true value of putting heads together over rough models and un-solidified ideas.
Consider also the negative financial impact on fee-squeezed design firms; in order to win a competition, teams typically spend many times over the amount they are paid to participate. This raises a question as to whether the best eye-opening ideas—or eye-catching graphics and videos—win the competition.
Instead of jumping to the conclusion that design competitions = better results, let’s pay more attention to creating informed critics and enthusiastic champions through inquiry, dialogue and discovery.
– Sharon VanderKaay