An architectural competition can be an adrenalin rush. Just imagine hundreds of designers, from the famous to the wet-behind-the-ears, all thinking about the same program, all simultaneously striving to improve the commonweal with a brilliant solution to a major urban problem—or at least designing an icon that will change their careers forever.

A competition is an opportunity for an untried visionary to sweep away the Old Guard and offer a transformative paradigm. Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate in 1981 when she beat out 1,441 other entrants to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., epitomizes that dream. Her controversial incision in the landscape on the National Mall changed how we approach commemorative public monuments. “Competitions are the province of the young and the unemployed,” says Andrus Burr, FAIA, a Williamstown, Mass., architect and Lin’s critic for the competition project at Yale.

“Superstars are too busy to enter competitions,” says Helsinki architect Mikko Heikkinen, Hon. FAIA, whose firm, Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, got its big start by winning a competition. While that is not always true, there’s a kind of idealism and youthful ardor that fuels stories like Lin’s and is the basis of hundreds of so-called “ideas competitions” that happen each year.

In a similar manner, Joseph Paxton, an architect and gardener, came up with a giant greenhouse to house the world’s first international exposition in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. The Crystal Palace revolutionized the nature of large structures through prefabrication, among other achievements. The other contenders, with their Gothic peaks and massive brick domes, were rendered mute by the simplicity of Paxton’s ferrovitreous cathedral.

Some students learn about legendary competitions, such as that for the Tribune Tower in Chicago in 1922, for which a Gothic Revival design by the New York architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood beat out the likes of Walter Gropius and Eliel Saarinen, who both submitted spare, modern takes on monumental commercial architecture. (This introduces us to the myth of more accomplished but slighted designers who deserved to win. If one placed second in a competition, one could avoid the headaches of construction while preserving an unassailable position of superiority.) Several years later, Saarinen was notified that he had won the contest to build Gateway Arch in St. Louis, only to be subsequently informed that it was his son, Eero, who had secured that plum commission. A story like that is closer to Shakespearean tragedy than to the everyday drudgery of office work.

The competition process is often fraught with difficulty, especially when a project is both very public and extremely significant (think of the recent Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the suite of buildings at Ground Zero in New York). Danish architect Jørn Utzon gave a continent an instantly recognizable signature with his winning design for the Sydney Opera House (juror Eero Saarinen was Utzon’s most vociferous backer), which opened in 1973. While Utzon’s billowing sails in Sydney Harbour symbolized post-colonial Australia, construction glitches and cost overruns forced his resignation and his return to Denmark.

Scandinavians are great believers in the competition process (the Tribune Tower competition brought the Saarinens to America, for instance). In Finland, all public buildings must pass through the competition process. Two recent contests—for a museum in the hinterland town of Mänttä and a library in the center of Helsinki—each attracted over 500 would-be designers from around the globe.

Some firms can even trace their origin to a competition. The Norwegian firm Snøhetta was founded in order to enter the 1989 competition for a library in Alexandria, Egypt. After winning, Snøhetta gained instant recognition and went on to win the contest for the Oslo Opera House, as well as for the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “We have found that the competition environment opened the door for many young designers and brought forward many unique designs,” says Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers, AIA. “Many of our best designs have come through competitions.”

In 1957 Raimund Abraham and Friedrich St. Florian, FAIA, then students in Graz, Austria, placed third in a competition for the Pan Arabian University in Saudi Arabia. Gropius placed fourth. Two years later, the Austrians won the contest for a cultural center in the Belgian Congo (Richard Neutra chaired that jury). Abraham and St. Florian then placed second in the competition for Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which turned out to be one of the most important contests of the modern era.

The Pompidou, like the National World War II Memorial competition that St. Florian won in 1998, represents the sort of obligatory project that tempts many a well-established architect. Despite understanding that Finnish architectural taste has evolved beyond purely rational forms (which are not dissimilar to his own work), St. Florian saw an opportunity. “I could not not enter the Helsinki library competition, given the building’s role as the chief centennial project of that architecturally literate country,” says St. Florian.

American Hustle
The United States has a long history of competitions. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson believed architecture would establish the right identity for a fledging republic, and a call for entries and jury would establish a democratic process to realize some of its first official buildings. Both the Capitol and the “President’s House” were deemed worthy of open competitions, as was the Washington Monument. Later, the Lincoln Memorial competition demonstrated that American architects had mastered the Beaux-Arts aesthetic as well as their European counterparts. Competitions should have gained much wider acceptance. After all, they are not that hard to run, they can bring their sponsors fairly easy money, they can reap tremendous publicity, and, perhaps most important, competitions can raise both the dialogue around and the quality of what is ultimately built.

Yet the United States has never been really comfortable with competitions. G. Stanley Collyer Jr., Hon. AIA, founder and publisher of Competitions Magazine and adviser to countless architectural contests, laments that there are too few competitions in this country. “There are almost no open competitions for substantial projects, with the result that upcoming architects are more or less left out,” he says, noting that while architecturally savvy cultures like Argentina and Brazil hold a lot of competitions, they are limited to their citizens. But, Collyer adds, “American architects are doing quite well abroad, especially in Taiwan, where open competitions are the rule.”

One successful initiative that has improved the level of architectural design for public buildings is the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, which has produced scores of handsome new courthouses and federal buildings in many cities. This was the brainchild of Ed Feiner, FAIA, chief architect at the GSA from 1996 to 2005, who reinvented the federal procurement program for architecture while forcing the government to stress both sustainability and design quality. Yet even these competitions are limited. The U.S. State Department, too, has tried to balance security with design excellence when commissioning new American embassies. And while the latest embassy short list may include some very good designers, the same big names seem to keep showing up. Invited, limited competitions simply do not hold the excitement or the promise of contests that are open to everyone.

There are some architectural firms in the United States that regularly enter competitions. Perkins+Will, particularly the Chicago office under the leadership of Ralph Johnson, FAIA, has been active and successful. Firm principal Thomas Mozina, AIA, won the competition to build a 600,000-square-foot research center for the Northwestern University medical school. But for every win, there are more painful losses, particularly for firms that seek out competitions. After winning the contest to build a museum for the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, Perkins+Will’s Todd Snapp, AIA, came in second behind Studio Gang for a dormitory at University of Chicago. “That was a tough one to lose,” rues Snapp.

While competitions are vital and necessary, they represent a major investment in time and resources on the part of the entering firm. “I don’t do many competitions; I cannot afford the time to do them,” says Frank Harmon, FAIA. Harmon, whose Raleigh, N.C., firm employs a handful of architects, knows all too well the tightly wrought economics of devoting a couple of weeks of office time to a competition. Small firms, he says, have to be very selective when it comes to competitions.

Even so, competitions are sometimes about more than costs. In 2008, Harmon won the competition for the AIA NC Center for Architecture and Design in Raleigh. It was “the right thing to do,” and the design brief was for a very convincing site downtown, he says, but “everything depends upon the quality of the jury.” Even an avant-garde outsider firm like Snøhetta could win a major library commission for North Carolina State because of “an outstanding jury.”

“Design competitions are not a cure-all for engendering good design,” says Dykers, but competitions do matter to architects because they encourage debate, innovation, and kingmaking. They are especially important now as a way to encourage dialogue on the need for greater architectural responsibility—competitions should be incubators for solutions in areas such as public health, climate change, and population control that cannot be addressed by single projects.

So how do we get more competitions? How about, for example, asking professional schools to require students to enter at least one contest in order to graduate? How about offering professional credits to enter competitions? Competitions can secure a healthier, more sustainable future, but they also directly engage the architect’s role in that future, and, thus, they support the profession.