Credit: Todd Winters


Zoë Ryan is the John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. As a writer and curator, she has been instrumental in translating design thinking for a wide public audience. Ryan’s critical eye is also valued by competition organizers, and she has served as a juror for a range of competitions and awards programs, including the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Wheelwright Prize, the National Design Awards of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Chicago Prize. She is currently curating the Istanbul Design Biennial.

I’ve organized a number of architecture exhibitions here in Chicago—and I mention this because when you’re telling a story about an architect you’re not always talking about success stories in terms of built work. You’re often talking about the competitions that architects didn’t win. And yet, these designs can be just as important as the winning projects. Competitions allow architects to contribute their ideas and research that sometimes exist outside of their normal workload, but are integral to their design thinking. And competitions often mark seminal moments in an architect’s career.

Competitions are all about collaboration, and the process can make for very interesting stories for the general public. Take, for instance, the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program. I take notice of the shortlist of finalists as much as I do the winner. But every one of those firms has to deal with financial constraints and workflow issues—splitting the time of employees, for instance. There is also a business angle to how a competition challenges a firm’s identity and takes it in a direction it might never have gone before.

As a writer and curator, I’m interested in iterations—how design can respond to and push a series of related ideas. If there’s a public component of a competition, the gap between design insiders and outsiders narrows significantly. For me, living in Chicago is fantastic—there’s a high level of public engagement in design and architecture generally.

It’s true that architecture is all around us, but when we think about architecture competitions—especially those for public projects—I think people respond to those that invite them to be a part of the conversation, that prompt them to think about the contexts for these projects, and about the stakeholders that are an integral part of the process.

When I was a student, I remember being struck by architecture’s proprietary language. I see my responsibility as a curator and juror as interpreting that language. I want to clarify the contribution that an entry will make to furthering architecture’s relevance to daily life. —As told to William Richards