G. Stanley Collyer is the founder and editor of Louisville, Ky.–based Competitions, a quarterly print journal and website (competitions.org) that provide information about the myriad design opportunities available to practitioners of architecture, landscape architecture, and public art. Collyer was working as a journalist and tour guide in Berlin during the 1980s when he was introduced to the European system of architectural competitions by some friends. He returned to the United States at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts was investing public dollars in design competitions, so he founded a nonprofit—Competition Project Inc.—and started publishing the magazine in 1991 to promote the idea that had fascinated him in Europe.

Stanley Collyer poses for a portrait in his Lousiville, KY office Thursday, April 2, 2009. (Photo by AJ Mast)

Competitions founder and editor G. Stanley Collyer notes that many firms in Europe and Australia tell him a majority of their business comes from architecture competitions. He’s not so sure that’s a possibility in the U.S., where the regular turnover of elected officials means interruptions in development continuity.

Credit: AJ Mast

How is the scene different than 20 years ago?

There are more competitions. And you find Americans entering foreign competitions in greater numbers.

What effect can winning a competition have on an architect’s career?

Competitions often give a boost to somebody’s career. Helmut Jahn and Ralph Johnson won competitions that led to promotions within their firms. Bilbao made Frank Gehry’s reputation. Having a Bilbao means you never have to enter another competition for the rest of your life.

Is that a general rule?

Some people keep entering them. Richard Rogers and Cesar Pelli still enter invited competitions, but they didn’t grow up in the United States. They have a different attitude towards competitions.

What’s the European process?

Major projects are by law the subject of competitions. The system has changed in different countries over the years. In France in the late 1980s, they were doing almost 1,000 competitions a year, but they decided architects should get paid for some of this work, so they started limiting that. If there’s an invited competition, they invite one young firm that had submitted a portfolio to an album competition. The invited system has taken over in the large projects, but there are still a number of open competitions. European architects tell me that 75 percent to 80 percent of their business comes from competitions.

Why enter?

It isn’t that you might win. If it’s open, the probability is small. Investigate an area where you haven’t been before and do research. Find something that’s interesting to you. This is a time to build your portfolio.

How much detail should you show?

It’s about the way the building works, not so much about every nut and bolt. Pelli once told me, “Whatever it takes.”

Do you think the recession will affect competitions?

You won’t see more competitions, you’ll see a greater number of participants. You need clients, and there aren’t too many with projects and money. The downturn in the early 1990s didn’t stop competitions or construction. In some cases, it enabled projects to come in under budget.

What are the biggest problems?

Too many people in this country run competitions under the assumption this will help them raise money for the project. Some competitions are well run, but they’re all over the place.

Should you consider who’s on the jury before entering?

I wouldn’t say not to enter. It’s more important on an invited competition, and most young architects don’t have the résumé to be short-listed for something like that. But I know architects who said they wouldn’t enter a competition if one particular juror was on the panel.

Do you think the stimulus will create competitions?

A competition isn’t shovel-ready.