Sizing Up Design Competitions, in Dollars and Ideas

PennDesign Faculty Members and Veteran Organizers Offer Perspective

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PennDesign Dean and Paley Professor Frederick Steiner recently convened an elite panel to take a critical look at design competitions: Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department Ken Lum, as well as Reed Kroloff, Principal of Jones Kroloff; Laurel McSherry, Associate Professor and Director of the Master’s in Landscape Architecture program at Virginia Tech; and Don Stasny, founder and CEO of StastnyBrun Architects. Between them, the six panelists have organized (Kroloff and Stastny), or entered and placed in, dozens of competitions, for projects ranging from memorials and public spaces to museums and art installations. Although their experiences differed widely, they agreed that competitions present both pitfalls and opportunities for practitioners, clients, and the public.

One point of early consensus among the panelists was that the strongest incentives to compete are the opportunity to explore new design ideas and the prospect of collaborating with interdisciplinary partners. As Stasny said, “It seems that more and more firms are participating in competitions not necessarily to win them—although they do want to win them—but [as] research and development. They take ideas they’re working on and apply it to the problem of the competition.” McSherry agreed: “Competitions provide an opportunity to explore an idea I’ve been turning over in my head and the opportunity to work with people I enjoy.”

Despite the creative incentive, there can be significant downsides to competitions. They require substantial upfront effort from participating architects, artists, and designers, and they don’t always produce a commission. As one example, Kroloff cited the recent challenge to design a new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki, Finland. The competition garnered over 1,700 entries—totaling an estimated $22 million worth of pro bono architectural services—but the the Finnish government later voted not to proceed with the project. Panelists spoke of equally high-profile competitions that spurred public dialogue and generated support for a project—famously, the competition for the High Line in New York City, which drew so much enthusiasm that the city moved forward with the purchase and redevelopment of the former rail trestle.

Both the Guggenheim Helsinki and New York’s High Line raise the question of what role competitions play in advancing design and the design professions. The question proved elusive, but for Stastny, competitions challenge designers to “awaken what is possible, within the [program’s] very strict requirements.” Lum was more skeptical, noting that the art world looks more to biennials than competitions to advance dialogues about art: “Every once in a while, you might get some iconic work that’s seen as a proverbial game-changer, but I don’t know if [competitions] actually advance art in general.”

Despite their pitfalls, the evening’s panelists agreed, design competitions aren’t going away soon. Stastny noted, “Competitions have always been part of our design vocabulary. I think there are good competitions and there are bad competitions, but I think they are part of our ethos.”