Designing architectural competitions: Balancing multiple matters of concern

December 28, 2010

- by Kristian Kreiner

Architectural competitions are a manifestation of a social institution with a very long history, dating back some 2500 years (Lipstadt, 1989; King, 2000). For an institution to survive that long, it can safely be assumed that its manifestations must have changed over time, in sync with the evolution of the norms, values and concerns of the surrounding society. I intend to suggest that the current debate over the proper design of architectural competitions is a re-enactment of a very fundamental controversy at the heart of this institution. The controversy reflects conflicting concerns for the creativity, efficiency and fairness of the competitions.

To illustrate the ways in which these conflicting concerns impact the design of architectural competition, I will describe and analyze a highly innovative form of competition: the so-called dialogue-based architectural competition (Jacobsen, 2010). As the label suggests, this form is characterized by an extensive interaction and communication between all parties involved. The rationales behind this design are explicated in relation to the above-mentioned concerns.

Rationales do not translate easily into empirical effects. An ethnographic study of a dialogue-based competition revealed the ways in which the competition design was enacted by architects, the client and the competition jury. These observations provide insight into new types of controversies and concerns that will give impetus to further institutional adaptation in the future.

The three concerns behind the design of architectural competitions

The architectural competition is generally thought of as experimentation (Lipstadt 1989), and can therefore be considered an investment in the exploration of new ideas. However, asking many people to work in parallel to produce alternative solutions to the same task, knowing that only one of them will be implemented, is, in retrospect, a wasteful procedure. But the wastefulness is rationalized as a necessary investment in creativity and the implied exploration of an uncharted solution space. While there would be easier ways of picking a winner, the competition procedure would appear to promise that the winner will be picked among more, and especially more qualified, alternatives.

However, the wastefulness of the procedure remains a concern, especially because those who stand to benefit from the exploration, i.e. the clients, are normally not the ones to carry the wasted costs and efforts. Primarily, the waste falls back on the participating architects who do not win, and possibly on society at large, at least indirectly. Many changes in the arrangement of competitions have been especially targeted at preventing the exploration from becoming too wasteful. Consider the two-stage competition in which many participants compete in the first stage, each investing a limited amount of resources in sketching a solution, while only a few participants compete in the final stage, then investing considerable amounts of resources in detailing their designs. Such a procedure was meant “… to eliminate the huge expense to architects of competing in the escalating market of special effects …” (Bergdoll, 1989 p. 43).

The need for experimentation and the wastefulness of exploration are two valid concerns that goad us to act in contradictory ways. As such, they constitute a dilemma (Ryle, 2000). However, add to this the concern for the fairness of the process of appointing winners. Competing on equal terms and appointing the winner on ‘objective criteria’ are the hallmark of fairness, and many parts of the social technology of architectural competitions have been designed to induce trust in the fairness of the evaluation. Such fairness has historically been policed by the professional associations when taking responsibility for organizing the procedures and staffing the jury with professionals. More recently, elaborate legal and regulatory frameworks, implemented by, for example, the EU, have supplemented, and to some extent substituted, the role of professional associations in this respect. Many aspects of architectural competition are nowadays a matter of prescription more than design. Such prescriptions are embodiments of the fairness concern.

Translating concerns into design

We have described the three fundamental concerns that architectural competitions have to struggle with: creativity, efficiency, and fairness. Those are the keywords for such concerns that will inform the rationales for any design of the competition. The choice of design is complicated by the fact that very often these concerns are conflicting. As will be shown empirically below, conflicting concerns for creativity, efficiency, and fairness will often result in compound, very comprehensive designs of competitions. In spite of the good intentions, the actual effects of such competition designs rely on the competition practice that they give rise to. It may be expected that the enactment of compound, comprehensive competition designs will be less predictable, and therefore the empirical effects may be paradoxical in the end. In elaborating on the complementarity of the design and the enactment of architectural competitions, we may come to think of them as social technologies.

Architectural competitions as social technology

I suggest that architectural competitions can be understood as a social technology. It is a technology for picking a winner in a competition for primacy (Kreiner, 2005; March, 1999). The fact that we need a carefully designed ‘technology’ for accomplishing this task is an indication of its complexity. Not only must the technology ensure that there is something attractive to choose between; it must also ensure that the choice of the winner is legitimate and that the ‘transaction costs’ in terms of time and effort are not prohibitively high. Thus, the design of the architectural competition as a social technology has at least three rationales, i.e. the three types of concern mentioned above: creativity (attractive entries), legitimacy (fair outcomes), and efficiency (sustainable investments of time and effort).

While the architectural competition as a social technology is designed to serve a function and produce certain effects, it is generally understood that the empirical effects may be different from the designed ones. Technologies are enacted by actors, and these actors may differ (in terms of competence and practice) to produce variable empirical effects. While the design of the technology may guide and channel certain forms of enactment, they do not determine such enactment that will be formed by other types of concern as well. The technology has been put to use in ways that serve many more functions than picking a winner. For instance, it has been used to build architecture as a profession.

“… [the] positive contribution of the process to the rise of architectural professionalism … is indisputable. The competition procedure was the single most outstanding factor in promoting solidarity among American architects, and their success in regulating it has helped win them the respect of the public.” (Landau, 1989 p. 73)

Furthermore, there is controversy over what it is that is competing against each other in the architectural competition. In the early 19th century, “RIBA was eager to persuade sponsors that competitions should select a designer, not purchase a design.” (Bergdoll 1989, p. 43) This tension between the design of the competition and the practice that develops around it will never be resolved and will continue to give impetus to renewal and change in the specific arrangements of competitions. How people use a technology, and how participants choose to act during a dialogue-based architectural competition will produce valuable experience and inspiration for the redesign of the technology. Thus, design influences use (enactment), but use also influences design, and the worth and attractiveness of a specific form of architectural competition needs to be assessed not only in terms of its rationales but also in terms of its enactment.

The Casestudy

We have conducted empirical studies of many forms of architectural competition (Kreiner, 2005; Kreiner, 2006; Kreiner, 2007). In this paper I rely on a study (Jacobsen, 2010) of a particular dialogue-based architectural competition (DAC). It concerned the design of a new public school and public library on the frontier of a major city in Denmark. The municipality was the client.

After an elaborate process of prequalification and tender, three multi-disciplinary architectural teams were selected to participate in a highly unusual competition process. It was unusual in the sense that the client had hired a number of experts and members of the competition jury (the panel) to meet with the teams on several occasions during an unusually long competition process. The collective process included encounters with the future users and neighbors of the school. Five steps in the competition process should be highlighted: (1) The announcement of the competition brief, a very long and detailed description of the task, including numerous prescriptions and requirements to be observed by the teams. (2) Workshop 1, at which the architectural teams presented their early ideas, plans and designs and received detailed feedback. All teams, assigned experts and jury members participated in the workshop. (3) Workshop 2, a repetition of workshop 1, but on this occasion the teams were required to present quite detailed designs and plans. (4) The submission of the entries, which was organized as a seminar with the participation of the teams, experts, competition jury and other stakeholders. Each architectural team made a formal presentation. After the presentations, extensive and unregulated networking took place around the exhibited design entries. (5) The jury’s announcement of the result of the competition, which was also turned into a public event. All three design entries were exhibited and a member of the jury gave an evaluation of each entry before announcing the winner.

We video-recorded all sessions at workshop 2. We also observed and interviewed the architectural teams during their design work and their discussion of the feedback they received after the workshop. We made observations of all meetings and deliberations of the jury, including the meeting when the winner was picked. We interviewed the central members of the architectural teams, the assigned experts and the jury members after the completion of the competition. Thus, we have very detailed, first-hand experience with the enactment of the DAC in this particular case. What actually happened (the matters of fact) is less critical to us than the matters of concern that complicated the participation (Latour, 2004; Ripley, 2009; Kreiner, 2010), because such matters of concern will have salience outside the particular instantiation of the DAC that we studied.


In this section I will first recapitulate the rationales behind the design of the described DAC. This will be done with explicit reference to the concerns for creativity, efficiency, and fairness. I will emphasize the elaboration of the design in view of these conflicting concerns. Next I will describe and discuss the enactment of this design and will illustrate how specific practices of enactment resulted in paradoxical effects of the competition design.

The extensiveness of the competition brief

Two aspects of the studied DAC seem to capture the fundamental rationale of the design. First, the procedure with workshops and feedback on early ideas and plans was meant to ensure that the eventual design entries were more aligned with the client’s needs and preferences. In general, misunderstandings are claimed to be common in architectural competitions and the damage on the competition of inadequately aimed entries increases when the number of entries is reduced for reasons of efficiency. Weeding out mistakes early enough for the architectural team to correct them before they reach the final design entry is a gesture to efficiency. Secondly, the open dialogue between the competing teams, and between the teams and the assigned experts and jury members, was meant to be a gesture to creativity. A priori all teams were ensured the first prize in return for granting the client immediate ownership to all design ideas and solutions. Teams were publicly encouraged to learn from each other, to take inspiration from the other’s presentations and feedback, and even to ‘steal’ their well-received ideas. For these and other reasons, the dialogues were expected to favorably impact on both the alignment and the creativity of the final design entries.

However, it might also be argued that the DAC represented a potential sacrifice of the concern for justice of competitions. The terms on which the architectural teams competed might be muddled by the intense interaction and open dialogue. This concern was addressed by some reengineering of the contracts to ensure the legality of the procedure. But it was also addressed in the form of an extraordinarily detailed competition brief that specified the task and delimitated the solution space in great detail. This was meant to clarify the premises for the competition, a clarification that should facilitate and guide the work of not only the architectural teams but also of the experts and the jury. By specifying the requirements of the qualified and legitimate design solution, the extensive brief represented a gesture to the concern for justice and fairness.

As a result, the basis for the enactment of the DAC was an extensive and complex set of structures, resources, procedures, requirements, all of which had explicit rationales in the compound design of the architectural competition.

The enactment of DAC

The enactment of the DAC caused several of the designed effects to materialize. The jury had three qualified design proposals to choose from, and they appointed, by common consent, the best proposal, the implementation of which is currently well under way.

However, upon closer inspection, the enactment of the competition changed the design in several ways. Space constrains me to give merely a single illustration. The illustration addresses the premise that dialogues embedded in the competition process will enhance creativity by accelerating learning. I suggest that the effects may also be the contrary, i.e. to hinder creativity.

Obviously, designing a large school constitutes a very complex task. Complex tasks require you to learn while trying to accomplish them. You discover new aspects, new constraints and opportunities, new requirements and new interdependencies in the process of designing and detailing the school. This “moving target”, this evolving understanding of the task is the reason why creativity is called for and competitions are useful. Therefore, texts like the competition brief are necessarily ambiguous in the sense that some of their meaning will be contributed by the architects through their inspirations and interpretations (Weick, 1995). Thus, creativity resides, not in the text of the competition brief, but in the reading of the text and the implications being drawn from such readings.

However, the recurrent dialogues gave the architects an opportunity for asking questions of clarification to client and the jury. Such questions were raised in relation to the following paragraph:

… In terms of traffic, the safe delivery and fetching of the large number of children and youths who are taken to school by their parents should be facilitated. It is important that the traffic follows a simple, circular pattern which enables the approach of multiple cars without creating queues or stopping or interfering with other motorists in and around the parking lot … (Brief, p. 52, our translation).

Complying with this seemingly central requirement proved a challenge for the architects. Any solution would seem to require the modification of the existing roads, which was outside the jurisdiction of the sponsors of the competition. Formally speaking, they could not authorize such modifications, and time did not allow them to apply for authorization. When the architects kept inquiring about the parameters of the task, and when the sponsors were unable to define them formally, the only way out was to neutralize this specific design issue. Thus the competition became between architectural designs that did not include ideas and visions for getting school children and staff to and from the school.

The illustration is simple, but the implications are significant. The dialogues gave the architects the opportunity to deconstruct the text of the competition brief. Since any requirement could possibly be deconstructed, while of course not all of them, the architects could use the dialogues strategically to have the difficult, irrelevant and/or disadvantageous requirements neutralized. The power behind this is the call for formal authorization that cannot be given at the time of the competition. Without dialogues, asking for authorization would not be an option. The architects would be forced to make their own interpretations, and they would eventually be judged on the creativity and sensibility of such interpretations. However, the dialogue gives the architects ample opportunity to pass the buck to the sponsors, and thereby to avoid the risk of making wrong interpretations; this is the other side of creativity. As was discussed during the workshop, a “kiss ‘n ride” zone would be a solution that the sponsors could not authorize, but which the architects could easily have proposed. Ideas are not always judged on their proven feasibility, a point which came out when the winning design was praised for suggesting that the surplus heat from a nearby shopping mall should be regained for the school. This idea was almost undocumented and had not even been presented to the owner of the shopping mall. Nonetheless, it was taken as proof of the innovativeness of the architect who would subsequently be responsible for finding energy-efficient solutions.

The dialogues gave the architects ample opportunities for requesting further instructions, an explicit delineation of the solution parameters, authorization, etc. On certain occasions the architects chose to exploit the dialogue to escape the need to be creative and innovative. Fear of being penalized for interpretations of the task that prove to be too creative and innovative may motivate architects not to read and interpret in the first place. But in that same moment, the rationale for the competition and the dialogue crumbles.

In view of the fact that the design task was heavily prescribed, the risk of being held responsible for interpretations and prioritizations is real. Not to mention the multitude of requirements defined by the building code etc., the number of prescriptions and instructions in the brief probably exceeded 500. In such a situation of over-determination, simplification by the exclusion of requirements seems an attractive strategy, and a feasible one, because of the opportunities for dialogue with the client and jury. But it is not likely to be an effective strategy, because no matter the number of neutralized requirements, the design task will never be a simple one. Thus it could be argued that the DAC will become a more sustainable social technology when the participating architects learn to read the competition brief for inspiration rather than instruction, and learn to exploit the dialogues with the jury and the assigned experts, not to have their ideas licensed, but to have them challenged and fertilized.


I have focused this article on the concern for creativity as the rationale for introducing dialogues and new participants to the competition process. The parallel concerns for efficiency and justice occasioned the elaboration of other aspects of the competition design (see Kreiner et al., forthcoming; Jacobsen, 2010). A complex design task can justify the compound character of the competition brief and the other structures put in place for the implementation of the competition. However, the future of architectural competitions may not depend upon better, and inevitably more compound, designs of the competitions. I have tried to illustrate that the rationale of architectural competitions relies as much upon the enactment of the competition as it does on its design. The elaboration of both the brief and the process will demand more, not less creativity and interpretation on the part of the architects. But the architects exercise a certain faith control over the architectural competitions. If they insist on reading briefs for instruction, and to have the task defined a priori, no design of architectural competitions will be sustainable in the future. In that case, we will be destined to the perpetual redesign of architectural competitions with paradoxical consequences.


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