Here's to paid competitions!
Last week, as AN’s executive director, I participated in a juried competition for a renovation of the cafe at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. Dallas-based ceramic artist and collector Louise Rosenfield has donated a 3,000-piece functional ceramics collection to the museum, which will be integrated into the cafe’s food and beverage programming.
It was a unique design prompt, and it deserved a comparably special design to complement it. In a collaboration between the Everson Museum and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, Dean Michael Speaks and Assistant Professor Kyle Miller organized the competition, which brought together four finalists and seven jurors to decide who would take on the cafe design. The jury consisted of Everson Museum director and CEO Elizabeth Dunbar and Everson Museum curator of ceramics Garth Johnson along with Sean Anderson (MoMA), Aric Chen (Design Miami), Jing Liu (SO—IL), Matt Shaw (The Architect’s Newspaper), and Oana Stănescu (Harvard GSD).
The four presenters were FreelandBuck (David Freeland and Brennan Buck, Los Angeles/New York), MILLIØNS (Zeina Koreitem and John May, Los Angeles), NATURALBUILD (Yanfei Shui and Yichi Su, Shanghai) and Norman Kelley (Thomas Kelley and Carrie Norman, Chicago/New Orleans).
The competition brought to light a host of serious issues and questions about architecture today.
First, the format is a throwback to a time when competitions were a way for architects to get high-profile commissions and build their practices through proposals and thought experiments. Some of the world’s greatest structures were realized through competitions, including London’s Palace of Westminster (1836), the Sydney Opera House (1956), and Paris’s Centre Pompidou (1971).
Competitions have also served as fertile grounds for the development of intellectual projects, as second-place proposals have become as important historically as the winners. OMA’s Parc de la Villete (1982) and Reiser + Umemoto’s Yokohama Port Terminal (1995) are both important markers in the firms’ legacies, while the Chicago Tribune Tower competition has echoed through time, first as an actual building competition (1922), then as the basis for Stanley Tigerman’s book Late Entries to the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition (1980), and then in Johnston Marklee’s Vertical City (2017) as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Despite their significance and success at delivering world-class projects, competitions have come under fire in recent years as exploitative, using architects as sources for ideas while not compensating them for their time and effort. However, a paid, invited competition is much different than an open call where labor goes uncompensated.
The competition model helps clients mitigate risk by giving them the opportunity to move beyond obvious choices and take a chance on a younger practice that might not immediately seem capable to the untrained eye. In the Everson competition, the jury directed the clients toward a more ambitious proposal that might have seemed less desirable to a client at first.
Competitions not only allow institutions to take risks on progressive architecture, but they also save them money. Rather than pay top dollar for large corporate firms or high-profile established designers who have already proven themselves over multiple projects, an institution can find a cheaper firm that would not be affordable in ten years. This kind of knowledge only comes from a panel of experts. It is a win-win for everyone involved, and, at the Syracuse competition, it was clear that both the jury and the museum were satisfied with the result.
These competitions might cost money up front, but the results they deliver for the client will offer savings in the long run by using a less-established—yet talented—team that is not charging corporate rates or top dollar design fees. And they are an important way to create opportunity for young designers and foster the contributions they make to architectural history. Here’s to more paid competitions!