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Is The Broken Culture Of Design Competitions Finally Changing?

Three major metropolitan AIA chapters banded together to change the unfair rules of a major design competition.

Is The Broken Culture Of Design Competitions Finally Changing?

Illustration: Photobank gallery via Shutterstock

Working for free has been a reality for architects for decades. The hallmark of the practice is the open competition—a scourge on the financial and cultural health of the profession. But the argument against them has always seemed moot: as long as clients keep launching them, architects will keep entering them. Choosing not to participate, for some, seemed like a pointless act of professional self-sabotage.

But in New York, Fred Bernstein reports that a group of AIA chapters have shown that architects do have the power to push back against the wasteful and inefficient culture of open competitions.

About a month ago, New York's Port Authority launched a competition to redesign its cavernous, 66-year-old Midtown bus terminal. At first glance, the competition brief didn't seem all that unusual. It required disciplinary teams of designers to formulate a complicated plan to redevelop the transit infrastructure and architecture of the aging hub. But as Bernstein wrote last week in Architectural Record, submitting teams wouldn't be compensated for their work—not even finalists—and the winner of the whole contest wouldn't be guaranteed a contract to carry it out (nor would they, or any other entrants, even own the rights to their designs).

Yet within a matter of days, the Port Authority had revised its rules. Bernstein writes that three AIA chapters—New York City, New York State, and New Jersey—reached out to the Port Authority and advocated for changes to the rules, arguing that improving the conditions would lead to better proposals in the end. Bernstein elaborates:

Among the changes: the deadline for first stage entries was pushed back from April 12 to April 28. The Port Authority also relinquished most claims to the first round entries—it can publicize the plans, but not otherwise employ them. Most significantly, the winners of stage one—approximately five teams chosen to advance to stage two-–will receive honorariums of $200,000 (a generous sum, but not a windfall for firms that will be assembling large teams of consultants).

It’s an unusual story, but one that Benjamin Prosky, executive director at Center for Architecture and the leader of the trio of chapters, says the AIA has always had a mandate to carry out. "We have always advocated on behalf of our members and the profession of architecture," he told Co.Design. But after many of the AIA New York City’s members reported that they didn’t plan on participating at all, the chapter leaders decided to get involved.

"We thought as a chapter that if the [Port Authority] would respond to a letter from us and make some changes, that this would not only be good for architects, attracting more talent and better entries," he added, "but ultimately lead to a better designed bus terminal."

As Kriston Capps explained on Co.Design last year, many competition organizers argue that keeping these contests open levels the playing field for smaller, younger architects who might not be invited to a closed competition. But aside from a few bright spots—like 21-year-old Maya Lin winning the competition to design the Vietnam Vet memorial in the 1980s—it also has had unintended and far-reaching consequences for how architecture as a service profession is perceived by the public.

"The practice of participating in design competitions serves to artificially suppress wages and keeps our new employees struggling through the first years of their career, because the perception is that we will work for free," one anonymous designer wrote in a Van Alen Institute survey about design competitions to which almost 1,500 designers responded. "In turn, what we produce as a product is not valued."

According to Van Alen Executive Director David van der Leer, the conventional competition structure is increasingly being questioned. "All of this illustrates that the competition model is indeed shifting, but we can still push the envelope further to benefit all participants," he said over email. In particular, the study found that architects weren't just wishing for compensation—they were wishing for any kind of feedback or criticism that would benefit their work in the long run. "Why not publish the jury's reactions to submissions, or mount an exhibition of entries at the current terminal, or even post them on the sides of buses? In effect, the competition is not just about getting to the best design, but also advancing the design profession."

Outside of architecture, there's been significant pushback by other design industries where speculative competitions are common. For example, in Canada last year, a government-led logo design competition turned into a widely-publicized flashpoint for graphic designers who called the fee structure—which only paid the winner—"exploitive." Meanwhile, online platforms that ask graphic designers to submit their work for consideration by clients—and only pay if the work has been selected—have been roundly dismissed within the past few years.

But the structure of competitions is more deeply embedded in architecture as an industry, and it's been unclear whether that culture would ever shift. Prosky says NYC's chapter will continue to look at these issues as they emerge, so "look out for more." In the meantime, you can check out Van Alen's 10 propositions for making competitions "more efficient, inclusive, and rewarding for everyone who participates" here.

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