As a practicing architect, I am deeply ambivalent about design competitions.
On the one hand they are clearly exploitative. Hundreds of architects and their teams spend weeks if not months developing designs where there is only a small chance of receiving any type of compensation for their efforts.
On the other hand, competitions do allow smaller firms the opportunity to work on projects of greater scale and importance. They allow architects to stretch their design muscles by exploring ideas that their "real" projects rarely allow. For younger designers working in firms where they aren't doing much design work, it provides them with a chance to gain design experience and expand their portfolios. And every once in a while, they actually win something.
When I was fresh out of school I entered a number of competitions. I never won any of them, but I came in second several times. What I came to realize was the value of these efforts came not from the potential recognition or prize money that might result, but from the actual experience gained by producing the deign. Every time you design something, you get a little better at doing it and you learn how to better communicate your ideas.
Whatever skill I may have as a designer today is a result of the six-and-a-half years I spent in architecture school, the ten years I spent working at various architecture firms, and yes, the sum total of all the time I spent working on competitions I did not win. It's a hard habit to break and I still myself drawn agains my better judgement to enter competitions today. Only now I've learned I don't actually have to enter them.
Earlier this summer I learned of a competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that was for a new center focused on architecture, design and education. I was intrigued by the challenge and paid my $100 registration fee. I spent the next month-and-a-half developing a design that would not be housed in a tower in Chicago's loop as the competition brief suggested but rather in a long, horizontal structure that ran alongside the Chicago River. The exhibition galleries and presentation theater would actually float on a barge and so have the capability to travel to other cities, expanding the cultural reach of the institution. Formally the design related to both the curve of the river and the broad-shouldered structure of the bridges that span over it.
I was really excited with where the design was heading, but I was running out of time. Unlike when I was younger, I couldn't stay up for three days straight to get it done. I couldn't sequester myself in front of my iMac to knock out the final renderings, print out the requisite presentation boards, box them up and FedEx them to Chicago to be there by today. As much as I may have wanted to do that, I had birthday parties to take the kids to and real jobs with real clients who needed attention. As the Labor Day weekend approached I made the difficult decision to abandon the project and not spend all weekend rushing to finish it but rather go outside and play catch with the girls.
Part of me is disappointed that I didn't see this effort all the way through. Part of me wonders about the possibility - however small - of what would have happened if I completed the submission.
But at the end of the day someone will win. There are no doubt scores of architects willing to enter this and countless other competitions. Many of them are capable of winning, but I alone am capable of being the father of my daughters. I am only given one Labor Day to spend with Sammy when she is 5 and Darcy when she is 2 and so I decided to spend it with them.
Maybe that's hurting my career in the short-term but I'd like to think it's making me a better person, which in the long run makes me a better architect.