The Importance of Design competitions

Architecture Dated:  Sept. 15, 2015
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Runner's up Entry for Palace of Nations in Geneva

Architectural Competitions have the possibility to enrich the Design Environment, strengthen culture and impart knowledge. They are opportunities to make leaps in architectural thinking and go beyond what exists. They are moments in history that enable us to contemplate on our past, present and future, on subjects that are beyond architecture itself. “Every competition remains a world of possibilities: an intermediary space-time locus for the search for excellence in architecture. In some ways, competition projects function like utopias” 1

Police Memorial Competition Entry by Design PlusFigure 1 - Site Plan, Police Memorial Competition Entry by Design Plus. Respecting 48 Forces and Planning Axis of Chankyapuri
Source – Author (Design Plus)

The history of competitions can be traced back to either the mythical competitions of the construction of the Acropolis2 or a more accurately to the French Revolution, where several competitions were put to a more political and democratic use. “During the period of the revolution, no less than 207 projects with architectural program were designed via competitions spanning triumphal arches, covered arenas, temples of equality and other public buildings.”3 However, the merits and problems with architectural competitions to this date remain identical. The deliberations of concern span centuries - from the history mentioned to the more modern examples of Parc de la Villette or more recently Helsinki Guggenheim or even more closer to home, like the Nalanda University or The Sayli International Sports Complex.

Excerpt from the 1715 Entries for Helsinki GuggenheimFigure 2 - Excerpt from the 1715 Entries for Helsinki Guggenheim
Source -

1. Judgement Paradox –  For any competition it is paramount that the judgement is not only transparent and fair but also is by an educated panel. An educated panel in the case of architectural competitions should comprise of qualified architects themselves. However, therein lays the paradox. A competent designer judging a competent design is likely to bring his/her bias and intrigue. On the other hand, absence of such a judging entity permits ignorance to play role.

2. Personal endeavours vs. local needs and multicultural politics – A critical need is for the organisers and the participating architects to be extremely sensitive of the local issues. The same sensitivity needs to be transferred to the jury. As mentioned before, the competition provides an opportunity for architects to ponder upon issues beyond architecture, but they also present architects with an opportunity to generate narcissist proposals that are more reflective of their own portfolio rather than the demands of the program, site, and the encompassing context. Also, from an organiser’s perspective, opening up a competition to a larger audience (national or even global) is not necessarily to invite a larger talent pool but to open their markets to bring international attention.

Silvassa Institute of Higher LearningFigure 3 – Silvassa Institute of Higher Learning, National Competition won by Design Plus Architects - Cultural Synchronization Diagram
Source - Author (Design Plus)

While, marketing and discussing competitions at larger forums is encouraging, the value for extravaganza and creation of icons should be measured. We believe that Design Plus won Silvassa Institute of Higher Learning competition in 2011 essentially because of consideration to local culture, customs, festivals, plantation and climate. Annual festivals, for example, were mapped across the landscape of the campus and co-related with the potential academic year.

Runner's up Entry for Palace of NationsFigure 4 - Runner's up Entry for Palace of Nations in Geneva in 1927 by Le Corbusier
Source -

3. Knowledge base – This is closely tied with the above two points. A winning entry may not always be seminal. “The competition for the Palace of Nations in Geneva in 1927 is regarded as a historical error in terms of a theory of architectural judgement. The fact that the jury awarded the top prize to Nemot and Flegenheimer’s extremely conventional project – built but nevertheless absent from any of the 20th century historical surveys on architecture – is a sign of a major disciplinary controversy.

Furthermore, because the jury was unable to realise a true convergence of ethics and aesthetics, it also resolutely overlooked the modern projects of Le Corbusier, Hannes Meyer and Neutra.”4

There are always countless ground-breaking yet competition losing entries. Architecture sadly does not have the luxury of building every good idea. It is thus critical to document, catalogue, and exhibit the bright spots of each competition. These bright spots almost always seed future projects. More importantly, a rich documentation presents to the public at large, a snapshot of architecture of the era. The myriad of options generated enable public debates and reasoning.


Ar. Arun K Bij
Ar. Arun K Bij
Founder, Principal Architect, Propreitor at Design Plus
Ar. Abhishek Bij
Ar. Arun K Bij
Associate + Lead Designer at Design Plus Architects


1 Jean-Pierre Chupin, Carmela Cucuzzella, Bechara Helal – A world of opportunities, Architectural Competitions, Potential Architecture Book, 2015, p. 12
3 Jean-Pierre Chupin, Carmela Cucuzzella, Bechara Helal – A world of opportunities, Architectural Competitions, Potential Architecture Book, 2015, p. 13


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