For decades, design competitions have been an integral component of Canadian architectural practice. Unlike traditional responses to requests for proposals — which typically only focus on prior work experience and low fees — competition entries can allow architects to push the boundaries of design, leading to new and exciting concepts. They spur innovation and creativity, honing what is possible in our built environment and our civic buildings. In turn, they can also launch a young design studio or elevate an existing firm in a way that is not possible through more restrictive procurement protocols. However, just as the red tape of procurement can be frustrating for design firms, competitions are laden with potential complications in their own right.
Let’s start with the downsides; design competitions are expensive and can drain the resources of an arhictecture firm. For major competitions, some cost estimates range as high as $150,000 in lost billable time and resources. Most will consume about $50,000 from a business that already runs on exceptionally tight margins. That is an incredible investment for any firm, but particularly for small firms who are building a practice, as they are not only giving their time — they are unable to use it towards a project that pays their substantial bills. Consider, for example, a competition for a public monument with a construction value of $3 million, and a standard seven per cent fee of $210,000, leaving very little to finish the design details and construction administration. So, even if you are fortunate enough to be selected as the winner, you are likely to lose money in its execution.
This is a reality to architectural practice that is far removed from the idealism of university studio: Developers, government agencies, and private owners often perceive architects as an added cost — rather than seeing them as added value. This environment can wear down even the most enthusiastic and optimistic architect. I have yet to meet a practitioner who went to school to work under the reality of being a service provider rather than a designer.
So why would anyone want to enter a competition? Besides elevating the profile of a firm with national or international recognition, the greatest value of participating in the competition process comes from the opportunity to design important cultural markers such as libraries, theatres, civic centres, and monuments. Competitions have the potential to be vital platforms for engaging the public and user groups in the architectural process. They can raise awareness about the importance of good design in public spaces and the built environment, fostering a sense of community involvement.
But what does “good design” actually mean? While every licensed architect can competently apply the building code to a project, their approach to engaging people in their community — not to mention transforming the built environment — will inevitably differ. If you peruse various competition guidelines and the resulting entries online, you can quickly see that the criteria of what constitutes good design can differ significantly. Developing a proposition that clearly identifies how an architectural firm can provide value to a project — beyond meeting the building code — is an incredible challenge. An architectural competition that champions expression (and elevates a firm above more mundane details of typical practice) won’t necessarily result in a design that reflects the public interest.
Indeed, the greatest challenge of an architectural competition is engaging meaningfully with the public, who will use the architecture after it’s built. A common critique of competition entries — particularly for major international projects — is they rarely reflect the local site and community. They can be airlifted anywhere in the world and still “work.” And despite protestations that the jury can see past the superficial image, they are often too reliant on renderings of the architectural object rather than its function and value. (Count how many renderings use fog, lens flares, and flocks of birds for your next architectural BINGO drinking game). The best architecture is created through a continuous dialogue with an engaged and informed client — which is doubly important for projects where the ultimate user is the Canadian public. So, how do we ensure that such a process can exist within a competition?
The recent National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan competition is a good example of good intentions and bad execution. As many already know, the team composition for this competition includes an artist, landscape architect, and an architect, while the jury was composed of an excellent cross section representing designers, artists, veterans and their families, and members of the Defence community. I can imagine they must have had some amazing conversations about the value of design and public art, what it means to have been in Afghanistan during the conflict as a military member or an ambassador to the region, how heartbreaking it would be to lose a child to war, and how each presented project may reflect those values. Through these enriching conversations the jury examined the entries and chose a winner. Their examination went beyond the image, bringing greater depth to the process. The curveball came when the Government of Canada decided to change the selection process and privilege input from the public through a brief online poll.
Engaging the public in the process and value of architecture is the goal. Architects are at their best when they are working with an engaged client or user group. For the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan competition, the jury weighed all the factors given to them and chose the project that, in their carefully considered opinions, met those requirements. However, when the government set up their online poll, respondents didn’t have the benefit of similar conversations about intent, material quality, meaning, or consequences. And to add to those challenges, the competition entrants didn’t have the opportunity to respond to the public’s opinion. They weren’t truly able to be part of the discourse required to create good design for public spaces. In the end, rather than being a project that built meaning into the memorial, the winner of the competition was effectively reduced to an image.
In the spirit of transparency, architects have our own demons to vanquish. We’ve all been seduced by the siren call of a wicked cantilever that appears to hover impossibly, or tapers to a knife edge that cuts across the evening sky. And who among us hasn’t proposed a window wall to “animate the street front” only to see the glass covered with blinds because no one actually wants to be on display? When I showed my dad, who was a structural engineer, my new fancy asymmetric ice cream scoop, he said, “Looks like something only an architect could love.” That cut deep.
And there we have the gap. What we want are clients and building users who value and understand good design. They appreciate the work we do and value a wicked cantilever, or can guide us to where a window wall will be effective — and not just an architect’s conceit. And what do clients want from us? They want into our world. They often don’t know how to describe good design, and in all fairness, architects can’t really describe good design either.
So how do we get there? There may be some clues in the sustainability movement. Ten years ago, environmentally conscious building was largely predicated on net-zero energy. The return on investment could be measured with a payback period over time. However, we quickly learned that simply reducing the operational energy a building requires to keep its occupants comfortable wasn’t going to meet our climate change goals. We adapted to a more holistic model and started to measure net-zero carbon instead. While carbon is less intuitively tangible than energy, it can be accurately depicted in an infographic that shows embodied carbon, operational carbon, and indirect emissions. These concepts were difficult for both the public and architects to understand. Yet, they are now part of the conversation — and increasingly, part of the public vocabulary — because we’ve learned to communicate them clearly.
Ultimately, it’s not about design competitions. While a well-executed competition can provide an invaluable opportunity to connect architectural design to a broader civic discourse, engaging the public is a more fundamental problem. What we really need is opportunities for architects to be creative and innovative. We need them to be able to push the boundaries of our current process — much like they would within a competition — alongside the client and user groups to collaboratively create buildings and places that aren’t just “something only an architect could love,” but something that clearly reflects Canadian culture both as it is, and as we want it to be.
The current version of the RAIC Strategic Plan refers to the architectural community. This intentionally goes beyond just practicing architects and RAIC members to include everyone who lives and works within our built environment. If we’re truly going to pursue a good design culture in Canada, we need to engage with everyone. This includes working with the Canadian public, our Indigenous design colleagues through Truth and Reconciliation, and championing climate action, equity and justice in architecture, and accessibility for all — and maybe even a knife edge roof line that cuts across the evening sky.
Jason Robbins is President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and a Principal Architect with AECOM Canada. He is a former union stagehand who has spent the entirety of his architectural career advocating for good design and architecture in the built environment. Jason is also a founding board member of Storefront Manitoba, a non-profit organization that advances public awareness and the appreciation of architecture, design, and the built environment.
Lead image by Michael Muraz. The aerial view of Ottawa shows the Peace Tower alongside two seminal projects, Douglas Cardinal’s Museum of History and Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery of Canada. Both designs were the winning entires in a pair of limited design competitions that were launched simultaneously by the federal government.
RAIC President Jason Robbins reflects on the challenge of creating a dialogue between architectural culture and civic discourse.