Jeremy Till

Competitive Strain Syndrome

Competitive Strain Syndrome

Jeremy Till

In the introduction to one of the few books that address the contemporary architectural competition, the editors write: “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] This essay examines the claim that competitions represent a form of utopia. It argues that while at face value they present an image of creative experiment and formal freedom, they do so on the back of an apparatus that can be read as deeply exploitative. Competitions are heralded as delivering architectural advances, but these so-called innovations mask an unattractive underlying system.

False Utopias

One of the most acute analyses of utopia is that of David Harvey, who identifies two prevalent forms of utopia.[2] First, utopias of social process, which propose new forms of social organisation. Second, utopias of spatial form, which are based on new formal solutions. Harvey notes that, taken separately, the two forms of utopia are flawed. Those of social processes are generally developed in abstraction from a spatial context, “they are literally bound to no place whatsoever.”[3] Those of spatial form are described out of temporal and social context, and so “get perverted from their noble objectives by having to compromise with the social processes they are meant to control.”[4] It is the latter type of utopia that is aspired to in the architectural competition in its presentation of static, perfected, forms lifted out of time, and out of the social processes that both produced them and will eventually occupy them.

The apparent freedom that the competition delivers is one of its attractions to architects, and of course has historically delivered examples of formal and stylistic innovation. The seminal competition-winning schemes – Sydney Opera House, Centre Pompidou, Parc de Villette and so on – are often used as justification for the competition system on the grounds that such breakthroughs would not have happened under normal procurement methods, fettered as they are by so many controls. In their utopias of spatial form, architectural competitions are the last refuge where architects can play out their intimate association with the object. Architects feel that they possess complete control for that fleeting moment of the production of the competition entry, away from the dependencies and demands of others. As the authority and control of the architect has decreased in the contemporary production systems of the built environment, the competition becomes an ever more attractive sanctuary for the exercise of architectural aspirations and experiment.

The privileging of the architectural object in the architectural competition is an inevitability of a system that relies on drawings as the primary mode of representation and evaluation. As Hélène Lipstadt notes, the competition is “a procedure that considers…the drawing to be an adequate prefiguration of the desired building, capable of being compared with other similar ones and judged for its aesthetic superiority.”[5] Lipstadt identifies that the birth of architectural competition in fourteenth century Renaissance Italy was dependent on the birth of the architectural drawing as a particular form of expertise that distinguished the architect from the builder or artist. She further argues that:

“The competitions of the Renaissance, and the status that they bestowed upon architects, inform the mythology that still pervades the contemporary process…The gift of the Renaissance competition and its historiography is that of autonomy, the patent of architecture’s nobility. Because the competition project is conceived in the autonomy of a relation of designer to program and not in the give-and-take of exchange with the client, it is the preeminent example of architectural creation that is at once autonomous and socially legitimated as part of practice.”[6]

The feeling of autonomy provided by the competition brings with it a sense of authority and control for the architect, but this comes with some serious limitations. Most obviously, by foregrounding architectural representation, the competition frames the discussion of architecture in aesthetic and formal terms, and thereby presents architecture as a timeless entity beyond the reach of social processes.

The competition creates what Malcolm Reading, one of the main promoters of architectural competitions, calls a “partial vacuum”[7], into which the client is sucked in order to contribute their take on taste and function. Anyone who has sat on either side of a competition jury process can bear witness to how taste is always circling round the table, often in an unspoken but still powerful manner. This has always been the case, from the eighteenth and nineteenth century academicians of France and Italy using competitions as an “important part of their practice of criticism, theorisation and tastemaking”[8], to the Victorian era in the United Kingdom, where architects, as self-defined “men of taste” [9], exercised their aesthetic authority in the adjudication of competitions.

This concentration on aesthetics, function and form in the competition process means that other concerns are suppressed, most notably the life of the building as it unfolds over time. The Dutch architect J.P. Oud was clear about this in his criticism of competitions: “It is precisely the incessant to-and-fro between the wishes of the sponsor and the ideas of the architect which make building into a living embodiment of society’s needs. It is in this respect that competitions are hopelessly inadequate; because of this permanent lack of contact they lead to a cut-out architecture…because the contact between life and design is so minimal in competitions it is best to use them sparingly.”[10] The clients’ role is reduced to contributing to the brief and then sometimes attending interviews, where they can make impulsive value-judgments as to whether they will ‘get on’ with the architect. Any sense of spatial production being a process of co-design over time is therefore lost, and with it the full social engagement with the project. In this light it is hard to agree with the RIBA’s recent assertion that competitions are “a highly successful procurement model that brings out the best in a project”[11], unless one judges success within the limited purview of taste and refinement. In addition to reducing the engagement with the client to the bare minimum, it is hard to understand how a process that involves only cursory, if any, engagement with the physical and social context could deliver the best results.

If, therefore, the competition operates as any form of utopia, it must be seen as providing false hopes of excellence. But the fixation on the object beautiful also distracts from much more serious issues, namely the exploitative processes that underlie the production within the competitive process.

Vampires of the profession

“Every competition, if at all extensive, costs the profession hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of which falls on men who can ill afford the loss…No wonder that the system (of competitions) has come to be regarded as a sort of nightmare, as an incubus or vampire, stifling the breath of professional life, and draining its blood.”[12]

William Robert Ware, 1889

The close identification of architecture with its objects is not particular to the competition system; it is a characteristic of the wider discipline. The popular understanding of what architects do is that they design buildings. This much is true, but they also do a lot more than that. They use multiple modes of knowledge in that spatial production – technical, social, visual, processual, historical, cultural and so on. But what architectural culture validates through its education, media and awards is the final object of production. Academic validation boards (in the UK at least) obsess over pictures of buildings in student portfolios. Internet sites are saturated with images of sunlit, empty, buildings. Awards systems are too often judged on the basis of a flick through portfolios of such images.

The production of competition drawings in a partial vacuum removed from the cut and thrust of actual practice allows architects to believe the myth of pure experimentation as a contribution to cultural and architectural innovation. The production of pure objects in the competition system presumes to detach architecture from the marketplace, a connection that the profession has always found problematic because it compromises the ideal of architect as artist. The competition thus exaggerates a condition that Peggy Deamer has identified as operating through the profession, namely a belief that architects are “outside of the work/labor discourse because what they do (is) art or design rather than work per se.”[13]

But of course doing a competition is a form of labour, and it is important to acknowledge it as such. In delivering such labour for little or no financial reward, the profession allows itself to be exploited. Worse, it abandons the idea that architectural knowledge has monetary value. The architectural competition perpetuates “the disastrous idea that our value resides in the object we produce and not in the knowledge that produced it.”[14]  Competitions can therefore be read as a form of self-sacrifice both economically and epistemologically. This sacrifice is captured in  Louis Kahn’s identification of a competition as “an offering to architecture”[15], though I suspect that is he referring to ‘offering’ as a noble act rather than as a gift of labour.

It is extraordinary that the profession not only allows this sacrifice to happen but actually arranges for it. The RIBA is proud of the competition service that it provides to clients, upholding the architectural quality that the system produces as the primary justification. In its guidance to clients, the RIBA notes: “Competitions enable a wide variety of approaches to be explored simultaneously with a number of designers.”[16]  This statement, delivered with no apparent doubt, confirms that competitions are a means of extracting free or extremely cheap labour and knowledge from profession, an abandonment overseen and sanctioned by the professional institute. One might note that if, as should be the case, the client has a clearer idea at the start as what was needed from the project, then a ‘wide variety of approaches’ would not be necessary. And if a wide variety is delivered, then one has to question against what criteria they can possibly be evaluated in the judging process. Instead the competition is presented as a fishing expedition, with architects turning handstands in order to catch the jury’s eye: “gymnasts in the prison yard”, indeed.[17]

The RIBA is also apparently willing to give up their member’s time and knowledge to suit the wider aims of a competition project. Their list of benefits of a competition includes to: “raise a project’s profile.” It is clear that some clients use the competitions as a form of public relations in order to present the project in a better light, with credibility given by the engagement of multiple architects. This happened most notoriously in the Helsinki Guggenheim competition organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants, launched in 2014 without confirmed funding. 1751 entries and two years later, the project was abandoned when Helsinki city council voted against funding it. If one takes a very low estimate of £5000 worth of labour for each entry, then this represents over £8.5m of lost labour, approximately 10% of the overall project cost.[18] It is worth quoting Malcolm Reading’s comments on the abandonment in full, because they say so much about what is wrong about the culture and processes of competitions.

“2016 has turned out to be a year of extraordinary events and turmoil and perhaps the final vote should be seen from this perspective. The proposition for a Guggenheim in Helsinki captured the imagination of the global architectural community and the competition was a phenomenon in its own right. One of the most entered design contests in history with entries from 77 countries, it recorded a moment in the architectural zeitgeist. The website is a fantastic resource for architects and architectural enthusiasts and it has recorded just short of 4.5 million page views. We feel for the competitors and finalists but nothing is entirely lost. The intensity of designing to such a compelling brief generates ideas and viewpoints that continue to be explored in subsequent work.”

First, Reading disingenuously associates the abandonment with the political events of 2016, Brexit and Trump. Second, he makes the oft-repeated argument that the larger number of entries, the greater the success of the competition, yet when viewed through the frame of labour, the opposite is the case. Third, he presents the website as a repository of architectural knowledge. The primary knowledge available is that of stylistic comparison, in a snapshot of contemporary forms. Real architectural knowledge, in terms of the embedded and external intelligence that it took to develop each entry, is only superficially accessible given the paucity of the evidence presented for it. As Deamer notes, “the myth here is that a project assigned to four A1 boards and 500 words offers either the designer or the “community” deep thinking on either site or program.”[19] Finally, Reading suggests that the very act of entering a competition is a way of developing an architect’s skills and approaches for future work. This is sometimes used by architects as justification for entering competitions, but only really achieved when that developmental aim is clearly set aside from any dreams of actually winning. It is those dreams that dominate the competition mentality, and the collapse of them for all but a handful of entries builds the disappointment and resentment of an entire profession.


It may be argued that the Helsinki Guggenheim in all its extremes does not represent the competition system as a whole. However, in terms of sacrificed labour and knowledge, its problems can be identified to a greater or lesser extent across the range of competitions. At the better end of the scale, invited competitions have become the norm for some architects to obtain work. Over time these architects, generally at the elite end of the profession, can calculate their success rate and the cost of entry and build this loss into their business model.[20] But all this comes at real economic loss to the profession, a loss that is too often mitigated by the enforcement of excessive working hours and/or unpaid internships as the only means of completing competition entries. At the other end of the scale from the elite invited competitions are the open, and sometimes unregulated, competitions, which typically attract hundreds of entries from younger hopefuls. These competitions are not only financially exploitative but also prey on the aspirations of the profession. Such is the will to create, such is the desperation to succeed that architects - apparently willingly - sacrifice themselves to the competition machine, vampirish though it is to the profession.


The breakthrough of a single architect in a competition is made on the back of hundreds of other sacrifices accompanied by endless frustration. This condition is typical of what Guy Standing has termed the precariat, a wide class of people who live out their employment in a state of precariousness, both financial and emotional. The precariat are “people with a relatively high level of formal education who have to accept jobs that have a status or income beneath what they believe accord with their qualifications…[they]are likely to suffer status frustration.”[21]  To liken architects to Uber drivers or graphic designers who submit free work to logo mills might appear hyperbolic, but this combination of low pay, frustration and jeopardy is exactly what is induced by the competition system. If one adds to this economic precarity the “complete drain on intelligence”[22] that Rem Koolhaas identifies in competitions, then it is surely time to question the system as it presently stands.

A spatio-temporal approach

Clearly architectural competitions are not going to be abandoned completely; but they can be definitely be adjusted in their processes. The clue to a revised approach may lie in David Harvey’s reformulation of utopias so that they necessarily combine the temporal and the spatial, so bringing the social to the formal, and the dynamic to the static.[23] A certain set of implications flow from this.

First, all competitions need to be seen only as the start of the process, not as the end. Too often the winning scheme is considered as a fait accompli, with the client later only tweaking bits within the formal envelope. Competitions should never be seen as providing design ‘solutions’; how could they be given such cursory engagement with the real dynamics of site and social context? Instead, they should be taken as the beginnings of a conversation; table settings which will be necessarily disturbed over the course of the later co-design process.

Second, competitions should have clear filters in place in order to limit economic, and with it social, loss on the part of the profession. This can be achieved in ways through restricting the numbers of entries. Numbers of entries need to be restricted, either by strict two stage filters or a sortition process (which randomly selects a fixed number of entries that meet baseline criteria).[24] People may argue that this restriction will at the same time stifle the aspirations of those excluded, but surely it is better to enter fewer competitions with greater chances of success, than it is more with less chance?

Third, the criteria by which competitions are assessed need to revised to take into the spatio-temporal aspects of architecture, and not just the aesthetic and formal ones. There is an increasing expectation for architects to present ‘complete’ buildings as part of the competition process, an expectation aided by the computer’s presumed ability to summon up reality from unreal elements. This expectation needs to be challenged for what it is: a complete waste of the multiple modes of architectural knowledge, and also as a form of fake completeness. Instead we need to shift from an emphasis on visual evidence to other forms of spatio-temporal descriptions.

Maybe the next large architectural competition should be to redesign the architectural competition, using the above points as a starter, but filling out the conversation with many more. Only then will we avoid the disappointment of false utopias.

First published as: Jeremy Till, Competitive Strain Syndrome in: Theodorou and Katsakou (eds.), The Competition Grid (Newcastle, RIBA Publishing: 2018)


[1] Jean-Pierre Chupin, Carmela Cucuzzella, and Bechara Helal, Architecture Competitions and the Production of Culture, Quality and Knowledge: An International Inquiry (Potential Architecture Books, 2015), 12.

[2] David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 173ff.

[3] Ibid., 174.

[4] Ibid., p. 179.

[5] Helene Lipstadt, “The Experimental Tradition,” in The Experimental Tradition: Essays on Competitions in Architecture, ed. Helene Lipstadt (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989), 13.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Malcolm Reading, “How Deep Thinking Wins Competitions,” Architects Journal, April 24, 2015, The full quote reads: “Running a competition is a particular kind of accelerated design activity. Like a journey in space, everything moves at intense speed but is conducted in a partial vacuum. Some architects criticise this absence of the client voice in competitions, but this attitude is unnecessarily sophistic, and the good architect sees an opportunity to fill the gap with content.” As will become apparent, I think criticism the lack of client voice is far from sophistry.

[8] Barry Bergdoll, “Competing in the Academy and the Marketplace: European Architecture Competitions 1401-1927,” in The Experimental Tradition: Essays on Competitions in Architecture, ed. Helene Lipstadt (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989), 25–26.

[9] At the first meeting of the RIBA in 1835, the secretary of the proposed new organisation called on architects “to uphold in ourselves the character of Architects, as men of taste, men of science, men of honour.” T.S Donaldson, “Report of The Proceedings, at the Opening General Meeting of the Members” (London: RIBA, 1835). My emphasis.

[10] As quoted in: Hilde de Haan and Ids Haagsma, Architects in Competition: International Architectural Competitions of the Last 200 Years (Thames and Hudson, 1988), 18.

[11] Royal Institute of British Architects, “Design Competitions: Guidance for Clients” (London: RIBA, 2012), 2,

[12] As quoted in: Lipstadt, “The Experimental Tradition,” 15.

[13] Peggy Deamer, The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), xxx.

[14] Peggy Deamer, “Work,” in The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design, ed. Peggy Deamer (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 72.

[15] As quoted in: Lipstadt, “The Experimental Tradition,” 10.

[16] Royal Institute of British Architects, “Design Competitions: Guidance for Clients,” 5.

[17] This follows Tafuri. “how ineffectual are the brilliant gymnastics carried out in the yard of the model prison, in which architects are left free to move about on temporary reprieve.” Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture (London: Granada, 1980), xxii. See also Chapter 11 of Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

[18] Peggy Deamer estimates a lower overall loss of $6,860,000, on the basis of 80 hours per entry. Either way, the value of lost labour is considerable. Peggy Deamer, “The Guggenheim Helsinki Competition: What Is the Value Proposition?,” accessed April 1, 2017,

[19] Ibid.

[20]  A comparative table in Judith Strong’s book on competitions, shows how many competitions some elite firms have entered and their success rate: Foster and Partners, 48 competitions entered in past 5 years, success rate 19%. Richard Roger and Partners, 47, 38%. Future Systems 12, 5UK, 17%, Cullinan Studio, 11,36%. Matthew Priestman 12, 17%. Judith Strong, Winning by Design: Architectural Competitions / Judith Strong. (Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1996), 79. The success rate for open competitions is clearly much lower.

[21] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class / by Guy Standing. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 10.

[22] Rem Koolhaas, 'There’s Been Very Little Rethinking Of What Cities Can Be', March 20, 2015, The full quote is “There is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession. A fair amount of it is generated through the procedure of competitions, which is a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know of any other profession that would tolerate this. At the same time you are important, we invite your thinking, but we also announce that there is an eighty per cent chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted.”

[23] The task then is to define an alternative, not in terms of some static spatial form or even of some perfected emancipatory process. The task is to pull together a spatiotemporal utopianism – a dialectical utopianism – that is rooted in our present possibilities at the same time as it points towards different trajectories.” Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 182.

[24] For sortition in competitions see: Walter Menteth, et al., “Project Compass Design Contest Guidance” (London: Project Compass, n.d.), 40.