Designing the world: architecture competition

Architectural competitions have been used for centuries to identify appropriate and inventive solutions for a particular site or building. Vision explores

Whether through an open call or inviting entries from a predetermined shortlist, competitions enable private and public organisations to choose from proposals pitched by the leading architects of the day. This process has resulted in some of the most recognisable structures ever built, from the Acropolis in Athens, to London’s Houses of Parliament and the Sydney Opera House.

For clients seeking ideas for their projects, competitions offer the opportunity to compare a variety of responses to a specific brief. The Royal Institute of British Architects in London regularly organises competitions on behalf of global clients including the Sherborne Qatar School, and London’s Olympic Delivery Authority. It claims that its competitions provide “variety, inspiration and value,” enabling the client to choose from a broad range of designers and design approaches while simultaneously raising the profile of the project.

For the architect, entering competitions can be a punt in terms of delegating time and resources to a speculative process that may not have a happy ending, but the results can be worth it. “Architecture competitions have always been launching pads; both for promoting the business and attracting the general public,” says Rotterdam-based architect Matteo Mannini, who was recently announced as the winner of a competition organised by the Gulf Architecture Biennial to encourage conceptual thinking about what a bridge crossing the Hormuz Strait between Iran and Oman might look like.

The winning design imagined a fictional ancient bridge across this historic trade route, and proposed “reconstructing” it while incorporating modern functions including a shipping terminal, leisure facilities, accommodation and an airstrip on the roof. Although it will never be built, Mannini says: “Working on such an interesting competition brief and winning the first prize has encouraged us to be more adventurous in our methodology and design practice.”

Conceptual competitions such as this encourage discussion about specific issues relating to the evolution of architecture and reward innovative thinking which is unconstrained by typical restrictions such as time or budget. They also provide a platform for organisations and architects to promote their work to an international audience.

From fictional conversation-starters such as the Hormuz Bridge project to very real urban developments like the redesign of the World Trade Center site in New York, competitions consistently generate innovative and unexpected solutions and provide benefits for clients and architects alike.