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On Winning—and Not Winning—Design Competitions

You never outlive your tender years. Part of my legacy is that I was “husky.” Deciphering mid-20th-century niceties and prejudices, that means that I was overweight. Not much, but “too much” for my BMI (Body Mass Index)–appropriate parents. So, I will always be fat.

I have been an architect for 44 years, completed more than 1,000 projects, and won perhaps 50 local and national awards over the last 37, three of them this year. But here’s the grim math: I have also lost more than 300 competitions.

If my childhood was one of acceptance and nurturing, I would absorb those losses with a sigh and a smile. But we do not choose our parents. Midcentury parenting was often the Greatest Generation coping with the PTSD of living through the Great Depression and Saving the World. Having an emotionally feral origin, the losses just reveal some dark, unknowable inadequacy—the one that consigned me to an isolation that abides.

So I both seek and deny approval. I enter competitions, and they matter little when I win them, but hurt when I lose them. So, after winning those three competitions (all demi-honors), I was emboldened to enter four wonderful projects in my local AIA competition, under the flagship “Design” category. 

All lost.

Here are their stories, as submitted:

Beyond about $500 and 100 hours of staff time to assemble the entries, I had stalked the four named judges as presented on their websites. One of the four seemed to have sympathy with the nature of the projects you see, but worked for a large firm. Another was an urban designer. Two seemed to do the small-scale work that was being submitted by my office. Their websites were virtually blank in offering any visual clues as to how they might view whatever it is that I do. Not a great portent for winning, perhaps, but one out of four was actually better odds for success than I have seen in most juries. Still, our work is not the Modernism Lite that tends to win this competition. Nor the High Traditionalist aesthetic that wins the others I did win, despite that misfit with what I do, too.

I am neither the “mod” or “trad” used to pigeonhole architects into the shallow norms that file us. So I lose a lot more than I win. 

So I entered. And Lost. Again.

Every client loved the buildings we helped make, often created through hardships with extreme devotion from every quarter. Why should this arm’s-length, institutional, impersonal—even opaque—rejection mean anything but frustration at some injustice being inveighed, or simple guilt over unwarranted hubris?

Because at 68, I am still a 6-year-old boy.

Featured image: photo by Bob Gundersen. 


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