Swipe Left: How Technology Has Skewed Architectural Competitions
For many architects, humans (a.k.a. clients) only complicate the design process. The natural byproduct of technology is a similar dehumanization in many parts of our lives. In architectural competitions this inevitable separation from the personal touch has changed a studio experience into a form of online dating.
Having won about twenty competitions over the last thirty-plus years, and having been a jurist on another dozen over the last twenty, I can say the digital revolution has morphed and skewed the outcomes of these competitions. The way we compete now has fundamentally changed. That change has affected the timing, the costs—and naturally the results.
If life was like architecture school, professional designers would have a different life. Architects would be given a problem without humans attached to it: designers would simply be given a place to create a piece of art. No other humans would need occupy, let alone complicate, the design process. (Rather like the internet.)
Competitions for architects have been around for a long time, but the last two decades have seen the digital floodgates open (think A+Architizer Awards and its zillion categories). There are generally two types of competitions. The first are awards for built projects. These are what building architects enter. We mostly lose these (usually about 1 out of 20 submissions get recognition). The second type is for those who have a little more time on their hands than the architect who builds and presumably meets a payroll. These competitions are focused on creating new designs for a stipulated problem, and then having the proposed solutions judged. Here there are even fewer “winners.”
Historically, neither of these competitions allowed for architects or jurists to hear from clients; they rarely used budget as a critical criteria. Instead, most relied on two-dimensional “beauty” (defined by the jury) as the field of judgment. This battleground of expression meant architectural photography became critically important—and the staged vignettes it celebrated had a dominant place in an architect’s perspective.
Design software has exploded the representations of architectural work to a place of extremely defined fantasy and hard-edge simulated reality. It’s made for the exceptional depiction of ideas, in a kind of synthetic legitimacy.
Given the digital revolution in 2D architecture, it’s no surprise that today’s competitions are dramatically different from a generation ago. Design software has exploded the representations of architectural work to a place of extremely defined fantasy and hard-edged simulated reality. It’s made for the exceptional depiction of ideas, in a kind of synthetic legitimacy.
Most competitions have two unspoken base realities. First: competitions are designed to generate revenue. Hundreds of dollars can be charged for each submission—and there can be thousands of submissions. In the past, the costs involved in these competitions were related to the “handling” of analog presentation formats.
The old-school approach of printing a folio of pics, words, drawings, forms, also cost hundreds of dollars—not counting the cost of the photographer—and often considerably more. The mailing was of the most secure, thus pricey. The compensated judges usually convened, on site.
Those hard costs meant that entrants had a great deal of skin in the game. The digital revolution has made everything cheaper. Now the tangible, tactile, expensive entries of the past have morphed into the cheaper thrills of Instagram depth. Now it’s cut and paste, no printing—and applicants simply click “send.” There is no physical repository for all the entries, no human touch. The costs are less; but since journalism is grasping at revenue streams, even though there is now lower overhead, pay-for-play is still the rule.
The second unspoken truth about competitions is, despite their projected rationale for revealing architectural excellence, it’s the jury who most often reveals its own genius (or rather predisposition).
The second unspoken truth about competitions is, despite their projected rationale for revealing architectural excellence, it’s the jury who most often reveals its own genius (or rather predisposition). Technology has further amplified this disconnect.
I know this firsthand, as I have been at both ends of the dance. As a judge I have seen my own reactions mean some of the last few years losing entries were suddenly award-worthy when resubmitted for my jury’s consideration. Last year I won a national award for a project that the same competition deemed me a loser in two previous years. Had the rules changed? Were there fewer projects worth recognizing? No. There were just different juries.
Any method that allows jurists to be more capricious, knee-jerk, or lazy in their evaluation makes judgment more superficial. Good visuals become essential to win a competition. So it’s not surprising that with these paperless methods that the results of competitions are changing. This is not about “style.” It’s about the essential ephemera of the internet.
There is a parallel with architecture school admissions. Some still require a physical portfolio; most require applicants to simply click “send.” Competition entries were once touched and had face time with the individual jurists, one-on-one. Judging is now more often in a room, together looking at a screen, or remotely on Skype. It can become “Groupthink.” This model has a zipless intimacy of instant and common exposure. The access is easier, cheaper, quicker. But opportunity is lost. Like Match.com, nothing is touched, nothing is personal.
For the singletons in search of what might become love, there is no “dating”—no personal contact, no one-on-one engagement. It’s you and a screen, images serially flicked back and forth, judged in the glow at a distance. Swipe right, you take those pics to the next level; swipe left and the supposed human vanishes, forever.
This antiseptic, safe and shallow distance is the way architectural competitions are executed today. For me, the judging is quicker, less thoughtful, more based on immediate reaction. It’s become more akin to a technological Rorschach test. Competitions are now more litmus paper reaction than reading and reviewing and flipping a folio’s pages back and forth—you want to be considerate of the other jurors. The new process has devolved into changing channels: Decisions that took all day take hours.
Haste makes waste, but saves time and money. But the glory is still there for the winners. When entering new designs, many who work in large offices have a unique opportunity. They can get a crumb of personal recognition amid the professional drudge of cad-monkeydom. Many of my peers now enter more competitions, since our non-pro cameras are better, there are no printing costs, no physical binding, and the packaging elements are easily accessible. But, despite the click-bait criteria of today’s judging, the results are the same: most of us lose.
And we do want to win. But, if the results have the depth and honesty of an online profile, it’s dispiriting. The “dating website” model can be made more human, more intimately viewed by jurists. Each could be given a memory stick and a couple of hours to get “up close and personal.” There could be mandatory videos of the client, of the site, of the contractor—in addition to comments by the designer.
It’s harder to flick left and reject if you know more about what you’re considering. Listening to a project, rather than reacting to images, has to have a better outcome. Just like dating.
Featured image via unbuilt.blogspot.com