A Brief History Of Architecture Competitions

Architecture competitions have long been used to generate a pool of designs for specific projects, as well as more hypothetical ideas. They are a way to quickly collate different perspectives and concepts that just could not be conceived by a single firm or architect. Add to that the sense of public input and community collaboration that they can create, and it’s clear to see why architecture competitions have been used to create some of the world’s greatest architectural structures.

The world’s first architecture competition

Architecture competitions date back as far as ancient Greece, when the Persian King Xerxes invaded Athens and decimated much of their architecture. When he was finally driven from Athens, and the community sufficiently recovered, the Council of Athens launched the world’s first architecture competition.

Ancient Greece first used open architecture competitions when rebuilding after the invasion by the Persians. Image source

They called for submissions for a structure that would commemorate their good fortune, soliciting ideas for a victory monument that was eventually constructed from parts salvaged from the broken entablature of the Temple to Athena and set into a niche within the reconstructed Erechtheion upon the grounds of the Acropolis.

This participatory method of commissioning architectural work was used regularly during the classical world, however it seemed to end rather abruptly with the demise of Greek hegemony.

Architecture competitions have a Renaissance

The onset of the Renaissance in the 14th century resulted in a resurgence of architecture competitions, inviting artists, architects, and patrons to embrace this method. In fact, the public nature of architecture competitions helped to improve the popularity and status of winning architects, especially when they received positive attention from powerful figures in the worlds of politics, economics, or religion.

Renaissance architecture relied heavily on architecture competitions, involving the public to improve the popularity of the project. Image source

The act of organising architecture competitions highlighted the importance and value of architects - and by extension architecture - in a very public way. In the years, decades, and centuries following the Renaissance, architecture competitions became commonplace, and a frequently-employed forum for commissioning design ideas.

Architecture competitions revitalise French architecture after WWII

Following the end of World War II, Europe - France in particular - saw architecture competitions as an ideal method of supporting innovation in architecture and reinvigorating previously occupied territories. Architecture was identified as a matter of public interest and laws were put in place to regulate and encourage more architecture competitions.

Paris’ Centre Pompidou is the result of an architecture competition. Image source

The Centre Pompidou is a central part of Paris’ architectural heritage as well as being a result of an architecture competition held at the behest of a president anxious for an architectural legacy, which restored a shabby quarter and rehabilitated Paris’ reputation as a convivial home to the avant-garde.

The city’s Parc de la Villette was also the result of an architecture competition which Bernard Tschumi won in 1982-83; drawing inspiration from the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida in preparation of the design proposal.

Asia: a late adopter of the architecture competition

Historically, architecture competitions were less common in Asia, with only a few significant structures a potential result of competitions. For example, it is possible that a number of stone building models dating to the 8th century found in Mamallapuram, India, originated from architecture competitions.

Japan was the first country to really embrace the method, organising several well-publicized architecture competitions in the 1980s in attempt to project an image of a fully-recovered nation post WWII.

The Tokyo National Theater competition was won by local architects over popular international entries. Image source

However, some of the results were less than objective, favouring Japanese architects over potentially more impressive designs from international designers. For example, the Tokyo National Theater architecture competition which was won by a local architect over several foreign submissions, including those from Hans Hollein, Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman.

USA memorial architecture competitions

The United States commonly employs architecture competitions when conceptualising and designing memorial monuments, most notably those imbued with sentimental or symbolic power such as Maya Lin’s winning entry for the 1981 Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in Washington, D.C.

Modern day international architecture competitions

Architecture competitions are now widely accepted as one of the most efficient ways of generating a pool of qualified concepts for new projects and developments. Whether or not the goal is to construct one of the winning ideas, create publicity around a project, or simply to spark a public discussion or debate on a topic, architecture competitions are a powerful tool for driving architecture and design forward.

Take part in an architecture competition

If you’re a budding architect, designer, established professional, or just an enthusiast, check out our latest architecture design competitions.  Challenge yourself, grow your portfolio, and have a chance to win cash prizes as well as professional contracts and media exposure.

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