“This is going to make some noise,” remarked French President Georges Pompidou on seeing the competition-winning drawings for a new arts and culture center in the historic Les Halles neighborhood of Paris. While highly controversial in 1971, the design looked to the future and set a mark in the chronicle of architecture. It also launched the careers of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, who went on to become giants of the architectural world. More than 50 years on, the Centre Pompidou is a beloved landmark of modern architecture. It reimagined what a museum could be and prompted a new approach to the materiality and expression of structure in architecture.

The design competition has long played a key role in the tradition and practice of architecture, and it is an essential ingredient in a thriving design-led culture. Competition-winning designs such as the Pompidou can change the course of architecture or reimagine city skylines, and there are many other influential examples: Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo (1436), Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851), the Gustave Eiffel-led team’s Eiffel Tower (1889), Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House (1973), and Zaha Hadid’s The Peak (1982–83) among them. Besting the competition in a highly publicized contest can also be a springboard to international recognition and new commissions. Much like Piano and Rogers, Utzon and Hadid were unknown on the global stage up and until they, too, won notable competitions.

An international contest for Paris’s Centre Pompidou put high-tech architecture on the map. Sketch by Nick Leahy | © Perkins Eastman
The “Archipelago of Learning” won the competition for the pre-K-12 Canadian International School in Thailand, though another firm received the commission. Local conditions inspired an “eco-canopy” that connects learning “islets” and shelters open spaces. Rendering © Perkins Eastman
Perkins Eastman, one of the finalists selected by the organizers of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, developed master plan concepts for the riverfront site. Site Plan © Perkins Eastman

While such examples are both instructive and inspiring, competitions offer something even more valuable: important opportunities to develop design ideas and skills. Design is a process of continual learning and refinement. It’s honed by practicing our craft and taking on challenges that expand our creativity—competitions among them. At Perkins Eastman, we aspire to “make some noise” of our own. Yes, we must balance design aspiration and commercial pragmatism, but design competitions are important opportunities to experiment and test boundaries. They teach critical thinking, decision-making, and problem solving, and they sharpen presentation and storytelling skills.

The competition-winning “Moonrise” scheme for Wuxi Symphony Hall will be a hub of creative energy for Wuxi, China. Rendering Courtesy Perkins Eastman
Video © Perkins Eastman

Two competitions held some 400 years apart produced groundbreaking structural feats: the 15th-century, monumentally scaled Duomo (left) of the Florence Cathedral; and the prefabricated cast-iron-and-glass Crystal Palace (right) in 19th-century London. Sketches by Nick Leahy | © Perkins Eastman

To capture the imagination of a jury or client, each competition submission pushes us to distill a concept to its essence—an art unto itself. Such lessons are learned quickly in the competition environment, with its tight deadlines and pressure to stand apart from competitors. In this setting, there is a strong impetus to think differently, challenge conventional wisdom, and refresh the lens through which we evaluate our ideas. At Perkins Eastman, the competition format speaks to our culture of innovation, emphasis on learning and growing, and better outcomes for clients and communities. It is part of the R&D DNA of our firm and the profession.

An exterior plaza with tracery sunshades is part of a confidential master plan competition entry. Rendering Courtesy Perkins Eastman
Perkins Eastman’s Wanshan Lake Eco-Tech City competition-winning design aims to be a magnet for the tech community in Wuxi, China. Rendering © ATCHAIN

Many of Perkins Eastman’s prominent commissions are the result of design competitions. For the firm, competitions present opportunities to break into new markets, regions, or building types. They can enhance our design reputation on the world stage too. Wuxi Symphony Hall (currently under construction) is our first performing arts facility in China, while Wanshan Lake Eco-Tech City (won in 2023) expands our mixed-use portfolio of large master plans and raises our profile, as we beat out several well-known international design firms. These are recent examples in a long list of projects that the firm has won through competitions. An earlier competition entry, our proposal for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo Master Plan, earned first place alongside the Richard Rogers Partnership/Arup team from London, though the final plan merged the two winning schemes and was executed by the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tongji University. All of these projects have contributed to our reputation as a global design firm. They have expanded our capabilities and given us unique opportunities to showcase our talent.

The competition-winning designs for the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, and The Peak Leisure Club (unbuilt) in Hong Kong set forth influential ideas about form and structure. Sketches by Nick Leahy | © Perkins Eastman

While the goal is to win the commission, there are several corollaries to participation in competitions: highlighting our work and critical thinking, enhancing our design reputation, and greater exploration and testing of alternative design visions. Each submission is a chance for staff members to sharpen their design and communication skills and learn to work in teams and build camaraderie; and they are a lot of fun to do.

A competition entry to revitalize Cairo’s Al Fustat historic core includes archeological, recreational, cultural, and innovational elements. Rendering © Perkins Eastman
The submission to the Shenzhen Pingshan Sports Park international competition, a national badminton training center in China, is inspired in part by the movement of the badminton birdie. Rendering © Perkins Eastman

Win or lose, entries should be pinned up and displayed, so emerging designers can present them to the studios and spur lively discussion. It is through dialogue that we learn from each other and strengthen our design culture. “Intelligent failures,” writes author Amy Edmondson in Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, “provide valuable new knowledge. They bring discovery.”

Design is a constantly evolving journey, one refined through experimentation, study, and experience. Design competitions are important avenues to new work, but they are equally significant as laboratories for boundary-pushing R&D. The learning and testing we do in competitions feeds back into all of our work and challenges us to raise the bar—the next Pompidou Centre may be on the drawing board right now!

ofDesign Competitions

Most public commissions across the globe are selected through design competition, and in many parts of the world, like the European Union, competitions are mandatory. In China, all major architectural work is selected and awarded through a competition process. Typically, the process involves two stages: an open call for teams to drop quick design concepts for no remuneration; and a selection of entries, usually from as many as six firms, who each submit more comprehensive material for which there is prize money and a potential commission. Globally, private developers are turning to the competition model as well. The standard process in the United States—the request for proposal, or RFP—also has a competitive aspect, but it is based on practice experience, design quality, and team compatibility.

Perkins Eastman’s in-house design competitions generate creative ideas for nonprofit partners, including a training and production center with housing for the Nomi Network (above and below), which offers economic opportunities for human trafficking victims and those at risk in Bihar, India. Sabrina Raia and Snigdha Agarwal were the first prize winners. All Images © Perkins Eastman
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For public and private clients, competitions are considered a good way to elevate design quality, generate and evaluate different solutions within a tight time frame, and raise the profile of their project. A widespread belief that competitive tension helps motivate teams, generate creativity, and drive innovation dominates the field. Today, the design competition is woven into the fabric of the profession, from academic training onward. It is even promoted as a form of fast-track career advancement—often to the detriment of the craft of architecture learned through practice—by a thriving universe of dedicated websites, conferences, media outlets, and professional organizations and consultants.

Entering any competition is expensive and resource intensive, and it can be exploitative when clients seek design ideas without offering fair compensation. The lack of direct interaction with the client or user group and unrealistic schedule and budget expectations can also lead to problems (especially in highly complex project types) such as unbuildable designs, runaway costs, and failure to fulfill the need for which the design was commissioned.

The firm’s in-house competition for the Brooklyn School of Music, which serves students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, called for new facilities behind the landmark façade of the nonprofit’s Brooklyn, NY, campus; one submission stacked music rooms, dance studios, and classrooms in a modern addition atop performance and lounge spaces.

Generally, before Perkins Eastman commits to participation, we complete a rigorous vetting process to avoid pitfalls and ascertain the potential upside of a competition: Is it an open call or an invited group? How many competitors are involved? Are the submissions anonymous? Is the winner predetermined? Are professional qualifications taken into consideration? Who is on the jury, and are the jurors professional practitioners or political appointees? Is the brief comprehensive? Is there a stipend? What is the real prize—a commission or publicity? Is the project in a new market or region for us? If we must partner with another firm, what is the potential partner’s standing?

Weighing the pros and cons of a competition is important, but once the decision to enter has been made, the project team must focus on delivering an aspirational design conveyed through a compelling presentation. Every year, Perkins Eastman enters up to a dozen design competitions around the globe, and we are invited to many more.

The in-house competition for Hogar de Cristo, a nonprofit that provides social housing and integrated services in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and other places, invited ideas for housing families impacted by natural disasters on a site divided into three neighborhoods—each with a main plaza—along a central spine. Rendering © Perkins Eastman

To reinforce the benefits of competitions, the firm’s design leadership group periodically hosts internal design competitions to allow emerging staff members to flex their design muscles and lead projects. Often developed around the needs of a nonprofit organization that would be unable to hire a large firm like ours, these competitions—and the pro bono design services they provide—are also great opportunities to learn how to develop a brief, select a jury, and run a competition. Past projects include a facility that provides housing and training for women survivors and those at risk of human trafficking in India; an interior renovation of a nonprofit that makes the performing arts accessible to all in New York; and a master plan for social housing and community spaces in Ecuador. In these cases, the competition setting created an R&D environment that offered real-world experience and produced meaningful designs for clients and communities. N