The Competitive Hypothesis

An exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture presents the hidden stories of the politics behind architectural competitions, focusing on recent design contests that have altered the architectural discourse.

What advantages, or the reverse . . . have accrued to the [architectural] profession by the practice of Competition?
— Increases professional knowledge & experience?
—The only means of advancement when without connection?
—Demoralising?
—Flashy style promoted?
—Loss of health & money?

So begins The Competitive Hypothesis , a lively exhibition at New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture that presents hidden stories of the politics behind architectural competitions. The question comes from the Royal Institute of British Architects' Survey on Guidelines for Competitions , conducted in London in 1872 — evidence that the debate on the value of design contests, unchanged for at least 140 years, is unlikely to cease anytime soon.

A curatorial team of eight, led by Adrian Lahoud, has transformed Storefront's famously tight, triangular gallery space into a series of four triangle-shaped, even-smaller "Storefronts." Each section presents an untold facet of the competition process. The Competitive Hypothesis focuses on recent design contests that have altered architectural discourse and the show presents results of re-staged versions of three notable competitions. These are not typical requests for proposals (RFPs) — procurement mechanisms used to select architects and developers for everyday buildings — rather, they are highly publicised competitions that have helped produce new movements in architecture or established the reputations of soon-to-be-famous architects.

Among the playful displays in the first exhibition area, aspiring competition winners can find not only creative ideas for how to game the system, but also pitfalls to avoid. To sidestep pesky requirements for entrants' anonymity, take a clue from the firm Superstudio in 1976: Three months prior to a House for a Superstar-themed competition, a member of the firm slipped a postcard of Michelangelo's David into the hand of architect and competition juror Arata Izozaki. Sure enough, Superstudio's "anonymous" entry, featuring the statue, went on to win third prize. Also heed the warnings of The Competitive Hypothesis's How Not to Title a Competition Entry. Proposals with names like Upsidetown or Worms in Progress have never fared well.
Top and above: <em>The Competitive Hypothesis</em>, installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
Top and above: The Competitive Hypothesis , installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
The second display zone shows us that competitions are a breeding ground for clichés in architectural representation, as the exhibition text argues that designers attempt to "address the needs of large scale real estate development while idealising them around the construct of the sensually aware, desiring individual." In the context of economic theory, the show presents The Habitat of Homo Œconomicus, a diorama that physically pulls apart a typical competition rendering into its constituent, overused parts, a critique reminiscent of Komar and Melamid's "Most Wanted" Paintings series , which produced similarly unoriginal images through public surveys.
<em>The Competitive Hypothesis</em>, installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
The Competitive Hypothesis , installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
Results of the 2012 Past Forward competition, organized by Think Space , a Croatia-based online architectural platform and partner in the exhibition, are displayed in the third and largest of the four "Storefronts." Think Space cleverly re-staged three seminal competitions from the 1980s and 1990s, for The Peak Leisure Club, Yokohama Port Terminal, and the Blur Building. The contests' original winners judged new submissions by young architects , which variously extended and rejected the original concepts — the display juxtaposes old and new proposals, side-by-side.

In the final space, the exhibition shows us that "coffee after coffee, day after night, model after model," competition entries are often produced by "the anonymous army of architectural interns." The Competitive Hypothesis celebrates these nameless producers with interns' self-portraits, displayed in gilded frames and hung over wallpaper, critiquing intern culture while also glamourizing it. After visiting the exhibition's four rooms we see what a competition press release would never mention: that the entrants' anonymity was breeched, that the firms' presentation techniques were clichéd, and that the unpaid interns did all of the work.
Design contests, with all of their drawbacks, present an opportunity to focus public attention and spur architectural innovation, especially for under-considered building types like housing
<em>The Competitive Hypothesis</em>, installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
The Competitive Hypothesis , installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
While co-curator Daniel Fernández Pascual notes that design contests can result in a "waste of ideas and time" for organisers and entrants alike, the exhibition stops short of offering an alternative for future architectural competitions. Contemporary contest organisers are finding ways to preserve the benefits of design competitions while limiting the problems exposed in the Storefront show. Adjustments to the competition process, such as separate qualification and proposal phases, and adequate funding for architects' work, through initiatives like Enterprise Community Partners' recently launched Pre-Development Design Grant Program , can make the contests viable and productive for organisers and participants. Design contests, with all of their drawbacks, present an opportunity to focus public attention and spur architectural innovation, especially for under-considered building types like housing. The everyday projects left out of The Competitive Hypothesis may present the most exciting opportunities for future competitions.

Karen Kubey is executive director of the Institute for Public Architecture and curator of Low Rise High Density, an upcoming exhibition at New York's Center for Architecture. She co-organized the New Housing New York competition, which resulted in the affordable, sustainable housing development Via Verde.
<em>The Competitive Hypothesis</em>, installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
The Competitive Hypothesis , installation view at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013
Through 15 February 2013
The Competitive Hypothesis
Storefront for Art and Architecture
97 Kenmare Street, New York

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