Innovative Urban Play Space Competition

District of Columbia Office of Planning

Funding Received: 2013
Washington, DC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
November 19, 2013

By its very nature, a design competition must remain behind-the-scenes for a significant period of time before it “hits the streets.” There is much to do in advance of a launch and the decision to cut short that important phase typically results in a failed endeavor, and for very good reason. There is a lot more to the preparation than meets the eye.

The cases of utilizing design competitions to arrive at winning outcomes have sky-rocketed since a young Yale architectural student won fame with her moving tribute to those lost in the Vietnam War. A competition reaching far and wide for a winner soon became seen as the perfect way to unearth new talent, new solutions and new media buzz. And, done right, it can do just that very thing.

In our research, information began to appear about more and more unsuccessful competition results. It turns out that for every Maya Lin (the aforementioned architectural student) there are hundreds of failed competitions and even more failed competitors. Oddly, even the winners are not always a success. A study of architectural masterpieces revealed that only 1 or 2 percent were the result of competitions. Interviews with architects, sculptors and industrial designers have showed that the increasing number of competitions—matched with the fact that over half of the winning designs didn’t actually get built—has led to a greater likelihood of the most talented passing on the opportunity to participate. It just isn’t worth their effort.

We realized that we must find out why one competition succeeds and another fails and the answer ended up being relatively obvious. As Richard Miller (an advisor to the Wexner Center Competition) said:

“A competition succeeds or fails to a substantial degree depending on the process of conducting it. Casual programs, confused information and careless juries…are a disaster for the ultimate . . . product.”

What we have discovered is that simple communication is what can lead to success. The artist must fully understand what the client wants and needs, as must the jury. This means that someone must talk, someone must listen, and there must be some allowance for a back-and-forth discussion. The more time the artist spends internalizing what the client is saying, the more likely they are going to “get it” and provide a solution that wins. That tells us, as the ones designing the competition itself, that we must provide for a give and take of information.

First the briefing book must clear. The goal must be clearly defined and yet at the same time not too tightly restrict the solutions found by a creative mind.

It is the second part of our plan that may be the most significant – at least it seems so at this point. We must spend a significant amount of time with the community where the winning playable art structure will go. Whether by video, interview or questionnaire, we will provide the community’s—the client’s—dream for their children. With the children at the heart of the competition we feel that great solutions will be shared, and the children will be the real winners.