Vampires of the profession

Vampires of the profession
October 25, 2019

A biting critic on how architecture competitions can be a double-edged sword in the architecture industry. Fragment from the article "Competitive Strain Syndrome",by Jeremy Till.


"Every competition, if at all extensive, costs the profession hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of which falls on men who can ill afford the loss... No wonder that the system (of competitions) has come to be regarded as a sort of nightmare, as an incubus or vampire, stifling the breath of professional life, and draining its blood."1

William Robert Ware, 1889


The close identification of architecture with its objects is not particular to the competition system; it is a characteristic of the wider discipline. The popular understanding of what architects do is that they design buildings. This much is true, but they also do a lot more than that. They use multiple modes of knowledge in that spatial production – technical, social, visual, processual, historical, cultural and so on. But what architectural culture validates through its education, media and awards is the final object of production. Academic validation boards (in the UK at least) obsess over pictures of buildings in student portfolios. Internet sites are saturated with images of sunlit, empty, buildings. Awards systems are too often judged on the basis of a flick through portfolios of such images. 


The production of competition drawings in a partial vacuum removed from the cut and thrust of actual practice allows architects to believe the myth of pure experimentation as a contribution to cultural and architectural innovation. The production of pure objects in the competition system presumes to detach architecture from the marketplace, a connection that the profession has always found problematic because it compromises the ideal of architect as artist. The competition thus exaggerates a condition that Peggy Deamer has identified as operating through the profession, namely a belief that architects are “outside of the work/labor discourse because what they do (is) art or design rather than work per se.”2


But of course doing a competition is a form of labour, and it is important to acknowledge it as such. In delivering such labour for little or no financial reward, the profession allows itself to be exploited. Worse, it abandons the idea that architectural knowledge has monetary value. The architectural competition perpetuates “the disastrous idea that our value resides in the object we produce and not in the knowledge that produced it.”3  Competitions can therefore be read as a form of self-sacrifice both economically and epistemologically. This sacrifice is captured in  Louis Kahn’s identification of a competition as “an offering to architecture”4, though I suspect that is he referring to ‘offering’ as a noble act rather than as a gift of labour. 


It is extraordinary that the profession not only allows this sacrifice to happen but actually arranges for it. The RIBA is proud of the competition service that it provides to clients, upholding the architectural quality that the system produces as the primary justification. In its guidance to clients, the RIBA notes: “Competitions enable a wide variety of approaches to be explored simultaneously with a number of designers”5.  This statement, delivered with no apparent doubt, confirms that competitions are a means of extracting free or extremely cheap labour and knowledge from profession, an abandonment overseen and sanctioned by the professional institute. One might note that if, as should be the case, the client has a clearer idea at the start as what was needed from the project, then a ‘wide variety of approaches’ would not be necessary. And if a wide variety is delivered, then one has to question against what criteria they can possibly be evaluated in the judging process. Instead the competition is presented as a fishing expedition, with architects turning handstands in order to catch the jury’s eye: “gymnasts in the prison yard”, indeed.6


The RIBA is also apparently willing to give up their member’s time and knowledge to suit the wider aims of a competition project. Their list of benefits of a competition includes to: “raise a project’s profile.” It is clear that some clients use the competitions as a form of public relations in order to present the project in a better light, with credibility given by the engagement of multiple architects. This happened most notoriously in the Helsinki Guggenheim competition organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants, launched in 2014 without confirmed funding. 1751 entries and two years later, the project was abandoned when Helsinki city council voted against funding it. If one takes a very low estimate of £5000 worth of labour for each entry, then this represents over £8.5m of lost labour, approximately 10% of the overall project cost.7 It is worth quoting Malcolm Reading’s comments on the abandonment in full, because they say so much about what is wrong about the culture and processes of competitions. 


“2016 has turned out to be a year of extraordinary events and turmoil and perhaps the final vote should be seen from this perspective. The proposition for a Guggenheim in Helsinki captured the imagination of the global architectural community and the competition was a phenomenon in its own right. One of the most entered design contests in history with entries from 77 countries, it recorded a moment in the architectural zeitgeist. The website is a fantastic resource for architects and architectural enthusiasts and it has recorded just short of 4.5 million page views. We feel for the competitors and finalists but nothing is entirely lost. The intensity of designing to such a compelling brief generates ideas and viewpoints that continue to be explored in subsequent work.”


First, Reading disingenuously associates the abandonment with the political events of 2016, Brexit and Trump. Second, he makes the oft-repeated argument that the larger number of entries, the greater the success of the competition, yet when viewed through the frame of labour, the opposite is the case. Third, he presents the website as a repository of architectural knowledge. The primary knowledge available is that of stylistic comparison, in a snapshot of contemporary forms. Real architectural knowledge, in terms of the embedded and external intelligence that it took to develop each entry, is only superficially accessible given the paucity of the evidence presented for it. As Deamer notes, “the myth here is that a project assigned to four A1 boards and 500 words offers either the designer or the “community” deep thinking on either site or program.”8 Finally, Reading suggests that the very act of entering a competition is a way of developing an architect’s skills and approaches for future work. This is sometimes used by architects as justification for entering competitions, but only really achieved when that developmental aim is clearly set aside from any dreams of actually winning. It is those dreams that dominate the competition mentality, and the collapse of them for all but a handful of entries builds the disappointment and resentment of an entire profession. 


It may be argued that the Helsinki Guggenheim in all its extremes does not represent the competition system as a whole. However, in terms of sacrificed labour and knowledge, its problems can be identified to a greater or lesser extent across the range of competitions. At the better end of the scale, invited competitions have become the norm for some architects to obtain work. Over time these architects, generally at the elite end of the profession, can calculate their success rate and the cost of entry and build this loss into their business model.9 But all this comes at real economic loss to the profession, a loss that is too often mitigated by the enforcement of excessive working hours and/or unpaid internships as the only means of completing competition entries. At the other end of the scale from the elite invited competitions are the open, and sometimes unregulated, competitions, which typically attract hundreds of entries from younger hopefuls. These competitions are not only financially exploitative but also prey on the aspirations of the profession. Such is the will to create, such is the desperation to succeed that architects - apparently willingly - sacrifice themselves to the competition machine, vampirish though it is to the profession. 


The breakthrough of a single architect in a competition is made on the back of hundreds of other sacrifices accompanied by endless frustration. This condition is typical of what Guy Standing has termed the precariat, a wide class of people who live out their employment in a state of precariousness, both financial and emotional. The precariat are “people with a relatively high level of formal education who have to accept jobs that have a status or income beneath what they believe accord with their qualifications…[they]are likely to suffer status frustration.”10  To liken architects to Uber drivers or graphic designers who submit free work to logo mills might appear hyperbolic, but this combination of low pay, frustration and jeopardy is exactly what is induced by the competition system. If one adds to this economic precarity the “complete drain on intelligence”11 that Rem Koolhaas identifies in competitions, then it is surely time to question the system as it presently stands.

Jeremy Till

[text originally published on]


Published by: Nico Rueda


[1] As quoted in: Lipstadt, “The Experimental Tradition,” 15.

[2] Peggy Deamer, The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), xxx.

[3] Peggy Deamer, “Work,” in The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design, ed. Peggy Deamer (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 72.

[4] As quoted in: Lipstadt, “The Experimental Tradition,” 10.

[5] Royal Institute of British Architects, “Design Competitions: Guidance for Clients,” 5.

[6] This follows Tafuri. “how ineffectual are the brilliant gymnastics carried out in the yard of the model prison, in which architects are left free to move about on temporary reprieve.” Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture (London: Granada, 1980), xxii. See also Chapter 11 of Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

[7] Peggy Deamer estimates a lower overall loss of $6,860,000, on the basis of 80 hours per entry. Either way, the value of lost labour is considerable. Peggy Deamer, “The Guggenheim Helsinki Competition: What Is the Value Proposition?,” accessed April 1, 2017,

[8] Ibid.

[9] A comparative table in Judith Strong’s book on competitions, shows how many competitions some elite firms have entered and their success rate: Foster and Partners, 48 competitions entered in past 5 years, success rate 19%. Richard Roger and Partners, 47, 38%. Future Systems 12, 5UK, 17%, Cullinan Studio, 11,36%. Matthew Priestman 12, 17%. Judith Strong, Winning by Design: Architectural Competitions / Judith Strong. (Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1996), 79. The success rate for open competitions is clearly much lower.

[10] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class / by Guy Standing. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 10.

[11] Rem Koolhaas, 'There’s Been Very Little Rethinking Of What Cities Can Be', March 20, 2015, The full quote is “There is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession. A fair amount of it is generated through the procedure of competitions, which is a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know of any other profession that would tolerate this. At the same time you are important, we invite your thinking, but we also announce that there is an eighty per cent chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted.”