Research on Architectural Competitions: Towards a Theory of Jury-based Decision-Making

The Special Topic Forum at hand assembles three contributions that deal with processes of sense-making, decision-making and judgment in architectural competitions. They reflect a small but growing international research community, which comprises of scholars from a range of disciplines including architecture, art history, management, geography and planning.

Please cite this article in press as: VanWezemael,J. Research on architectural competitions: Towards a theory of jury-based decision making. Scandinavian Journal of Management (2011), doi:10.1016/j.scaman.2010.12.007


An architectural competition can be regarded as a ‘site’ where diverse interests (e.g., those of the building industry, of private investors, of governmental institutions), findings from various fields of research (e.g., structural analysis, sustainability, preservation order) and discourses (from the most different societal fields) relating to topics such as aesthetics, fairness / justice as well as profit are folded in. In this respect we can speak of architectural competitions as a means that enables society to transcribe its ideals and objectives into its built environment (Van Wezemael, 2010). Moreover, we can consider architectural competitions as ‘laboratories’ or ‘experimental settings’ that gather different forms of knowledge and sometimes provide us with the opportunity to study processes of knowledge creation (Silberberger et al., 2010).


The architectural competition as such can be viewed as an ancient form of tendering (Chupin’s article in this Special Topic Forum provides a nice introduction to the genealogy of architectural competitions): a client asks for a variety of propositions with regard to a given problem, he then evaluates the entries to pick the best. That simple. Yet, architectural competitions display some key characteristics, which give them some ‘rough edges’ when considered as tendering procedures today. For instance, it is not just the client assessing the submitted architectural projects, but a panel, a jury that comprises of representatives of the client but also of external (‘independent’) experts. The most striking characteristic, however, is the somewhat fuzzy catalogue of evaluation and assessment criteria postulated in the competition program. This highly generalized list oftentimes turns architectural competitions into black boxes for both clients and competing architecture offices.


Not surprisingly it is exactly these key characteristics that render architectural competitions fascinating objects of study with regard to steering and organization measures. Architectural competitions definitely escape our capacity to make simple models to describe them; they are constitutively resistant to the process of being gathered together into a single account, which in fact turns them from a universe to a pluriverse (see also Law and Urry, 2004: 399). Knowledge in architectural competitions remains thus patchy, i.e. every competition forces its actors (such as jurors or members of the competing architecture offices) to experimentally assemble an understanding of the whole situation (see e.g. Kreiner, 2007). This includes the process of defining clear evaluation criteria – a process or an ‘experimental journey’ on the basis of the submitted architectural propositions performed by the board of jurors (see the contribution of Van Wezemael et al.) or the board of jurors in connection with the competing architecture offices (see the contribution by Kreiner et al.).


Architectural competitions can simultaneously be understood from two angles: designing (the competing architecture offices’ performance) can be viewed as a form of decision-making and vice versa decision-making (the jury board’s performance) can be viewed as a form of designing. Here we should mention the work of Boland & Callopy (2004) and others on managing as designing, which draws on characteristics that are common within the field of design and reasons how these characteristics already play a role in or can be introduced to the field of management. Against this background the three contributions to this Special Topic Forum can be regarded as three trials or attempts to inform decision-making / design / management processes in a more general sense.


Although based on independent disciplinary and interdisciplinary research the three contributions display convergent lines of argumentation and reasoning. All three contributions are concerned with the evolution of the criteria for judgment – a process that is dependent on the submitted architectural propositions and in fact goes hand in hand with their evaluation. This process seems to be both, a source for collective learning, creativity and knowledge generation on the one hand, as well as for paradoxes related to the problematic or uncertain linkage of knowledge and action, that is, frictions with regard to aspects of transparency and fairness on the other hand.


In their article on dialogue based architectural competitions, Kreiner, Jacobsen and Jensen scrutinize the transformations that the introduction of dialogues (between the client / jury board and the competing architecture offices) to architectural competitions brings along, highlighting the problematic stature of the link between knowledge and action, that is, between knowledge and its transformation into architectural propositions. Is a dialogue-based competition really a ‘fast route to success and relevance’ Kreiner et al. ask? Their case study points out a whole range of paradoxical effects of dialogues with regard to the intention of adding opportunities for controlling an architectural competition’s outcome or its course of action respectively. In fact their empirical case from Denmark serves as a telling example that the increase of knowledge (generated by means of allowing dialogue between client / jury and the competing architecture offices) does not naturally imply that the client / jury / competing architects can predict what the winning design will exactly look like  – the opposite can be true. In their paper Kreiner et al. address the fact that knowledge in architectural competitions is radically situated, that is, that there are ‘sell-by-dates’ for evaluation criteria or the idea of what the ideal architectural solution should be like, respectively.


Van Wezemael, Silberberger and Paisiou deal with the same topic. In their paper they present an analysis of a jury assessment session of an architectural competition. They point out that the performance of a jury board should not be viewed as a rationale, linear choice procedure towards picking the winning design; rather, it is to be viewed as a process of sense-making where criteria for judgment, competition entries, ideas, hopes and fears co-constitute each other and evolve in complex patterns of interaction. By presenting an ethnographic study from Switzerland and using a so-called ‘vignette’ Van Wezemael et al. move towards a conceptualization of jury assessment sessions in architectural competitions. Informed by the work of Deleuze, Guattari and DeLanda they develop a conception, which they refer to as ‘modulation of singularities’. This conception enables them to address the specific dynamics of decision-making in architectural competitions; or more precisely, the tracing of critical points in a possibility space which structures the assessment process, but at the same time is immanent to the assemblage of jurors, the architectural projects and the discourses that they provoke. Van Wezemael et al. trace a sequence of jury sessions in the sense of a process of becoming that is both open and at the same time governed by critical points.


Chupin is also interested in theorizing the practice of jury-based judgment in architectural competitions. In his paper he argues that there is a fundamental analogy between judging and designing architectural propositions, which opens up towards a fascinating set of options and ideas for modeling jury-decision-making. His contribution involves a telling journey through the history of architectural competitions, which also points out the power of ‘virtual architecture’, that is, unbuilt architectural propositions that nevertheless structure possibility spaces of judgment processes by means of ‘analogies’. Judging as designing and judgement by design means first and foremost that judgement is not viewed as a separate process from design. Thus, Chupin considers jurors as the re-designers of the potential winning project: “Since the winner is the ‘product’ of the judgement process, we can say in this case that it is the ‘project of the jury’” as he puts it. In John Zeisel’s “Synthesis of spiral patterns” Chupin identifies a model that allows for identifying the basic operations of the judgement process performed by the board of jurors in an architectural competition. The model he proposes conceptualizes a series of iterations, starting from an initial image, where it revolves around, a series of iterations in connection with a domain of acceptable responses. Jurors, Chupin concludes, should be able to make “conceptual leaps” – just like good architects.


When Chupin explains that jurors should be able to step back and reflect, and if necessary, to listen to others’ views that challenge their own, which may imply reconsidering a project that may have been dismissed too early, he seems to rephrase what Van Wezemael et al. document in their vignette. Hence, the three papers in this Special Topic Forum can indeed be viewed as component parts of what could become a theory of jury-based decision-making. They show that judgment processes in architectural competitions are not only complicated but also complex (Van Wezemael, 2010). They are not rationale, linear choice procedures but sense-making processes, in which the performance to be judged (the competition entries) and the criteria to judge intertwine. Put differently, the judgment process in an architectural competition has to be regarded as an ‘unbound’ or ‘wicked’ problem: the very basis of the judgment process (the evaluation and assessment criteria) is dependent on the possibility space created by the submitted architectural propositions and the jury’s ability to explore that space.


It is not surprising that all three contributions in the Special Topic Forum at hand conceptualize the openness of the competition procedure as the core of their argumentation – the experimentation with and in the situation. The same characteristics that produce the greatest ‘risk’ (the dynamic and uncertain relation of judgment criteria and proposals) account for the ‘excellence’ (the triggering creativity and experimentation). Thus, it would be unwise if competition organizers primarily aim at increasing the controllability of the competition process. Instead allowing for not jumping to premature conclusions (or literal interpretations), the richness of analogical thinking instead of working with mere similarities (see Chupin, 2010), and the upholding of heterogeneity and openness throughout vast periods of the process, may be good suggestions for those who organize or participate in architectural competitions.





Boland, R. and Collopy, F. (2004). Managing as designing. California: Stanford University Press.


Chupin, J.P. (2010). Analogie et Theorie en Architecture. Gollion: Infolio


Kreiner, K. (2007). Constructing the client in architectural competition. Retrieved Access Date 17.08.2010; from URL


Silberberger, J., Van Wezemael, J., Paisiou, S and Strebel, I. (2010). Spaces of knowledge creation – Tracing knowing-in-action in jury based sense-making processes. International Journal of Knowledge-Based Development 1/2-3. In print.


Van Wezemael, J. E. (2010). Modulation of Singularities – a Complexity Approach to Planning Competitions. In: Jean Hillier and Patsy Healey (Eds.): Conceptual Challenges for Planning T


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