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Just as musicians can build their year around festival appearances, architects can now fill their calendar with deadlines for design competitions. The international contest is an increasingly fashionable way of generating new ideas, forging reputations and getting some interesting things built. We have competitions to thank for New York’s 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial and Manhattan’s High Line. Thomas Heatherwick’s controversial plan for a Garden Bridge across the Thames was commissioned by Transport for London after a design contest. And more than 1,700 entrants sought the chance to create Helsinki’s Guggenheim museum before the bid by Paris-based architects Moreau Kusunoki was eventually selected. Not everyone is happy about the growth of these “prestige” design challenges, mind. Critics suggest they encourage a tendency toward gimmicky, unworkable ideas. The winning entry in this year’s eVolo Skyscraper Competition, for example, involves a plan to dig up New York’s Central Park to expose its sunken bedrock, then create a giant wall of mirrored glass around the park’s perimeter. There’s a cut-throat, survival-of-the-fittest element to competition. But it’s also democratic Amy Chester Entitled New York Horizon, it was condemned by the architecture critic Kriston Capps as “the worst idea in history”, part of a “contestism” trend that rewards provocative but impractical schemes that will never actually happen. Another architecture writer, Alexandra Lange, refers to “meme-tecture”: striking, mainly software-generated images that are created for the express purpose of going viral. But others insist competitions can foster genuinely useful forms of innovation. Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, a competitive process born out of the quest to make New York more flood-proof after Hurricane Sandy, believes they can inspire solutions to the huge infrastructure challenges faced by cities in the 21st century. “Essentially, competitions are great for getting ideas,” Chester says. “Traditionally, a government hires one firm to come up with one solution to a problem they’ve already defined. By doing things that way, you’re potentially missing out on lots of interesting new ideas.” ‘New York Horizon’ won first place in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition 2016. Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘New York Horizon’ won first place in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition 2016, but not everyone approves of it. Illustration: Yitan Sun and Jianshi Wu In the aftermath of Sandy in 2012, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) challenged the fledgling Rebuild by Design team – backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which also supports Guardian Cities – to come up with a new kind of design competition; one that would unlock a number of ways to ensure damaged parts of urban New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were resilient to flooding in future. Ten teams were chosen to take part in a year-long process, with the HUD willing to commit money to however many proposals could win local support and convince the judges. “We said to all the teams, ‘We don’t believe anybody knows what the answers are until you speak to people on the ground’,” explains Chester, a native New Yorker. “So during the three-month research process, we made sure that whether you were a town mayor, an NGO or a public housing tenant, everyone was going to be listened to. By doing the research as one big group, we tried to remove barriers and make sure information was shared by everyone.” In 2014 HUD accepted six winning proposals, then allocated $930m (£650m) in funds to city and state governments to make them happen. OMA’s successful Rebuild By Design scheme for Hoboken, New Jersey. Facebook Twitter Pinterest OMA’s successful Rebuild By Design scheme for Hoboken, New Jersey. Illustration: OMA One of the winning plans for New York City was known as the BIG U: a 10-mile stretch around lower Manhattan that blended flood defences with a waterfront public park. Now rebranded as the Dryline, the landscaped barriers will allow for a skate park, a harbour swimming pool, grandstand seating and grassy footbridges. (Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at the Bjarke Ingels Group that led the winning consortium, describes the Dryline as “a protective infrastructure that becomes a public amenity”.) In all, Rebuild by Design’s ambitious venture involved 535 organisations across the public and private sectors, and brought together politicians, urban planners, architects, engineers and oceanic geologists. Chester thinks the unusual combination of rivalry and collaboration has been crucial to the competition’s success. “Ultimately you want to encourage the best people to come up with the best ideas,” she says. “There’s a cut-throat, survival-of-the-fittest element to competition. But it’s also democratic – as long as you make sure the whole process is transparent.” Chester’s team is now working with officials in other cities to develop competitions aimed at making them better prepared for climate change. They have joined forces with the Rockefeller Foundation’s global network, 100 Resilient Cities, to work on sharing the model around the world. Rebuild by Design will soon be launching a similar process on the US west coast, in the Bay Area around the cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, where design talent will be engaged in addressing the problem of rising sea levels. How London might have looked: five masterplans after the great fire of 1666 Read more “The Hurricane Sandy competition was a response to something that had already happened, but the Bay Area competition will be about preparing those coastal cities for change that’s coming,” Chester explains. “The predictions for sea level rises are quite frightening, and we also want people to look at the potential abundance of water from increased rain. “Architects care about the built environment, and there’s a real sense of pride after something terrible happens, like a storm or a disaster. Something like that can unite everyone in trying to make their city better.” Chester says they will use a very similar process to New York: “We want to attract a wide range of talent. Some architects get interested in competitions if it might help them build a reputation, but they can also be really interested in giving back to their community.” Rebuild by Design’s Amy Chester is speaking at the Royal Institute of British Architects tonight at 7pm. The Hurricane Sandy competition features in the RIBA exhibition Creation From Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities