top of page

Why We Need a Better Definition of Innovation in Architecture, Part 1: Because of Guggenheim

In 2014, Guggenheim launched a massively ambitious design competition for a new museum in Helsinki, Finland. All architecture lovers know that Guggenheim Museums have essentially defined the architectural canon for decades, from Frank Lloyd Wright's spirally stucco Guggenheim in Manhattan to the titanium-clad exuberance of the Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry. And this new Guggenheim was going to be an open competition, accepting design proposals from anyone. The winner was essentially guaranteed to be the next starchitect of their generation.

Well, what happened? Essentially, much more, and much less, than they bargained for. The competition ended up receiving 1,715 entries from 77 countries worldwide.

A sampling of some of the entries for the 2014 Guggenheim Helsinki competition

Now, there's a few ways to look at this. First of all, how do you even judge 1,715 entries? If a juror spent 5 minutes on each proposal, that would be almost 142 straight hours of just looking. Multiply that by a jury of 12, and you have 1700 hours of just judging, spending no more than 5 minutes on any one design.

Forget about debate and deliberation.

And what if we looked at the effort that went into each proposal?

Let's assume each proposal was the result of 3 people working full time for one month (for reference, the office I was in at the time put 12 people on it for six weeks). 3 people times 4 weeks is 480 hours. Multiply that by 1,715 entries. And if you assume each of those person's time is worth an average of $40/hour, that's $32.9 million dollars worth of design that was given to the Guggenheim.

For free. And that's a conservative estimate.

And the Guggenheim ended up building nothing.

What does that say about the way architecture is judged? What does that say about how architects value their time? What does that say about the value of design?

The way the competition was set up revealed its implicit criteria for architecture: visual impact. There wasn't time for the jury to judge anything else, and entrants soon figured out the game was to create a striking formal design at great uncompensated expense. Guggenheim received almost proposed 2000 formal innovations for a single site.

What it proved was that that kind of innovation, in the end, wasn't that valuable.

This is why establishing architectural values are so important. When we are explicit about the criteria for building, we establish our ambition. By establishing our ambition, we are defining our need. And necessity is the mother of invention.

But it starts with understanding the criteria and our ambition. Only from here will meaningful innovation occur. And a meaningful ambition is an innovation in and of itself.

Watch out for Part 2 and Part 3 shortly!


bottom of page