I’m sympathetic to a recent piece by Sam Roche on the HuffPost blog which argues against the “closed competition” process used by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to select architect Frank Gehry.  After all, if not for the open, blind-juried design competition organized for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980, Maya Lin wouldn’t have created her design and the most important public monument of the late twentieth century would never have been conceived.

But it turns out that the issue is not as simple as it appears.  I had a few misconceptions about design competitions before I started to examine how they actually work.

First, we tend to think of the winning design as a final product when in practice it is only the beginning of the design process.  Usually the winning design is a just a concept, with many important details still left to be decided.  There are the inscriptions, for example, which are crucial to the overall message of the memorial.  Most of the time the winning designers have nothing to do with the choice of texts inscribed on the monument’s surfaces.  Even the indomitable Maya Lin, who wanted no text on her walls other than the names, was overruled and had to accept a pair of didactic inscriptions where the two walls meet. Typically, also, sculptural and landscape elements are added later, often by a new set of artists and architects.  The winning design for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, by the design firm ROMA, did not include a portrait statue of King.  This was commissioned later from a Chinese sculptor, without a competition, and the 30-foot mega-statue has become the most dominating element of the entire design.

The second misconception flows from the first.  While we like to think of open design competitions as a fair and democratic way of choosing a design, when the rubber hits the road many of the most important design decisions are actually made by committee, without public input. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the rare case in which the winning design was actually executed faithfully according to the original plan (despite great pressure to alter it significantly).  More often the final monument is so changed that it is unrecognizable, even antithetical to the winning design. The most notorious example is the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where the winning architects became so fed up with the changes made by the advisory board that they sued in federal court, and after losing the suit disavowed the final design.  It’s not unusual for crucial design decisions to be made without the winning designers’ input or approval, much less the involvement of the public.  The design process that follows a design competition is hardy transparent or fair.

Ironically, in high-profile monuments where the designer was hand-picked without competition (as in the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials), he ended up having more control over his design.  With some notable exceptions, design competitions tend to yield to design by committee.

In the end there’s no easy solution.  Designers should be allowed to take the lead, but other stakeholders in the process must have their say too.  How do we balance good design and public involvement?  One way is to hold multi-stage competitions (whether open or closed) in which the public is invited to respond and comment at every stage.  This is time-consuming but it has the advantage of opening the process to public debate while important design decisions are being made.  The recent “ideas competition” and design competitions for the National Mall exemplify this approach. But even with an exemplary process there’s no guarantee that powerful stakeholders won’t hijack it in the end.  That’s democracy in our times.