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Winner-takes-all

The current globalized economic system systematically privileges the rise of the few, generating wealthy oligopolies. You do not need to live in a third-world country today to be a precarious worker.12 This “winner-takes-all” mentality has contributed to the current establishment of a “star” system of architects, and the impoverishment of a larger sector of the discipline, which in its continuous attempt to jump into the boat of the 1%, persists in unethical labor practices.

While architectural competitions have been a long-standing tradition in the practice of architecture, the rise of architectural competitions at the end of the

20th century, accelerated by digital technologies, has become a mechanism for the exploitation of creativity. Architecture competitions have today become a central mechanism for the allocation of capital for architectural projects. Through open calls for participation, hundreds and sometimes thousands of architectural firms contribute free labor to take part in proposing a design, often without the certainty that there are funds available for it to be executed if the competition is won. The risk-vs-reward ratio presented by the competition model is very simple: winner takes all. While the chances to win are slim, the reward, in contrast, can become an instant ticket to stardom.

There certainly are many motivations for architects to take part in architectural competitions. The opportunity to develop a portfolio and contribute to architectural discourse through design proposals that can be evaluated side by side at a particular point in time are typical motivations. However, these are trumped by the asymmetry of power established between those who have capital and those seeking an opportunity for labor. The capital incentive generates a behavioral blindness, where any form of cooperation is disregarded.The result of this operation is incredibly inefficient, able to brute-force itself through design alternatives. Moreover, current formats for competitions are not regulated or incentivized to contribute to a repository of collective public knowledge, ideas that might formalize some societal or disciplinary public wealth from their exercise.

Competitions have been denounced by architects and institutions such as the Architecture Lobby as unfair mechanisms of exploitation that undervalue professional labor.l3The Architecture Lobby has gone much further than just denouncing exploitative labor practices: it has called for unionization of architects and developed guidelines for good labor practices in the discipline.14

Architectural competition’s international outreach has grown using digital platforms facilitating participation, therefore optimizing value extraction. In his studies of digital labor, Trebor Scholz states that competitions operate as a form of crowdsourcing, a contemporary technique that is able to further extract free capital from pools of workers.1’ No official contract is present in a competition call, so no minimum wage or social security applies."’

The recent rise of tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have further contributed to the rise of economic inequality. While the Internet was initially understood as a promising infrastructure that would democratize access and level the playing field, today, as has been argued by Shoshana Zuboff, it has become dominated by a wealth extraction imperative.1 Millions of people have been able to gain access to new information, define a marketplace for their production or even depend on forms of labor that have emerged from digital transactions, but market dominance between a few network providers demonstrates that all the “free” infrastructure that has been provided has come at an incredibly high cost.

The economic model and value system in which architects operate is not dissociated from global trends. The maximization of profits and “winner- takes-all” mentality has become the operating system for economic activity. It has become necessary for architecture to develop an internal critique and an assessment of howsome of its practices are complicit in the rise of asymmetries and models of innovation that will never reach any societal value. In order to move away from “winner-takes-all,” we first need to clearly identify the mechanisms that contribute to the perpetuation of neoliberalism.

 
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