Dean Abbott and his colleagues spent more than 700 hours designing a new layout for Boston's historic Copley Square. Competing in a national design competition, Mr. Abbott, principal designer with Clarke & Rapuano Inc. of New York City, was vying for a first prize of $30,000 and a chance to see his plans transformed into concrete, trees, and fountains in this choice location.
The 700 hours was ''quite an investment for such a speculative venture'' as a design competition, says Domenico Annese, vice-president of the firm. But it paid off. Mr. Abbott's design was chosen last month from among 309 entries.
Despite their speculative nature, design competitions are flourishing. The National Endowment for the Arts encouraged the Copley Square competition and is promoting a number of others.
Michael Pittas, director of the NEA design arts program, says the NEA's effort aims to ''democratize'' the process of designing public buildings and parks.
''This country has a long heritage of design competitions,'' he says. The Washington Monument and Boston's Trinity Church (on Copley Square) were designed this way. ''But this method fell into disuse,'' he says. Now design contracts are awarded on the basis of ''patronage and celebrity,'' and are not democratic.
One danger in design competitions, notes Mr. Annese of Clarke & Rapuano, is that they could attract ''trendy stuff and gimmicks.'' He says that before his firm decides to commit itself to a competition, he ''looks at the jury to see if we have a chance. The key to a successful competition is a good jury,'' he says.
Pittas agrees there can be problems with competitions. ''Some fail, some succeed.'' But, he says, they ''unearth new talent. They encourage much greater participation, and give the sponsors a much better chance of meeting their needs.''
Carolyn D. Carson, a partner with Sanders, Strickland, Associates in New York , says her small company could afford to invest only about two weeks' effort on the design. Even so, it earned a merit award from the Copley Square judges.
The NEA is providing grants for competitions elsewhere in the country, such as for a Center for Innovative Technology in Virginia, an aquarium in Charleston , S.C., and a housing project in Cincinnati.
The NEA has participated in about 70 competitions since 1980.
Tony Casendino, one of the Copley Square judges, says the prominence of the square was responsible for attracting the more than 300 entries. With Trinity Church at one end and the Boston Public Library at the other, the Copley Square is situated ''between some of the best architecture in the country,'' he says.
The square was redesigned only 15 years ago - also the result of a national competition. But its design is generally admitted to be not working. The square is set off from the surrounding streets by thick concrete walls, with a series of steps leading to a fountain below street level, the square often attracts more drug dealers and derelicts than families or vacationers. With few trees and lots of open space, it is often windswept, and bleak.
To ensure that the new design would address these problems, a committee of business leaders, architects, residents, and city officials was formed to prepare guidelines for the competitors. The committee stipulated elevating the plaza to street level, increasing the seating capacity of the square, and increasing the amount of greenery. It asked for space for a cafe, a farmer's market, and occasional performances, public functions, or folk dances, to encourage activity in the square and make it safer.
Urban planner William H. Whyte, the jury chairman, says ''Of all the entries, Mr. Abbott's design was the most responsive to the guidelines, in spirit as well as in details. It's a fine, clean design.''
Abbott says his concept was for ''a place that doesn't try to get away from the city. It reaches out.'' The design includes paved areas, a fountain, and large areas of grass. ''This is a sit-on-the-grass space,'' he says. And Mr. Abbott makes extensive use of trees, both within Copley Square and across all the adjacent streets.
The city government and local businesses aim to raise $4 million for the renovations, expected to start this fall and be completed in the summer of 1985.