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It's time to get rid of bogus competitions

Imagine that you require the services of a barrister. Your solicitor, acting as dispute manager, suggests that a competition should be held: five barristers will be invited to propose strategies for your case. The solicitor also sets out the other conditions of this unregulated contest: there will be no prize money, no commitment to proceed with the winner, and the barristers will not retain 'copyright' of their work.

No proposed terms of appointment or remuneration are indicated, no criteria for selection are proffered, and there is no date for 'judging', although the programme for submissions is very tight and will involve the poor barristers (and their pupils) working through several nights and a bank- holiday weekend.

There are, of course, no takers for this competition - lawyers wouldn't be so daft! Nor would accountants, patent agents, or any other self-respecting professionals.

Yet something about most architects renders them willing to regularly deliver the most valuable part of their service - their design concept - free and without any satisfactory pre-conditions forits use.

Over the last two decades our profession has seen enormous growth in unregulated competitions. Result: any Tom, quasi-project manager or Dick can set one up and be assured of a keen response from a multitude of practices - big and small - which will callously exploit their own staff and rush like rabid lemmings towards predictable disappointment.

Only last week I heard of one so-called competition where the selected design was passed to a design/build company which hadn't even participated! No fees were paid to the winner, who was not even retained. Elsewhere, competitors were mystified by judging criteria based on requirements that departed significantly from the brief. One university estates manager naively awarded first place solely on the basis of colour, while another 'mixed and matched' his favoured entries. The list of farcical stories is endless.

Architecture is, of course, the loser in all this. New architecture, through which the spirit of communities can be lifted, and the human condition so easily improved, must be carefully nurtured if it is to deliver its real potential. This inevitably requires from its sponsors a cultured understanding in terms of the process, and ambition and responsibility in terms of the product - qualities which cannot prevail under the conditions of ill-conceived, poorly run, and corruptly judged contests.

Some people would argue that we live in an age that retains only the dimmest appreciation of cultural values, but perhaps the real problem is that we simply do not know how to assign culture its proper place within the nati0n's economic life. In terms of what is being built through the aegis of that large proportion of architectural competitions which should never receive a response from our profession, this is certainly true.

The arb has already established some rules under its code of professional conduct which, if enforced, could at least partially protect our profession against exploitation through competitions. However, if it really believes, as it claims, that 'consumer' interests do not primarily reside with cheap choice, the arb could assist the riba much further by incorporating into its revised code (now out for consultation) new rules to effectively eliminate all bogus competitions.

But will they?

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