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Let's spare ourselves the effort of pretend competitions

I recently wrote of how the Sustainable Communities Plan ensures that the urban renaissance is enjoyed by the cappuccinoconsuming few. Which leads to the question: who are the few? In architecture there are advisers to government: the great and good who broker deals distributing wealth and power. I know of clients who have been pressured, warned off someone or encouraged to use another. It's all very nasty.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the increasingly murky world of competitions.

In the mid-1980s, when I started out, competitions were the all-consuming focus of individual endeavour. We bemoaned the lack of them and, in the great tradition, looked longingly at (and talked ignorantly of) the Continent, where young architects won open, anonymous competitions with designs that actually got built. New European architects were adventurers who, without the shackles of planning and the need to find work, moved debate on. They were under 30 (not 40), they had intelligent clients and supportive contractors, some of whom even handed out interesting work. And so the migration to the land of opportunity began.

Of course, it did not take long for very different stories to filter back. Many émigré architects made the same discoveries as the Italian peasant who arrived at Ellis Island: the first thing he noticed was that there were no golden sidewalks, then that there were no sidewalks at all, and finally he realised that he was going to have to pave them. There were tales of dodgy competitions and sad winners, the bigger players carving things up and offices struggling to make ends meet, too many competitions and too few buildings - all set against a background of economic decline.

Back here in the 1990s, the general trend was towards expressions of interest and limited competitions. The idea was that the profession avoided wasting the effort of an open competition and the client would be better served. It all sounded very reasonable, assuming you were already 'in', which I acknowledge that, in many cases, we were.

However, too often the whole thing is carved up. Misleading requests for expressions of interest and two-stage competitions result in shortlists that conform to well-established models: two international practices, two well-liked home-grown teams, plus a maverick and an unknown who won't win but whose presence answers accusations of a stitch-up. All are then asked to do extraordinary amounts of work for very limited fees. There are client visits, briefing workshops, design reviews, contract negotiations, technical juries, main juries and interim submissions. Sometimes one competitor is allowed to include extra models and boards, and occasionally, if this is discovered (and to be fair), all others are invited to follow suit. Excessive endeavour is encouraged by ever-extending deadlines, often to suit the preferred candidate. Finally, the winner emerges, exactly who you always thought it was going to be: not always preordained by talent, but too often pre-agreed.

The current competitions model, where big names compete on shortlists to win both the small jobs (think Architecture Foundation HQ) and big jobs (think Aquatic Centre) waste much time, though admittedly that is partly the result of EU procurement rules. Those aside, there is a case for returning to the days when a deal was done and a good, even great, architect appointed without fuss. We could then celebrate with some proper anonymous open competitions for significant buildings:

competitions that allow small, unknown and big names the opportunity to compete fairly to win big jobs. After all, many big names did well from exactly this system not so long ago.

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