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Taking calculated risks is all part of the entertainment


There are so many health warnings marking daily life that it is tempting to imagine what hazards might be drawn to the attention of the practising architect weighing up the mores of contract. Perhaps my old friend David Harper overstated it when he advised that he woke every morning to stare down the double-barrelled shotgun of potential disaster, but you can kind of see his point.

So, to beware is important, even, I would suggest, creative. Indeed, the sooner we point out that making architecture is about taking calculated risks, the sooner others will recognise the value of the risk-takers.

The problem, of course, is that too often we are gambling with other people's money, so our importance and our value become confused - particularly by ourselves. In that sense, we are not unlike the tipsters who sell a service on the basis of a track record with winners outnumbering losers; the only real comeback is a shrinking client base. Perhaps we should take on more of the risk?

Nowhere is this idea of risk, commodity and value more evident than the world of contract.

We make drawings, we get advice from QSs and then client and design team sit down and decide where to place their bets. Approximate quantities are the norm, although Full Bills look like making a comeback. This is a game in which the cost of time spent producing information is to be offset against the start-onsite and completion dates.

Then there is the world of First and Second Stage. This game is declining in popularity as no one is really sure whether enough is gained at the second stage: the marriage has been planned, the invitations are out and both parties are inevitably reluctant to risk the embarrassment and cost of calling things off.

The first real alternative to the traditional models is partnering, which is great if you have a continuous flow of related projects and you can really trust each other. It works best if both parties have a stake in the success.

Then there is Design and Build. This sounds very much like the first arrangement listed above, but only because the title is misleading - there is rarely enough design, and the considerations of build take over. It is about laying off your bets. You know it's expensive and you're not really engaging with the thrill of construction, but when risk is a problem, it appears to make a lot of sense.

Architectural risk is often closely associated with contractual risk, though not always with good reason. Indeed, the more constructional innovations you pursue, the more contractually solid your team needs to be. The problem in that situation is that the creative culture too often overwhelms ideas of competence, and clients are not always fully briefed on their exposure. The solution is to form your own design and development organisation and make money across the board. Attractive as this can appear when you are operating on the outside for fees, it remains rare. It's like owning the horse, jockey, race and course. It will be profitable initially, but soon fail, as it lacks the essence of theatre that is a key component in the daily game of architecture. It would create a dead sport that would fail to attract the characters whose successes and failures make the whole business so entertaining: it is called Eganism.

So, notwithstanding contractual needs, we are all ultimately in the entertainment business: not one where you plough headstrong and headlong into an avalanche of good reason, but where you take calculated risks to ensure you entertain the other players and the audience.

Real architectural invention entertains more intelligently than ever before, but only for as long as you continue to promise real pleasure for others as well as yourself.

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