THE CLOAK OF ANONYMITY
Apocryphal or not, there is one story that lodges itself in the mind of architects sceptical of open competitions and their supposed anonymity.
When choosing the architect for the Opera Bastille in Paris, the judges picked the relatively inexperienced Carlos Ott, thinking they had landed world-famous US architect Richard Meier.
The project disappointed architecture aficionados and the key question remains: why would anyone go to all the trouble of running a competition when finding so-called 'starchitects' was the most important item on the agenda, and not the supposed anonymity to level the playing field? In this case, the French got their comeuppance.
The casual observer might have thought those selecting designs for such large-scale projects would have learnt their lesson by now. Not so.
In the past month, two similar international 'lapses in protocol' have come to the fore - both with big bucks at stake.
The first blunder involved nearly 500 architects being given the names of those they were up against in a competition to design a new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway after an email was inadvertently sent out by an employee of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (AJ 21.07.05).
The second saw international giant Gensler voice concerns regarding the first phase of the pursuit to find an architect to revamp a huge site on the Sydney waterfront in Australia.
Ian Mulcahey, a senior associate with Gensler London, says he is unhappy with what he referred to as an 'unnamed practice' putting previous work on its submission for the £400 million East Darling Harbour competition. 'It is curious that while the criteria called for anonymous entries, one of the finalist entries clearly shows previous work of the entrant, ' he says.
All the entries have been published on the competion website and Richard Rogers Partnership's proposal has clearly been illustrated with previous signiture buildings designed by the practice.
Although Rogers' move wasn't forbidden by the competition brief per se, such an action must surely fly in the face of any credible claim that the Sydney competition was entirely anonymous.
And this tactic may be quite common in the world of competitons. Pritzker Prizewinner Thom Mayne, when questioned about the morals of flaunting previous work at submissions, happily admitted he had done something similar in the past.
Needless to say, anonymity is not generally a cause for concern for seasoned practices.
John McAslan admits to avoiding open competition altogether, preferring to be invited for submissions so that he can use the name he has built up for his practice.
Nevertheless, he is reasonably sceptical of the RIBA's claims that open competitions (and award submissions) are ever truly anonymous, something the industry at large seems already to accept. 'We would never enter an anonymous competition, ' says McAslan.
'When we apply for a RIBA award it's supposed to be anonymous but the chances are the scheme has probably already been published somewhere, so is recognisable.' However, not every well-known practice is as conscientious as McAslan.
This is an issue raised by Nazar Sayigh, one of the founders of up-and-coming Glas Architects, who has recently won praise from Jonathan Glancey for his beach house in Bexhill-on-Sea.
Sayigh, who has previously gone head-to-head with his former Bartlett tutor Niall McLaughlin in anonymous competitions, is unconvinced that larger practices need to enter small competitions at all.
'When you're fighting for a scheme worth £4-5 million you do wonder why the big boys are bidding for them in the first place, ' says Sayigh.
He claims that in the case of an anonymous competition the anonymity will, in fact, favour the larger practices, which will be able to throw many more resources at it than their minnow-like adversaries and no one will be any the wiser.
But, apart from some form of positive discrimination in the direction of smaller practices - something which might make the majority of clients reasonably nervous - there is little that can be done to remedy such a situation. Even if it is ideas-led, the drain on manpower can be exploited by economies of scale. 'What you're doing to get there far outstrips any honour that you get in return, ' adds Sayigh.
What chance then do the smaller practices have when the larger practices can be so ruthless? The point of an anonymous competition is surely that ideas win over names, that the concept with the most money thrown at it isn't necessarily the one that gets chosen.
Yet in a system clearly riddled with holes, with signature buildings instantly recognisable, why pretend that it is truly anonymous in the first place? It seems necessary to either stop the political posturing or make a more comprehensive effort to throw some real weight behind ideas.