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OMA chief: 'We were serious, but the Nine Elms contest wasn't'


OMA partner Reinier de Graaf on why he thinks the Nine Elms bridge competition is a wasteful exercise in political lobbying

Reinier de Graaf

A week ago, I wrote a column in Dezeen about our competition entry of the Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge: ‘A competition that we did not win and also did not (really) expect to’.

Since publication, there have been many comments: some supportive, some less so. On the whole, the reactions provoked by the piece are roughly in line with those predicted in the piece itself: unconditional embrace or outright rejection – praise or scorn.

There is however one persistent notion in the public sphere that I would like to set straight. The statement that we did not expect to win never meant to imply that we did not try. It certainly did not mean that we were not taking our own proposal seriously. (As was suggested by the blog CityMetric.)

We wanted to win this competition, but we wanted to win it on our own terms. We designed the (type of) bridge that in our view should have won. Breaking with a prevailing trend in the design of bridges, our bridge is an attempt to show there can be beauty in restraint, minimalism and all those other qualities so thoroughly out of vogue in the 21st century.

OMA's Nine Elms Bridge entry - landing

The bridge we submitted is a thoroughly engineered piece, fully compliant with all technical and functional requirements, one that could have been built quickly and at reasonable cost. It is precisely here that the problem occurs: while we were serious, it turned out this competition was not. Even before announcing the results, Westminster City council - one of the two river sides to be connected - stated that it did not want and never had wanted a bridge.

It is not up to designers to resolve political differences

One wonders if it might have been a good idea, if the investment in political consensus whether to have the bridge at all, had been made before launching a competition. Somehow it doesn’t really seem fair to have the designers of the bridge prove its necessity. It is not up to them to resolve political differences.

The Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge competition is part of an emerging trend whereby competitions no longer serve their original purpose: a meticulous selection of the best possible building, but increasingly serve as promotional campaigns in the context of a political lobby. Competitions fill a void left by a public sector increasingly short of means, who, in an effort to save costs, defers an ever greater part of its responsibilities onto the private sector (In this case architecture and engineering firms). However, if this competition is anything to go by, it remains to be seen if they really will. It is exactly this type of media geared competitions, which, in calling for ‘landmarks’, end up causing a lot of public hassle in the process. In soliciting extravagant designs, they inevitably solicit extravagant public expenditure.

The estimated cost of the Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge is £40 million of which £26 million had been secured. I wonder how that is possible given the news that Westminster won’t play, but alas…

74 firms submitted their competition entries without any form of financial compensation. Our own firm’s entry represents a modest investment of some £55,000 in man-hours and expenses. Assuming other firms made a similar investment and we multiply this amount by 74, we are looking at over £4 million worth of free work: ten percent of the new bridge’s construction budget.

It is certainly not uncommon for architects or engineers make an investment towards a pending job. However, in the case of the Bridge it is doubtful if such a job will ever exist. If it will, it is because architects (at least partially) funded it at their own expense.


Readers' comments (3)

  • As an unsuccessful entrant, it is difficult to comment on a competition without it sounding like sour grapes but Reinier de Graaf’s commentary is fair, timely and accurate. Too often competitions are used ‘politically’ in lieu of genuine consultation or even proper communication about a need. Once again it is heart-breaking to see so much time, cost and creative energy freely invested with such incredibly long odds of success. If Westminster calls time on the idea of a bridge to Pimlico, will the competitors be reimbursed their £4m?

    Regrettably, this competition appears wasteful and confusing and it is the architectural profession which carries the heaviest financial burden, with most engineers sensibly leaving the architects to lead the way with a peacock image intended to catch the eye of the jury, or the press or maybe the public: who actually was judging? This was a competition whose prequalification threshold was so low that 87 teams made the first cut, effectively an open contest, with the claim that this opens the door for small, young and newly-established practices. Yet the four selected are established, distinguished even venerable practices – all excellent architects but with not a youngster among them. And was it really a selection of teams, as claimed, or designs? If so, why put so much media emphasis on “a design” yet fail to select so many practices with considerably more bridge design experience (Ney & Partners, Wilkinson Eyre, Dietmar Feichtinger, McDowell + Benedetti among others…)?

    Good competitions offer valuable choices to clients and opportunities to architects, whether to younger or smaller practices or established firms. They encourage research and innovation, promote public debate and emphasise the value of good design however, where the brief isn’t clear and where the costs of wasted resources are so high, they are rightly seen as a dead weight on the profession. For the sake of those left in the contest and for those of us who believe in the social importance of public infrastructure, let’s hope the politics catch up with the designs.

    Martin Knight
    Knight Architects

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  • Regrettably these things are not new! My firm won two competitions back in the 1980s and 1990s. We did manage to get paid on one (but it was a miracle) but in the second case after winning we were told that one of the funders wanted another competition with his favourite architect involved. We were allowed to enter again! Eventually a completely ridiculous scheme "won" but we managed to get a bit of compensation. The scheme never went ahead and eventually another type of project went ahead on the site but it looked very similar to ours (which we were not surprised by as the Oxford City planners had favoured our approach. Competitions are an utter lottery. The cost is huge. But look at the Houses of Parliament competition in the 19th century. Never trust any politicians- they use the construction industry as they wish without any scruples. Thank heaven I have retired.

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  • Competitions are risky for architects. I analysed the cost and probability of winning the Windermere Steam Boat Museum Competition in 2012 and use it as a case study to illustrate why architects should not enter competitions.

    In that case, the OJEU advertisement was open to 500,000 eligible architects. 118 practices probably spent at least 5 days submitting PQQs. 8 'lucky' practices were shortlisted and paid an honorarium of £2500. Looking at the entries submitted, they each probably spent >£50K on developing detailed designs including CGIs. Only one practice would win the completion and earn a fee. I estimate the commissioning body or client gained roughly half a million pounds worth of architects' time and access to considerable creative talent and ideas for a small investment of £20,000

    The probability of winning competitions is often extremely low. The cost of not winning can be very high. The waste of resources of so many architects not winning is huge and affects the productivity of the profession. Clients take advantage of architects. I recommend architects choose the competitions they enter carefully and calculate the opportunity costs before committing.

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