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. . . or are they bad for the profession?

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Paul Hyett's reminder of the resources which the architectural profession wastes year after year on architectural competitions was well illustrated by his entirely unbelievable analogy of barristers carrying out similar free work, without any guarantee of reward. Where I differ from Mr Hyett in my analysis of this damaging activity is in his belief that the problems relate to 'unregulated competitions'. I would suggest that the problem is much wider and relates to the commonly held belief that architectural competitions have a positive effect on the profession and the quality of architecture which it produces. This belief has been consistently reinforced by leaders of our profession. Indeed, the promotion of the use of architectural competitions has been one of the few consistent polices of the riba over many years.

I'd like to continue the debate on architectural competitions in which so many of us give away vast quantities of our time and ideas, in most cases for no reward. I would suggest that in doing this we are commercially naive and professionally arrogant in believing that our passion for architecture, which leads us to design without payment, is not shared by other professionals in their passion for their calling, whether it be the law or medicine.

So, why do we do it? The arguments fall into two categories. Firstly, the official arguments, which we use publicly to encourage clients to adopt this strange procedure. Architectural competitions, it is said, encourage talented new practices, develop new architectural thinking, are intellectually stimulating for the participants and provide clients with a wide range of options from which to choose. Secondly, the unspoken truth, that architectural competitions provide a chance for all architects to compete with famous architects and dream that one day they might be one themselves, create opportunities for the maximum number of architects to enjoy designing major building projects regardless of the actual level of demand, provide a promotional opportunity for architects, enable artist architects to work without having to sully themselves by having to market their practices to people outside their own profession, and allow them to trick clients into building radical responses to problems without compromise.

And what effect does this have? Architectural competitions encourage a culture in which architects give away their ideas for no payment, with many practices donating substantial amounts of time to non-income-generating activity, which is subsidised by income-generating activity, thus further reducing real fee levels across the profession. Architectural competitions damage our credibility when seeking to charge for our work, when so many architects so often appear quite happy to work for nothing. Competitions conceal that there is probably not nearly enough interesting architectural work available to keep a profession of our size in the uk intellectually stimulated, never mind appropriately rewarded. Architectural competitions result in some buildings, which never get built, being designed by literally hundreds of teams of architects for free while others, which do get built, are not designed by a single architect. Even for competition winners, the likelihood of a British competition-winning design being built is extremely remote and the very few success stories have to be coldly compared to the extraordinary amount of time, energy and enthusiasm which has been wasted on this process. Finally, there is little evidence that major uk clients, public or private, are willing to take the very real risk of having to build a competition-winning design. Strangely, they appear to prefer to work closely with their architects on the development of appropriate design solutions.

Yes, I know this all sounds terribly cynical, and the thought of never designing another major building after you leave college is heartbreaking, but surely the time has come for us to re-evaluate this increasingly crazy part of our professional ethos. Most young practices these days are quite sophisticated enough in their ability to promote themselves to potential clients without having to resort to endless free offers. Wouldn't it be better if all that incredible effort and talent was actually put to some positive purpose on behalf of society and architecture, because it seems to me that at the moment it is not just being given away, but thrown away as well.


Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

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