'Mention Europe to most people in Britain and they either fall asleep or become deeply defensive . . . But for architects it is the opening of a new age'
Public-sector and publicly funded work in the uk can be irritating. pfis, ppps and the assorted types of non-project to which the profession has been subjected in recent years are manifold. Remarkably, most firms seem oblivious to the reality of these mechanisms for sleight-of-hand. Every firm, from the largest to the smallest, has met the private-sector equivalent. Big ideas and no money. Lots of talk - a lunch if you get lucky - and then nothing. Every private-practice architect nods wisely, knowing just how much time they do, or do not, allow for such potential time-wasters.
If an architect wishes to set up a project on a risk basis - and remember that the risk is far greater than time alone - then it is only practical if the project uses a proportion of the time which the firm has available and can afford. In other words, it is time which is being funded by the firm's other work.
When this type of work comes from a quasi-governmental source, it can give the impression of being solid. The truth is that a client can either commission an architect - or they cannot. The funding systems encouraged by the various lottery and similar funds require small groups (arts, charities, etc) to commission architects before they may be financially able to do so. Sad though this may be, it is not really the architect's problem. It is a system formulated with a serious disregard for the realities of commissioning construction projects. In many European countries it would be illegal.
The extent of this form of non-funded commissioning in the uk becomes clear when seen in the context of architectural projects and competitions announced across Europe. There are investor or developer projects in other European countries, but they do not pretend to be architectural commissions. It is of course for the profession itself - and its institute - to decide whether or not it wishes to encourage a greater degree of realism and practicality in public commissioning.
What is curious about the rise of these projects is that it has coincided with the establishment of Britain's first fully-fledged public-commissioning system. The ec procurement system is rational, open and fair. It has been properly formulated and works well when handled in a proper manner. If a client tries to be a bit dodgy, the whole of Europe will be watching. For architects in particular, it has opened the possibility of working on a spectacular range of projects across the ec.
Applying for these projects (many of which are two- and three-stage competitions with levels of honoraria never seen in Britain) is not complicated or expensive. It covers work for the new British railway companies, just as it covers work for the Belgian post office or Iceland's main airport (this last under eea regulations). In most cases, the client wants to know brief details of the practice and its work, with a history of the firm, its financial status, main personnel, associated professionals, and experience relevant to the project being applied for. Hardly unreasonable.
The work can be new-build, restoration and renovation, interiors, landscape, urban design, exhibition, museum design . . . There are more than 2000 new projects a year for architects. Some are large, but most are small or medium-scale, frequently with a role for the smaller or specialist practice. Remember that in Europe, large architectural practices are very rare. Most number between one and 10 in total and frequently join up with other firms to make joint proposals.
Many uk firms view the ec procurement system as something distant and only concerned with the continent. It affects every firm that wishes to work with uk central or local government, quasi-government (police, higher education), or government-funded, or transport or utility clients. It is not a matter of opinion - many firms reading this article will already be disbarred from working with some major uk clients for several years because they failed to apply for pre-qualification.
The ec system was not started from scratch. It is heavily based on the French procurement system under which the majority of public-sector architectural projects are two-stage competitions.
Instead of fighting the system, Britain - and its architects - would do well to learn from it. Programmes of work are discussed - often on five- or 10-year programmes - and then individual projects are put up for approval and then for the granting of funds. It is only after this that the client can commission his professional team.
Mention Europe to most people in Britain, and they either fall asleep or become deeply defensive. After all, a system which has classified the horse as a 'food animal' is hardly true blue. But for architects, it is the opening of a new age - a level of opportunity never dreamed of except for one or two firms in a generation. To ignore it is simply to give an open run to European architects to pick out the best uk projects (and just think how many of our major competitions have been won by European firms in the last few years). Take a look at the projects and try talking to some of the exciting clients commissioning architects across the ec.
In the depths of the recession, the two partners of a young practice said that they had become architects for three reasons: firstly to have some fun, secondly to design good buildings, and thirdly to earn a reasonable living - in that order. And then both partners said together: 'And it's no fun.'
Try designing new lighting for Unter den Linden in Berlin, or a new restaurant for the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Design a new concept for Vienna airport or a new school of architecture on the island of Reunion. As with the Lottery - if you don't buy a ticket . . .
Richard Haut produces the weekly 'competitions' magazine with details of new architectural projects and contests across Britain and Europe translated into English. For details, tel: 0171 404 7877, fax: 0171 242 1910, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org