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Martin Pawley: yes, we have no competition

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One of the core beliefs of the capitalist system is that competition improves the breed. In the heyday of public-sector architecture after the Second World War, competition was even claimed to justify the mandatory fee scale. The idea was that if all architects charged the same fees for the same work, they would compete on merit alone. Oddly enough, during the Thatcher years, the official view of this cosy arrangement changed. The mandatory fee scale was dismissed as an anti-competitive professional cartel and, as we all know, overt fee competition soon became the bottom line of competition.

As recently as five years ago, this was held to be a catastrophic state of affairs. Architects protested that they were being bled white, forced to the wall by their big commercial brethren with greater resources who could appear to do work for nothing and thus bring their apparent fees down to unsustainable levels. Then, like the cries of the drowning after the Titanic went down, these protests slowly faded away. This was not because thousands of architects had been driven out of business so much as because they had, miraculously, adjusted to these new conditions of employment. Rather than suffer the iron rule of the marketplace, they found instead a way of neutralising its effects. Instead of the few architectural competitions and many direct commissions of the post-war years, there were suddenly many architectural competitions and few direct commissions - again, not because competition was succeeding, but because it was failing. Today competition is managed. It is brokered by master-planners, project managers, consultants and contractors so that architects appear to compete when really they are collaborating.

In their efforts to create a level playing field for design services, the meddlers at the top have created a culture in which big firms, like great white sharks, cruise the deep waters of master-planning, breaking up big jobs into bite-sized morsels. At the same time small firms, acting like pilot fish, try to make themselves useful. Instead of denouncing the outcome of competitions as miscarriages of justice (as many once had), they telephone the winners with offers of help masquerading as congratulations. Instead of facing disappointment alone by seeking commissions beyond their means and experience, they form themselves into teams capable of competing with better-established single firms - thus enjoying the advantages of survivors in a lifeboat, as opposed to the disadvantages of swimmers in wet life-jackets in a freezing sea.

Like so many aspects of our culture, this accommodation began in the us. There it is rare for a commission of any size to be carried out by one office alone. As a result the credits in American architectural magazines are extraordinarily long, with several firms laying claim to the same project because they had a hand in it, perhaps preparing the environmental impact statement, or designing the substructure, or the services, or the interior. Everywhere that competition exists in architecture, it is increasingly taking this collaborative form.

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