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How deep thinking wins competitions

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Demonstrating an astute analysis of a brief sends the powerful message that you are on the client’s wavelength, says Malcolm Reading

Running a competition is a particular kind of accelerated design activity. Like a journey in space, everything moves at intense speed but is conducted in a partial vacuum.

Some architects criticise this absence of the client voice in competitions, but this attitude is unnecessarily sophistic, and the good architect sees an opportunity to fill the gap with content.  While good visuals are essential, many practices sink all their energies into super-seductive CGIs. But this is a trap – it makes the office feel productive and the ‘hero image’ is a way to project an architectural identity; but does it address the client’s needs? Clients who promote competitions are looking for more: they have invested time and money, expecting to be on the receiving end of some good, old-fashioned thinking around their problem.  The catalyst is analysis: analysis of the underlying client objective; analysis of the opportunities; analysis of value as distinct from cost. In a competition environment, demonstrating your grasp of the opposing factors contained in the brief can be a powerful message that you are in tune with the client.

Communicating parallel thinking with the client will always be the winning strategy

Practices who miss this unglamorous and time-hungry but important task risk losing the attention of their prospective client. Norman Foster’s office is a great advert for the power of analysis to make connections: its analysis of all facets of the problem before commencing design is legendary, giving it a platform to speak directly to a client. Create a culture in your office where this deep thinking is valued. Don’t rush to design.

One of the first competitions we ran was for a joint client of the then Design Council and Essex County Council.  Won by a youngish Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (the four partners turned out to interview in matching ties), the competition asked teams to outline an approach to developing a sustainable primary school.

What struck me about the competition was the diversity of input from each of the finalist teams. One turned up en masse with more than 30 collaborators, one had the traditional single figurehead, but AHMM outlined a process of design and feedback that was compelling. They recognised that the project had still to be defined, despite already having a detailed brief.

So, there are two strategies when entering a competition: to follow Oscar Niemeyer’s ‘flash of inspiration’ that the sketch is the root of originality and the basis of architectural invention; or to be guided by August Perret’s analytical proposition that the creative process is a function of a particular kind of distilled intellectual insight (The Great Builders, edited by Kenneth Powell, is an excellent treasure chest of architectural philosophies).

Excepting competitions that are poorly arranged or aiming only to encourage ideas, juries will look for evidence of analysis around the client’s brief, approaches that extend opportunities and show insight of the client’s long-term objectives. The ability to communicate parallel thinking with the client will always be the winning strategy.

Which very sadly brings me to the recent death of Moira Gemmill, the V&A’s design guru (before her move to the Royal Collection Trust). She was an accomplished and sophisticated client, holding deep certainties about the direction and outcome, but completely open to innovation and when to argue for change. Her mind was excited by the analytical abilities of architects: go see her legacy at the V&A and how she captured this. Her professional life was the supreme demonstration of the value of the expert client in the design process, and I will return to this subject next month.

  • Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a leading independent organiser of design competitions
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