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Malcolm Reading: ‘The best architects make the client feel special'

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Malcolm Reading of Malcolm Reading Consultants, the force behind a raft of competitions including the Union Terrace contest, on how to impress clients and win work

Explain what you do?                                                         
I head up a strategic architectural consultancy, which specialises in heritage masterplanning and the selection of contemporary designers. We’re enthusiastic about the power of design to create new perceptions and act as an inspiration – whether at the local level or internationally.

What are your most exciting projects?
Two major projects are at the forefront of our work this year. One is at Auckland Castle, the home of the Prince Bishops in the north east for most of the previous millennium. It’s a stunning building masterfully re-thought by James Wyatt in the early 18th century and home to an amazing set of Zurbarán paintings. The other is to create a sustainable plan to develop Lancaster Castle for the Duchy of Lancaster, which is being returned to public use after years as a high-security prison. At the other end of the scale we are helping a remarkable charity, based in Rwanda, to find a way to run a design competition for a cricket pavilion.

How have the last few years been for you and design competitions in general?
For us, the actual competition is really just th tip of the iceberg. Most are preceded by months of work helping clients to conceive their projects and develop a brief.

Good clients love the challenge of a competition

We spend a lot of time talking to them about the sort of architect they are seeking, visiting buildings with them and describing the benefits of procurement that leaves them in control. It’s true that the economic situation has had an impact, but we haven’t seen evidence this has led clients to cut corners or accept less creativity. Good clients love the challenge of a competition. I’m sure this method of finding an architect will endure.

Why are you such a big advocate for contests?
They are quite simply the pre-eminent way for many clients to get exposure to genuine innovation in architecture. Competitions bring out the best in architects and, run properly, allow clients to make informed decisions about value and quality. They’ve enabled us to change client perceptions about the architect they need and there is nothing more satisfying than matching an architect on the cusp of maturity with the right client and project.

Are you looking for ‘new talent’ for invited competitions and how do you go about that?
We try to keep up with new practices – and old ones that re-form or merge.

We watch the journals and increasingly the architecture web-sites

We do quite a bit of research; watch the journals and increasingly the architecture web-sites, including the AJ, where there are in-depth studies of new buildings. We deliberately don’t focus on ‘sectors’ because we find that the best new thinking is often seen in architects who have a natural curiosity outside their portfolio of recent experience.

Are there any projects you wouldn’t touch?
After 25 years in the business you develop an intuition. I haven’t ever had the need to resign from a commission but there have been ones we have let pass.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro's victorious Union Terrace proposals for Aberdeen

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s victorious Union Terrace proposals for Aberdeen

How did you feel working on the controversial Aberdeen Union Terrace contest and how did you deal with the criticism?
We helped rebuild confidence through the competition in Aberdeen and turn around a sceptical profession. We listened to the criticism and worked hard on raising expectations. I was convinced that the right kind of competition would attract international quality as well as local expertise – and in the end we had a shortlist that perfectly reflected this. It’s the quality of the team that won at Aberdeen and this will carry the project forward.

You’ve judged a lot of contest – what is the biggest mistake you see architects making in their presentations?Forgetting that the client is a key partner. The best architects make the client feel special, don’t blind them with their own objectives.

The best architects don’t blind the client with their own objectives

Presentation methods have improved dramatically over the last 10 years but it’s not unusual to find an architect believing in the rhetoric of a too-smooth CGI. My advice is to project your personality and passion – what makes you right for this client?


What advice would you give to any architect thinking of entering an open contest?
I’ve a deep concern about open architectural competitions – we never run them. Clients may see evidence of mass creativity, but it’s all literally paper-thin. The two-stage process is immensely more satisfying as it allows dialogue and comparison between the skills and ideas of a small number of carefully selected teams.

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