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The highlights (and a few low points) of 2016’s design competitions

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Four experts reflect on the winners and losers of architectural competitions in 2016

Malcolm Reading, chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants

MRC’s seven open and invited competitions launched this year represent about £500 million of project investment for our clients – a sector of opportunity for architects keen to up their fee income, make their names, enhance their reputations, or just set their alpha studios a cracking design test. These international competitions cruised through Brexit and other global shocks, illustrating that talent is one of the few reliable currencies in times of flux. We were delighted that three international wins this year were for UK-based architects: the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art was won by David Adjaye, SimpsonHaugh was a finalist for Lithuania’s Science Island, and Hall McKnight won Gallaudet University in Washington DC.



Adjaye Associates’ competition-winning Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art

Trends in competitions are difficult to predict. Most of our clients are by definition not mainstream and in holding a competition are in the process of defining an unusual proposition – something new that meets a cultural need and which can refresh the public realm.

But we are sensing much more interest in integrated teams, rather than individual architects, and enthusiasm for new talent, over established practices. Leading practices are responding by linking up with edgier, emerging firms, and the architect’s natural flair for collaboration is increasingly valued. In the case of The Illuminated River competition finalists, architects as lead consultants orchestrated many-layered teams of artists, film-makers, lighting designers, technologists and engineers.

While globalisation may have run into a temporary speed bump, competitions celebrate both diversity and what architects all over the planet share. They like nothing better than a good project. Our Science Island initiative for Lithuania was a star here; this modest competition for a small nation was wildly popular, attracting interest from 44 countries.

Congratulations to all our winners, but also to the unsuccessful entrants and the runners-up. We fight hard for good PR for them, decent honoraria and fair feedback. It is never easy to ring up and explain why a team has lost: hard work, courage and an original idea may not always carry the day. But those architects who get over their disappointment and go up a level (or five) for the next competition – they set the bar for all of us. We wish all our competitors, past and future, a most happy and creative 2017.

Russell Curtis, founding member of Project Compass and director of RCKa

Those with their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone of the public sector will know that 2016 presented an increasingly exasperating array of pungent procedures and cack-handed contracts.

Despite evidence of good practice emerging in isolated pockets across the UK, many of us continued to wrestle with excessively complex, unnecessarily verbose prequalification questionnaires and archaic and bewildering web portals seemingly coded on a Commodore 64.

It was a big year for high-profile cultural projects. The Museum of London began and concluded the selection of a design team for its new Smithfield home, with the award going to a talented team headed by Stanton Williams. Meanwhile, in Essex, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council commenced, abandoned, and began again its search for an architect to take forward the Thames Estuary Museum it had previously awarded back in 2009, but which had ground to a halt in the seven years since AEW’s original scheme won planning. Quite who’s up for taking on this apparently Sisyphean task might become apparent early in the new year.



Stanton Williams’ and Asif Khan’s competition-winning Museum of London

As the year progressed we witnessed the emergence of a troubling trend: at least two public sector tenders pushed the cost of administration onto the winning consultants. In a particularly mercenary move, East Sussex Council required successful tenderers to stump up running costs amounting to a quarter of a million quid across a three-year framework (generously leaving open an option to extend it to four), providing no guarantee that these eye-watering figures will be offset by fee income. Architects already grumbling about the cost of tendering for frameworks from which they rarely get work are unlikely to be delighted by the prospect of now paying huge sums for the privilege.

To the north, then, where, in a somewhat callous response, Sheffield University batted away criticisms of its competition for a new £25 million Music Centre, claiming that the 150 expressions of interest it had received were evidence not of a tragic waste of everyone’s time, but rather an indication of how enticing the entire enterprise was. The open, single-stage procedure itself called for an outline design to accompany the tender submission, a sadly all-too-common approach in which architects hand out their ideas for free in the vague hope of landing a juicy commission.

To cap off a less than auspicious year, while most of us were peeling back the first door of our advent calendar, competitors in the Helsinki Guggenheim competition were opening their inboxes to discover that, nearly two years after it was opened, the entire competition was being abandoned. Some estimates place the total cost of work contributed by architects approaching 10 per cent of the total capital cost of the entire building budget, and while nobody seriously enters such contests expecting to win, the enigmatic renders it generated were destined to remain vapourware forever more.

It wasn’t all bad news. The Science Museum continued its ambitious redevelopment programme with a raft of interesting awards. March saw the completion of Coffey Architects’ library, won back in 2014, while Muf’s celebrated Interactive Gallery opened to the public two years after it was awarded. Duggan Morris was announced winner of the new top-floor event spaces (full disclosure: RCKa was on the shortlist) and HAT Projects was picked to design new entrance space. The Science Museum’s continuing support of both emerging and established firms demonstrates that in certain sectors there remains an appetite for innovation and creativity that eclipses any misplaced perception of risk.



Muf’s competition-winning interactive gallery at the Science Museum

The past year also witnessed one or two small, but significant, successes. Cambridge University graciously lowered the turnover limit for their Biomedical Campus masterplan following pleas that the original value excluded smaller firms (although retaining a level which was still much higher than perfectly capable teams could manage). Surrey University did the same, but this time under considerable duress, after complaints that its imposition of excessive financial thresholds were in conflict with EU law. A cancellation of the contest and subsequent republication in April with marginally more modest barriers to entry was a welcome victory in an otherwise infelicitous year for higher education capital projects. HLM, a firm which could have cleared the original turnover requirement several times over, went on to nab the £3.8 million Student Union refurbishment in October.

And what’s in store for 2017? The untangling of the UK’s Public Contracts Directive from European procurement laws may well commence, but is unlikely to result in any significant improvements, given our national propensity for unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic processes. More importantly, the New Year provides us all with an opportunity to call out those procedures which get it badly wrong. Empowered by the modest successes Project Compass has achieved over the past 12 months, it has been great to see others assuming the mantle and taking action. The tide may finally be turning.

Andrew Whalley, deputy chairman of Grimshaw

Grimshaw’s success across a wide range of competitions this year is the result of a combined, concerted effort across all of our global office locations, harnessing the creative energy of our studios worldwide to capture those projects highlighted, as well as additional projects in our Melbourne and Sydney studios. The practice views competitions as opportunities to collaborate with teams across our offices and with talented consultants, engaging design thinking from an array of sources in pursuit of ideas that are relevant not only to the project at hand, but valuable as research and development tools that can be applied to all our work.



Grimshaw’s competition-winning vision to expand Heathrow Airport

As more and more of the world’s premier projects are procured through competitions, we endeavour to take a disciplined approach to participation, cognisant of the labour and expense involved in mounting a successful entry with an eye towards the selection of projects that offer opportunities to improve lives and further explore innovation in the built environment. Some of our best work has been derived from competitions – and from both those we have won and those we have lost. While losing stings, it is important to recognise the importance of the free thinking and creativity associated with competition entries, and to learn from both the successes and setbacks. Grimshaw aims to continue this measured approach to competitions in the future, pursuing compelling opportunities across the globe.

Anne Marie Galmstrup, expert in Baltic and Scandinavian contests and founder of Galmstrup

The Scandinavian countries continue by and large to have a greater number of cultural and urban competitions, reflecting the differences in both the role of the public sector and spending in the construction sector compared with the UK.

There seems to have been an increase in masterplanning competitions, mainly new residential quarters, procured through both invited and open competitions. For example, nine out of 15 competitions organised by the Danish Architect’s Association were for masterplans, with the contest for Paper Island in Copenhagen harbour perhaps attracting most attention.

Whereas Scandinavian competitions are still predominantly won by Scandinavian practices, the Baltic countries seem to have a larger appetite for international architects and an increasing number of foreign architects are being shortlisted for invited competitions.



The Riga Expo Centre launched an open international design competition for a new auditorium and exhibition hall

The noticeable rising number of competitions advertised in the Baltic region this year were predominantly open competitions, like that for the Science Island in Kaunas, organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants. Some, however, such as those for the Riga Expo Centre on Kip Island and for the Blue Clay country spa in Latvia, are competitions with entry fees and uncertain prospects of implementation. It is stated that clients are ‘committed to consider’ all winning designs for construction, but this is no guarantee that the winning project will be built.

As Europe becomes more fractious, it will be interesting to follow this region. Scandinavian governments are decreasing funds for public sector schemes, which has affected the normally larger number of public projects available through competitions and more recently indicating a shift towards tenders. Copenhagen, for example, recently tendered all new build schools and cultural institutions for the next four years to two developer-led consortia.

Perhaps the Baltic nations are looking more promising, with competitions usually financed by individual private funds or persons, hungry for innovation and fresh contributions.

The region’s highlights of 2016 included: the Viking Museum on the outskirts of Oslo; the Government Quarter in Oslo; Aarhus School of Architecture; Paper Island in Copenhagen; Skellefteå culture house in Sweden; the Guggenheim Helsinki, albeit discontinued; the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art in Riga; the Science Island at Kaunas; and the Port of Tallinn in Estonia.



SimpsonHaugh and Partners’ competition-winning national science and innovation centre in Kaunas

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