The urgent need for reform of design procurement was discussed at a panel debate in London on Thursday evening
The Build debate, part of the Fundamentals series hosted by Central Saint Martins’ Spatial Practices programme, featured Claire Bennie of Municipal, RCKa’s Russell Curtis, Kay Hughes of Khaa and competition organiser Malcolm Reading.
The discussion focused heavily on the culture of architectural competitions, many of which are unpaid and require considerable design work.
While Malcolm Reading Associates operates its design competitions under EU procurement rules and mainly runs competitions which do not require design work to be produced at the initial stage, the firm still came under fire from audience members.
Some pointed to the perceived wastefulness of the Helsinki Guggenheim which the firm organised and went on to attract 1,715 entries from 80 countries.
Audience member and head of Central Saint Martins Jeremy Till provocatively questioned the panel about the ‘exploitation of young labour’, asking: ‘Why do you think architects allow themselves to be so suicidally exploited and how do we stop that level of exploitation in the competition process?’
But Reading said shortlisted architects benefited from the publicity and ideas generated and said the shortlisted entrants of the Helsinki Guggenheim had each received €90,000 honoraria. He also questioned what the alternative was to competitions.
‘The evidence is that architects do enter our competitions and they are actually satisfied,’ he said, ‘and they don’t say to me it’s a waste of time and money. The system is something which gives them something back and it’s not throwing ideas for no recompense. Firstly, the practices get experience and secondly it’s been how architecture has been procured since time immemorial.’
Curtis replied that design competitions were ‘absolutely the worst form of procurement, apart from all the others’. He added: ‘I think there’s a fundamental issue because architects love doing competitions. I think they’re a good thing, but the problem is there are not enough of them and they’re not done well enough.’
Bennie said architects were behaving irrationally and said the should ‘just not enter’ competitions but acknowledged that was difficult because that would leave the field open to poor designers no one had ever heard of like ‘Carbuncle Killjoy and Bland’.
Hughes said competition organisers needed to take more responsibility in terms of limiting the numbers shortlisted and the amount of work needed for the initial stages.
Chair Oliver Wainwright, architecture correspondent from the Guardian, had earlier asked the panel what single thing they would change to improve procurement.
Curtis said more architects needed to get involved in commissioning projects and Hughes agreed, adding that briefs also needed to improve. Reading said he would strip out some of the ‘crazy’ requirements for bidders in terms of turnover, insurance and relevant experience, while Bennie said local authorities needed to set the price of land and chose developers on quality grounds as happens on the Continent.