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Wasteful architect competitions come under fire

Fundamentals1
  • 12 Comments

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.

Curtis is a member of Project Compass, the procurement reform group and Community Interest Company which is currently conducting a survey into the cost of entering contests. To take part, click here.

  • 12 Comments

Readers' comments (12)

  • Phil Parker

    Malcolm Reading Associates promises his clients multiple architects doing a whole load of work for little or nothing. There should be no place in our profession for this type of profiteering and smart architects avoid MRA’s advances. MRA perpetuates the myth that clients are entitled to a whole load of architectural thinking and delivery for nothing. A stronger profession and a stronger RIBA would not countenance this.

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  • Architectural competitions are a disgrace. No other profesional would give their time and ideas for free. How do you think big firms fund competitions? By getting architects to work for nothing all weekend and late into the night. Its explotation. It devalues the profession and makes clients think architects are prepared to work for free. If a client wants to run a competiton to find the best ideas then they need to narrow thier requirements down, select 5 practices to interview and ask 3 of them for feasibilites and pay them for their work. This explotation of staff and devaluation has to stop its what is rotting architects.

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  • Chris Roche

    The existing competition system is morally, politically, and economically bankrupt. The profession needs to take ownership of the solution to the problem and provide clear leadership and guidance. If, as seems likely, a socialist government is returned in the UK within the next 5 years, then new rules of government procurement of architectural services are inevitable. If anyone is interested in supporting a new Architects-union (Au) to help provide an ethical and economically sustainable system for the procurement of architectural services in England, then please get in touch and together we can start the process of much needed change.

    Chris Roche / 11.04
    Former Paired RIBA Architectural Advisor to Jeremy Corbyn.

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  • Malcolm Reading says ‘The evidence is that architects do enter our competitions and they are actually satisfied, and they don’t say to me it’s a waste of time and money.
    This glosses over the reality; most architects effectively vote with their feet by not entering. We, like most most good firms, are swamped with work and must ensure that we do not over-expose ourselves.There are, of course, some prominent firms who only gain work through such contests, but in my belief this leads to having little empathy with the client or user, to the detriment of the built environment.

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  • MacKenzie Architects

    with apologies to CR-
    The existing competition system is morally, politically, and economically bankrupt.
    The profession needs to take ownership of the solution to the problem and provide clear leadership and guidance.
    If, as seems likely, a Marxist government is returned in the UK within the next 5 years, then new rules of government procurement of architectural services are inevitable.

    We'll all be working for free.

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  • the completion organisers need to do more of the heavy lifting - let them research new practices and ideas on their clients behalf, form shortlists and have limited competitions where a real project is at stake - limit the entrants to 4 or 5 firms. My issue is with open competitions where 1000's of hours are wasted.

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  • *competition organisers...

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  • Competitive interviews, limited shortlists with reasonable expenses and ideas with limited requirements have a place. The European model could show the UK the way. But large international competitions are a waste of time and effort and flourish in recessions. I experienced the Peak and Grand Buildings. Youthful exuberance takes over and the results are demoralising or depressing.

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  • Frances Maria

    The problem I have with competitions is that they are open to a certain type of practice only - the big practice with a huge turnover and lots of partners and staff members at its disposal. If these competitions are to be fair, they should be structured in such a way that they are open to all, including small practices. Many of the smaller practices have plenty of talent and are capable of producing good quality work, but unfortunately they never get the chance to prove themselves in this way. Perhaps some of the competitions should be aimed exclusively at small practices

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  • Just to reitterate.

    "The evidence is that architects do enter our competitions and they are actually satisfied, and they don’t say to me it’s a waste of time and money"

    You are talking about principles and directors who do not work all the extra weekends and evenings on these competitions for no additional salary at teh expense of their falmilies & health. It is the salaried staff who are made to work on these competitons so of course the principles think they are getting good value for money as it actually costs them nothing!

    In reality it very much costs the profession as a whole. Salaried architects getting hugly demoralsied working 100's of hours for nothing on a competition with very little chance of success and even if they do win they see no benefit, only more work.

    It just devalues our work and leads to low fees, low self esteem and clients who believe architects are happy to work for free.

    The RIBA need to ban competirions and stop promoting them. In effect they are sentencing 1'000's of architects to addtional unpaid work while their bosses tell the the RIBA its low cost to them. RIBA shame on you, you have a responsibility to ALL your members and you choose to ignore them!

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