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What is going wrong with architectural competitions?

Roundtable 1

With controversies piling up over how architectural competitions are run, the AJ assembled a panel of experts to discuss the industry’s love-hate relationship with the design contest. Sponsored by Miele

‘If you went to your bank manager and said: “I’ve got a business plan; I’m going to enter competitions. I’m going to take £50,000 and stick it on black” you would be laughed out of the bank.’

As a way of winning work, the architectural competition is little more than a shot in the dark, according to Russell Curtis, founder of RCKa architects. But if in the past the gamble was worth the pay-off and the process deemed a meritocratic one in which all entrants have a shot at the prize, recent events have given rise to a degree of scepticism. From the Thames Garden Bridge fiasco to a recent row over ‘onerous’ terms for a design contest, the competition process has lately experienced a fall from grace. To get to the bottom of this the AJ invited practices and competition organisers to look at wasteful competitions, the UK’s ‘climate of caution’ surrounding procurement, and how the profession might respond.

The panel

• Pooja Agrawal, architect and co-founder, Public Practice
• Cezary Bednarski, director, Studio Bednarski
• Laurie Chetwood, director, Chetwoods
• Russell Curtis, founder, RCKa Architects
• Kay Hughes, director, Khaa
• Will Hurst, managing editor, The Architects’ Journal (chair) 
• Walter Menteth, director, Walter Menteth Architects
• Maria Theodorou, architect and co-editor of Competition Grid: Experimenting With and Within Architecture Competitions
• Sam Rogers, commercial manager – projects, Miele

Competitive impulse

Kicking off a provocative discussion, the AJ’s managing editor Will Hurst asked panellists: ‘Why do architects love competitions?’ Chetwoods director Laurie Chetwood traced the attraction back to the university crit and said the competition ‘placed architects in charge of their own destiny’ as well as being good for office morale. He said: ‘We’re generally frustrated by the restrictions put on us in the commercial world, so to do a competition is a luxury and an indulgence.’

Competitions tend to be done late at night with pizzas and Red Bull – not an environment which leads to a successful building

The competitive impulse is innately human, according to Cezary Bednarski, founder of Studio Bednarski. ‘There is adrenaline; there is excitement; everybody would be competitive if we didn’t have it destroyed in us – all children are competitive, just like all children are artists,’ he said.

Curtis, who is also a director of procurement reform group Project Compass, said competitions were one of the few ways of ensuring compatible architects and clients are paired. But he added it should be about selecting an ‘approach’, rather than a building. ‘With the best will in the world, competitions tend to be done late at night with pizzas and Red Bull, and that is not an environment which leads to a successful building,’ he said.

But Kay Hughes, director and founder of Khaa, who has also worked on the client side running competitions, said it was about more than winning work. She described it as a learning process and as a way of fostering self-belief. ‘Being in a competition allows you to push your thinking through a boundary,’ she said. Architect Maria Theodorou, co-editor of a book on architectural competitions, agreed. She said contests were like ‘a field of forces’ involving sharing of knowledge between clients and design teams.

Pooja Agrawal, an architect who co-founded the social enterprise Public Practice and also works for the GLA, challenged the idea that architects still love competitions. She said: ‘I think it might be a generational thing. At a recent debate at Central Saint Martins [on reforming procurement] all the students were really quite anti-competition. I think there has been a shift in expectation in terms of how work is found.’ 

Nowadays, competitions are rarely design-led, but rather won on a ‘set of financial values’ according to Walter Menteth, of Walter Menteth Architects, who is also a director of Project Compass. ‘When any opportunity arises for people to try and get selected on design they jump in, because the alternative is to go through a framework mechanism, where the outputs are buildings most of us would be embarrassed by,’ he said.  

Aj miele roundtable 5

Aj miele roundtable 5

Climate of caution

One of the main issues with the architectural competition in the UK, some of the panellists argued, was that there were not enough of them. When a competition is announced, hundreds of practices enter, even when the terms are unsatisfactory.

Asked why clients are becoming less keen to run design competitions, the panel agreed there was a perception, especially in the public sector, that contests were risky. ‘This country is risk-averse and cautious,’ Chetwood said. Curtis agreed, adding: ‘When we [in the UK] do hold competitions it tends to be on things like meanwhile uses, because there is no risk.’

However, Agrawal pointed out this could soon change in the wake of the collapse of multinational construction giant Carillion, adding: ‘The idea that a big conglomerate is risk-averse has been demolished and hopefully that will shift the idea of what risk is in the public sector.’

So when competitions do take place, what can the clients and architects do to get them right? Beginning with entrants, Chetwood said practices needed to research the client thoroughly, not just the design brief. ‘You can usually spot whether a client is genuine about the competition. If they are committed in the first place it’s probably going to go somewhere,’ he said. 

Chetwood also stressed the value of a simple good idea, pointing to his practice’s recent winning proposal to use London’s former underground postal tunnel as a brownfield site, which arose out of a lunchtime office charette. ‘We won’t enter a competition unless we have a stonkingly good idea,’ he said.

When there is no honorarium in the brief, you should be saying as a professional that this isn’t good enough

Practices should aim to temper their workload in the competition’s early stages, Theodorou said. ‘I think it’s important not to submit a huge number of drawings, as it’s a huge cost,’ she said. 

With her experience on the client side, Agrawal said some submissions were overly complex, recalling that she had marked 100-page bids from design teams. ‘Architects need to get much better at communicating what you do as a profession in a way that is not academic, that is not elitist and that is quite simple,’ she said.

Curtis said he wished more architects would vote with their feet when competition terms were bad. He said: ‘When you see there is no honorarium in the brief, you should be saying as a professional that this isn’t good enough.’ 

Aj miele roundtable 3

Aj miele roundtable 3

The ‘wrong’ winners

As to what competition organisers can do to improve matters, Theodorou said they must be rigorous when setting up the jury, the terms and the criteria. She said: ‘I think it’s a matter of having an entity to safeguard both the client and the competitors, even down to what you do with the entrants after the competition.’

Time and time again we see things selected that are unbuildable and unaffordable

Bednarksi, whose studio has won 23 competitions, only four of which were built, said there should be compensation if projects don’t go ahead. The jury also often picked the wrong winners, he said: ‘I am waiting for a client to sue a competition jury. Time and time again we see things selected that are unbuildable and unaffordable.’

On juries, Menteth said decisions about quality were often made ‘arbitrarily’. ‘The financial decisions are made pretty easily using a spreadsheet but when it comes to design, it comes down to judgment, when you could actually be using design panels,’ he said.

Clients and architects often speak ‘different languages’ when it comes to procurement, Hughes noted. ‘It’s the same with the 522-page long London Plan – it’s like that because no one has the ability to turn it into a diagram,’ she said. 

Aj miele roundtable 2

Aj miele roundtable 2

‘Free’ feasibility studies

A vibrant debate concluded by examining the less savoury sides of procurement, including the criticism that some clients are running image-led contests to get architects to produce free feasibility work. 

‘There is a darker side to it,’ Hughes said. ‘They think it’s a way of getting free ideas and then they don’t go through with it.’

Agrawal warned architects were undercutting each other, with some firms putting in fees at rates as low as 1.5 per cent to win a project. 

Practices guilty of this should be challenged, according to Bednarski. ‘We all sell time. If someone comes to me and they say another architect is quoting 2 per cent less than you, I say “Listen, imagine you have a brain surgery – do you want the cheapest or the best?’” he said.

Europan: a decade of no-shows from the UK

Architectural biennial competition Europan is the world’s largest open design competition for emerging talent, and one in which winning ideas have a real chance of getting built.

However, the UK has not put sites forward for inclusion in the competition since 2008, when Russell Curtis’s practice RCKa won an award for a project in Stoke-on-Trent.

Curtis said the European-wide contest was a ‘useful bellwether’ for the state of design competitions in the UK. He added: ‘It has been 10 years since we had a Europan in this country; it’s still carrying on in Europe and the fact that we don’t do it says something about the general attitude towards competitions in the UK.’ 

Traditionally, sites are put forward for the competition by local authorities and other public bodies. From 2004, CABE facilitated the competition in the UK but dropped its support in 2010.

With Europan, a developer, local authority or housing association often builds the winning schemes, providing young architects with the chance of seeing their designs realised.

Kay Hughes said it was one of the few open competitions that deliver commissions. ‘Europan is a competition that young architects can enter and from it come real commissions in plenty of European countries,’ she said. 

The most recent competition, Europan 14, was themed on how cities can integrate ‘production’ and small-scale manufacturing and received 1,223 entries for the 44 assigned sites based in 15 countries.

The 136 winning teams each received a cash prize worth €12,000 in their local currency, along with a commission to deliver their scheme.



Readers' comments (5)

  • Interesting that this article begins with 'why do Architects love competitions?' (Pooka Agrawal is right) - many of us don't. Even if we win a competition, we've effectively given a huge amount of work away for free, the value of which is very likely not covered by any profit we might make over the course of the project. There is also a culture of under-cutting on fees that is often borderline irresponsible. Competitions are so popular in the rest of the EU because fees are more likely to be fair (many countries have fee scales e.g. Germany) so decisions are made on design quality and it is therefore more likely to be worth doing. I'm continually baffled by the resistance in our profession to the reintroduction of fee scales. It's a total myth that the EU disallowed this as being anti-competitive.

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  • Meanwhile AJ is running a the Future Retail Destinations contest with the Crown Estate which is only offering some visibility and too little money for a few that are shortlisted...

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  • Thanks for your comment Francis. I disagree with this because as well as the longlist and shortlist receiving considerable publicity from the AJ and the Crown Estate and the final six receive honorariums, there is the chance of real work at the end of this. The Crown Estate is a large client with considerable resources which is sincere in its desire to find new architectural ideas and talent. Our last competition with the Crown Estate produced real projects in the West End for some of the shortlist. Will Hurst, AJ managing editor

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  • Dear Will. Although your reply above is appreciated and understood, is it not the case that that real work that was won would have been won by someone in the profession anyway? The process by which it has been won is essentially a net loss to the profession as a whole which leads to les pay and productivity generally - this lack of collective overview is part of the problem. There has to be a better, more efficient, method of clients selecting architects to progress projects that works for both them and the wider architectural profession. At the moment there is simply too much time, money and effort wasted.

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  • It’s a double edge knife , an opportunity to express ones ideas against the lottery that the competitions are - our younger colleagues have a lesser Financial baggage are on the opportunity spectrum whilst those on the business end of the practice understandably cautious - this tension is inevitable and we just simply need to chart through the issues . Great to see the articulation of the issues.
    Money n time V expression of ideas
    Best wishes

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