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Weekend roundup: Concerned with fluffy bunnies rather than architects

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: RSPCA ditches contest for modular base • Fosters’ Tulip wins planning approval • Latest gender pay gap data gives mixed picture

While entering an architectural competition is always a gamble, there is particular frustration when none of the entries goes ahead. This week it emerged that the RSPCA had scrapped its competition to design a modular base that could be replicated in a variety of locations – having previously shortlisted three designs. 

The animal welfare charity had originally said it would shortlist five schemes, so this was perhaps an early sign that things weren’t running to plan. It says it ditched the project because of ‘planning and highway issues’ surrounding the pilot site as well as ‘challenging financial circumstances’.  

In doing so, it demonstrated all the concern of someone who feels duty bound to provide an excuse but can’t be bothered to come up with anything convincing. It did, however, take the time to make clear that since it had only agreed to pay the shortlisted teams once they proceeded to Phase 2, and it was now not proceeding to that phase, ‘no payment was due’ (before, I assume, jumping into a taxi, its engine furiously revving).  

The RIBA launched the contest, giving entrants a sense that this wasn’t going to be some half-baked enterprise that ended up wasting their time

To be clear: the contest was for a modular animal centre that, according to the original brief, could be erected on any site in the UK. So even if the initial site proved problematic, should this really have been a problem when the location was intended to be inherently flexible?  

And ‘challenging financial circumstances’? The RSPCA has an annual revenue of around £130 million. Most charities would dream of such challenges.  

Nevertheless, the RSPCA’s primary concern is with fluffy bunny rabbits rather than architects, which may be why much of the anger regarding the competition has been directed at the RIBA.  

It launched the competition and, in doing so, lent it a certain respectability, giving entrants a sense that this wasn’t going to be some half-baked enterprise that ended up wasting their time.  

Some might have been wary of attaching kudos to a ‘RIBA-launched’ competition ever since the institute washed its hands of any responsibility for the shitshow that was the Upper Orwell Crossings contest – a process riddled with shortcomings which, funnily enough, also ended up with the project being scrapped.  

But Chris Bryant, whose practice Alma-nac was shortlisted for the RSPCA job, believes the RIBA should have safeguarded against the ‘planning and highways’ issues before agreeing to launch the contest.  

He estimated that his firm had spent up to £20,000 on its first-round application, and speculated that if 50 practices had entered the competition, the total cost to the profession may have been around £1 million.  

Is this a problem with this particular competition or with the competition process in general? After all, if the scheme had proceeded as planned and these figures are accurate, 47 practices would have still spent £940,000 on unsuccessful schemes.  

As Bryant says: ‘in a particularly difficult procurement environment [open competitions] are often the only way for us to secure projects of this type,’ And while he’s not keen on entering them, he particularly doesn’t want to enter ‘fictional competitions’.  

RCKa’s Russell Curtis, an exponent of procurement reform, suggests that, rather than launching straight into a competition process, it would be more sensible to pay an architect to carry out a feasibility study which would highlight any fundamental problems before an open call went out.

Tulip from Foster damned

Shutterstock stuff your tulips wv

Shutterstock stuff your tulips wv

Readers really don’t seem to like the Tulip. The City of London has given planning permission to Foster + Partners’ novelty tower, sparking even more criticism than when the scheme was first proposed. 

However, the structure is by no means a done deal. The proposal now goes to the London mayor, who has already expressed concerns. In January, his planning team pointed to potential breaches of the London Plan

It particularly focused on the design being at odds with ‘the predominantly faceted form of the surrounding cluster’ of tall buildings, as well as suggesting that it would ‘result in a poor quality, unwelcoming and unnecessarily confined pedestrian environment’ that failed to reflect the London Plan’s Healthy Streets approach. 

At Tuesday’s planning committee, the main argument made against the tower came from heritage bodies Historic England and Historic Royal Palaces. They both claim the Tulip will damage the setting of the Tower of London. Apparently, the existing ‘Eastern Cluster’ of skyscrapers, that includes the Carbuncle Cup-winning Walkie Talkie, has a delicate equilibrium that would be destroyed by the Tulip’s ‘vertical cliff edge’. 

Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the Tower of London, also argues that the Tulip is too ‘exotic’ and ‘eye-catching’ and so will detract from the historic castle. 

Particularly fierce criticism came from Sara Fox, who worked for Swiss Re as project director for the Gherkin – also by Fosters. She argued that the Tulip would detract from the Gherkin’s ‘design greatness’ and called it ‘sheer property greed’ and ‘an abomination’. 

Norman Foster sought to turn this argument around, sending a note for his emissary to read out at the planning meeting that argued that the Gherkin had also been controversial and ‘like the Gherkin, it has the possibility of being a symbol beyond its host city’. 

By which logic, any future proposed structure that attracts public ire must be worth building. 

Poll: What is your biggest objection to the Tulip? 
• It will harm views of the Tower of London 
• It is a pointless waste of resources 
• It’ll be an embarrassing eyesore 
• None – it’s a great idea 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked what presented the biggest threat to architects making a living. The result was fairly split with 19 per cent saying working for food; 23 per cent naming unpaid internships; and 28 per cent concerned about unpaid competitions. But the top choice, with 30 per cent, was ‘the Brexit apocalypse’.

The ebbs and flows of the gender pay gap

Shutterstock pay gap wv

Shutterstock pay gap wv

It had been hoped that compelling firms to publish their gender pay gap data would encourage them to make greater efforts to reduce said gaps. But as the deadline passed for disclosing the figures for 2018, the evidence from architectural practices was looking decidedly mixed. 

On the plus side, last year’s worst performer Stride Treglown had reduced its median pay gap from 28.7 per cent to 22.8 per cent; while the biggest improvement came from tp bennett, which cut its disparity from 12.8 per cent to an impressive 4.2 per cent. 

Conversely, the practice that reported the smallest gap last year, Hawkins\Brown, saw its disparity widen, while Zaha Hadid Architects also had a modest increase. 

The firm showing the greatest widening of its pay gap was AHMM (16.7 per cent from last year’s 12.3). It had an interesting explanation for this apparent lack of progress, attributing it to the high numbers of women on maternity leave or sabbatical. 

The rules on reporting say that salaries for employees who are receiving a temporarily reduced rate of pay – such as those on maternity leave – should not be included in companies’ calculations. The practice said that on the snapshot date, 18 of its women employees were affected by this rule, of which half (ie nine) were in the upper pay bracket. 

I think, however, there could be a problem with AHMM’s reasoning here. The median women’s salary is calculated by listing all female employees, ranked by pay, with the lowest paid at one end and the highest paid at the other. The median is the salary of the women exactly in the middle. 

If nine women in the top half were removed from this list, it is true that the median would slip back several places. But if nine of the affected women at AHMM were in the top half, then it follows that the other nine were in the bottom half. Remove them and the median shifts back up again. Net effect on the median salary: zero. 

Overall though, the figures for the 12 practices large enough to be compelled to report show a small but significant improvement, falling from an average of 16.3 to 13.9 per cent. 

And Grimshaw managing partner Kirsten Lees made the very valid point that efforts to redress the imbalance can have the reverse result in the short term. She pointed out that firms hiring more female architects at the start of their careers will lower women’s median pay. But these will be the senior practitioners of the future. We may have to be patient. 

Also this week

  • After lengthy delays, Tottenham Hotspur has at last opened its new stadium, designed by Populous, which was also responsible for rival club Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium among many others. The AJ’s Rupert Bickersteth visited it, declaring it to be ‘awe-inspiring’ inside, but ‘dull, clunky and uninspiring’ from the outside.  
  • David Chipperfield’s Berlin office has won a contest to design a landmark headquarters in Munich for German pension fund Bayerische Versorgungskammer. The practice defeated 11 other bidders to secure the scheme, with the jury impressed by the clear formal language and the highly flexible floor plans. 
  • A court has ordered Christ Church Primary School on London’s Brick Lane to tear down a nursery and community building completed less than six years ago to designs by SCABAL (Studio Cullinan and Buck Architects). The ecclesiastical appeal court said that the £1.5 million extension had been built on a consecrated burial ground and gave the school until 2029 to take it down. 

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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