INBOX: “Results of the design competition ABD in XYZ”. This or similar is the email subject many of us are waiting and hoping for. Usually it is marking the end of a draining process that typically lasts for nine months. And more often than not, it does not end happy. If you are lucky, then you get some prize money or an honourable mention, if you are not, then you again have invested the sum you could also buy a proper middle class car for. Competitions are a waste of money and ideas, and they are partially responsible for the weak position architectural offices are in – at least in Europe.
I know – the representatives of our own profession – whether it is the professional registers or the chambers or unions of architects – all insist on a culture of competition. In their reading, competitions are important tools to structure a public debate around architecture is a cultural practice that matters to everyone and to have a transparent decision-making around what is being realized in the end. They also offer every professional to participate, and they give emerging architects the opportunity to become known and eventually win big commissions. The public sector and increasingly the private sector as well adopt the idea of competition. They even hire special architectural firms that run the competitions for them. It all sounds great, and every architect or urban designer should be jubilant that there is such a system where the best ideas can prevail. But most of my colleagues are not.
Competitions and tenders with design components are not the cultural highlights they are sold as. They are not about the best ideas in the first place. They are also not allowing everybody to participate, and they also do not promote young talent. To reduce risk and to keep the process simple in almost all cases bureaucratic pre-qualifications have been invented where participants have to submit piles of business documents, references, all sorts of diversity-, risk mitigation- and IT inventory(!) schedules have to be submitted. Of course, a piece of vision (ideally text illustrated with ‘sketches’) typically is also required. If you don’t have exactly the right references or if you don’t have the right economic numbers or if your office is not diverse enough, you do not qualify for the job, and you are kicked out before even entering the party. That attempt sets you off by a couple of thousand Euros. But this is a simple case, since many organizers of competitions feel that only an architect or urban designer is too little – and in some cases they are right. Alone, signing up for a competition today often also asks for transport planners, economic experts, costing experts, landscape architects, civil engineers and artists. As the leading party you are not only doing your stuff, you also have to compile all their documents, coordinate a vision and usually fill in pages and pages of questionnaires and consortium agreement contracts. Now we talk tens of thousands of Euros. After submission the waiting starts, and it can take time – three months, six months, nine months – all not exceptional. Sometimes the whole process is called off with no explanation given. Investment in vain and no obligation to compensate for any of this.
If you make it to the next round, you find yourself in a select group of between 10 and 30(!) competitors. Usually the explanation for this big group is, that one wants to have a ‘real’ debate about what a place needs. Great! Alone – the big number goes at the expense of what each one of them gets. A few thousand euros for a full concept design is typical and if you are lucky you even get up to ten thousand to design an entire building up to scale 1:50 or a masterplan including ‘floor arrangements for underground floors, ground floor, 2 typical floors and the top floor’ for a 12 hectare site – all with dimensions. Since we want to have a ‘real’ debate we are not just asked to design, we are also asked to attend two intermediate presentations – with the whole team present – for the jury and the public. It is self-explanatory that all material and travel cost is at your own expense. After each of these sessions, you receive written feedback that has to be incorporated in your design. Speaking of time – the design process of such competitions usually takes 3 months. Given what is asked for and even with the low salaries architects usually earn and a small team, tens of thousands of Euros are getting spent. It seems to me the organizers of these competitions know very well, that what they ask is unreasonable for the money they are paying. Therefore, they keep emphasizing that only ‘presentable’ working models or coloured ‘hand sketches’ are required – but in the sentence after they explain that they do not want to limit the creativity of the designers. Add to that that they want to involve the public in the decision-making by means of an exhibition, then you know that the working model has to be a beautiful presentation model and the hand sketch has to be an artist impression. Both come at the price of a two-week summer holiday with the whole family. When submitted, the work often is not done. In many cases you (luckily) are allowed to present your proposal in front of the jury and sometimes also the public. Travel is at your own expense of course, and lately the sophistication level has allowed you to save this since organizers now ask you to deliver a 15-minute multimedia presentation. The keyword ‘multimedia’ indicates that this cannot just be a recorded presentation – lecture style – but should include animated content for better understanding of the unprofessional audience. The benefit for the client is, that they have third party content they can put online and present themselves as a party fostering architecture as culture. The loss for the architect is, that it cost him another couple of thousand Euros, and he has to transfer all copyrights to the organizer of the competition.
The competition usually knows a winner that receives prize money that does not even cover the cost occurred in participating in the competition. If there is a proper follow-up commission – that often is not guaranteed – then there is a chance for an actual business case that works. But for the other 9 – or 29 participants – that is not the case.
If all of this sounds like a bad piece of fiction – it is not. To a smaller or larger extent, this is common in all competitions and design tenders across Europe. In the end, this system promotes (self-) exploitation of an entire profession of spatial design. It is a system that pretends to be open to everyone – but practice makes sure it is not. And it does not lead to better design outcomes.
There are better ways of doing this.
One might question if big fields of competitors really lead to better results in a competition. As a member in juries, I usually see that that is not the case. In almost every competition there are a number of sensible solutions, 90 % of the entries fall under. That leaves us with the 10 % surprises. In almost all cases they stand a little chance of winning because implementation is questionable, costs are too high, or the public might object.
Often the format of a competition also does not reflect the nature of the question. Building and even more so urban development are complex questions in a spatial, social, economic and environmental field. No competition brief – no matter how extensive – can reflect these intricate relationships without simplifying. A real and regular design dialogue between all parties can often deliver much better answers. To commission the right designer, one can still hold a pitch where a number of parties invited present their thoughts. No architect would object putting together something quick. Incidentally, the public sector is using this. The Open Calls by the Chief Architect of Flanders is such a tool that could find use across the whole of Europe. If pre-procurement is needed, then one could set up design frameworks where qualified consultants can be listed and then invited in for these pitches in a simplified way.
One can also keep doing the competitions in the way they are done now with pre-qualification, a design stage and a jury verdict. But then one should pay such, that competitors don’t have to exploit themselves and their employees. In other parts of the world that is common practice, and it even allows young architecture practices to run their business only on doing competitions to build a portfolio to get building or planning commissions. The latter could be achieved easily when it comes to the public sector. The European Union mandates pretty much every planning and design commission to take place through public competitions or design tenders. Why does it not add a price table to these processes that is realistic and related to the services being asked for?
Already now many firms that can afford not to do competitions have decided to stop this practice and many – especially younger colleagues – are very wary of any exploitative tendencies in the profession. This might force more and more reputable employers to step out in the future. If the result is that the worst companies that have to work in the most exploitative way determine what is being realized, then we better change course now – to keep the cultural credibility, to stop exploitation and to avoid that those performing the worst become the only profiteers of an open process.
by Markus Appenzeller
cover image: wikimedia.org