Right now, no one’s a winner
Adopting a new approach to competitions could save time and money – and offer better opportunities for young practices
Last week I had the privilege of serving on the jury tasked with drawing up the shortlist to rebuild Windermere’s steamboat museum. Announcing the competition back in June, the chief executive of the charity that runs the museum made a point of noting that he was open to the idea that the commission might go to a younger practice. Including names like 6a, Carmody Groarke, Adam Khan and Witherford Watson Mann, the shortlist maintains that outcome as a real possibility.
With 114 expressions of interest we certainly had no shortage of talent to choose from. That extraordinary response spoke both of the desirability of the commission and of the lean times that entrants are facing. The number of man-hours that had gone into developing all these documents was frankly scary.
Many entrants will have applied for multiple competitions this year, each time devoting days to the preparation of submissions and answering pre-qualification questions that are ever so slightly different from the last lot.
There is surely a need for the RIBA to put structures in place that limit this horrendous wastage. It might look, for example, to Flanders, where all public commissions are the subject of competition. Every six months the Flemish state architect (the Vlaams Bouwmeester) announces a new raft of competitions and invites expressions of interest. Architects then submit a single portfolio to the Bouwmeester’s office, identifying those competitions for which they wish to be considered.
The UK staged only five open competitions in 2011, compared with 200 in Germany and 1,600 in France
Before the downturn, the RIBA was managing as many as 25 competitions each year through its Leeds office. The economies that could be engineered by adopting a more integrated assessment method are enormous.
While design competitions based on initial expressions of interest have much to recommend them, it is a bleak picture if they constitute the only procurement route on offer. If you are an architect in your twenties or thirties and struggling to grow a nascent practice you might well take issue with my claims for the youthfulness of the Windermere shortlist. The chosen firms’ directors are all on the wrong side of 40 and have a track record of public commissions behind them. Unknown quantities they are not.
The possibility of running an open competition was explored but rejected on the grounds that such a route tends to prove successful only for briefs of a fundamentally generic nature. The steamboat museum represents a highly complex and particular problem, the resolution of which is going to demand extensive dialogue between the competing architects and the client.
However, the need for more open competitions in this country remains. When David Chipperfield accepted the Royal Gold Medal earlier this year he bemoaned the fact that the UK staged only five open competitions in 2011, compared with 200 in Germany and 1,600 in France. Again Flanders offers one of the more interesting models. There, a limited number of small public commissions are reserved for recent graduates.
The newly launched e-petition demanding reform of public sector procurement systems represents a vital first step towards the transformation of this country’s timid competition culture. But we will only have succeeded in enacting real change when architects of all ages have access to the opportunities they deserve.