Sunday20 August 2017

Stirling Prize winner hits out at UK procurement

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‘We are ready to work internationally,’ says architect Steve Tompkins in this wide-ranging interview on what winning the Stirling Prize will mean for Haworth Tompkins

Stirling Prize winner Steve Tompkins has criticised the UK’s procurement system for freezing out young practices.

Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins Architects

Steve Tompkins

The Haworth Tompkins director contrasted the “increasingly bureaucratic” British system unfavourably with that found overseas where greater weight is often placed on talent and ideas.

He said his own practice had struggled to break into new typologies because PQQs in this country so often demand prior experience.

“The whole procurement structure in this country is increasingly bureaucratic,” he told BD after scooping the Stirling Prize on Thursday night for the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool.

“The number of hurdles you have to pass through to get a commission is daunting and the amount of design work you have to do is daunting, demoralising and very wasteful.

“It’s increasingly hard for young practices to get in at all. I wish that was a debate we could have with the procurement process.”

Tompkins said he hoped that winning British architecture’s biggest accolade would unlock some bigger projects and new typologies for his practice. He also revealed he was in talks with some potential foreign clients – and some West End theatres.

“I hope [winning the Stirling] allows us to carry on doing more of the same kind of work,” he said.

“I’m not expecting it to be a passport to a different quantum of commission, though that would be lovely.

“It feels like we are ready to up the scale of what we do and I feel that we are ready to work internationally. This will be a really good calling card.

“Five years ago we wouldn’t have said that but our practice has matured. We are now 50-strong and for two creative directors at this point in life that feels about right and about the size where we can effectively keep authorial voices.”

The practice has previously chosen not to enter competitions for overseas projects that it felt it could not oversee with the degree of care it prides itself on, he said.

“I have no desire to expand for its own sake but if it happens organically, so be it,” he said. “We are a slow-burn studio that takes things a step at a time. We have taken 25 years to get to this size and have done so in response to commissions.

Steve Tompkins - 1983

Steve Tompkins (right), future Haworth Tompkins director, is named a prize-winner in the European Passive Solar competition while still in his final year at Bath University - 1983

“I hope every part of the portfolio expands. We haven’t done any further education work, apart from the RCA, which is a disappointment to us. We’d really like to have a crack at that but it’s very difficult to break into the PQQ system which makes it increasingly hard to cross typologies.”

The practice is dipping its toes in foreign waters, with a theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, and plans to try and pick up more “urban” projects, such as housing, in the UK and Europe.

Tompkins has just returned from Jordan where he met makers and artists from Palestine and across north Africa to talk about possible collaborations.

“I hope some stories will emerge from that,” he said. “I’m also personally very interested in India and Asia and I would love to be designing theatre spaces there.”

Theatres have become the heart of the practice’s work yet the wave of lottery funding they surfed from the Royal Court to the Everyman and National Theatre is “ebbing away”. But Tompkins has a plan.

“We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time as a young practice with no track record,” he said.

But though public funding may be scarcer in the years to come, there is no shortage of aging commercial theatres in the West End in desperate need of redevelopment.

“We are starting to have interesting conversations with commercial operators who realise it makes financial sense to have their buildings busy all day rather than have audiences pour in to watch a production and then scuttle out to spend the rest of the evening in a bar that’s not on the premises,” he explained.


Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, by Haworth Tompkins

Source: Philip Vile

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

On winning the Stirling Prize:

It feels completely brilliant – an absolute thrill.

Of course you don’t expect to win. How can you expect to win in a shortlist like that? Everyone probably felt this year that to be on the shortlist was a victory of its own kind. They are all great buildings and winning is contingent of a lot of things you can’t control.

On O’Donnell & Tuomey:

If it wasn’t us I was hoping the LSE would win. John and Sheila are consummate architects. They are great role models for so many of us. They have an impeccable, consistent body of work and they absolutely deserved to win. The fact they’ve been on the Stirling shortlist five times is testament to that.



Readers' comments (9)

  • Thank you Mr. Tompkins! Finally someone raises the issue of PQQs preventing young practices from participating in any meaningful projects. The PQQ system forced us to focus almost entirely on foreign markets where the pre-qualification process is less strict. It would be wonderful to work back in the UK though!

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  • I would also like to say Thank you Mr. Tompkins for raising the real issue stopping innovation in the UK.

    A sort of internal non transparent UK tariff system is what we are actually facing, one that favors size over ability.

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  • That a 50-strong practice with a 25-year history that has won the most prestigious design prize in UK architecture should feel disadavantaged by the PQQ-system is a testament to how surreally perverse that system must be.

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  • Munter Roe

    Well put Mr Slinger.

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  • If only the RIBA would make some effort to procurement reform instead of trying to secure world peace.

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  • Architects are in the ideas business, and too often has it been difficult to win work through the 'box checking' process. 'Specialising' is the winner here and innovation is the loser. I much prefer to work on as many building types as possible. This is real fuel for innovation and should be encouraged through the consultant selection process, not hampered. But from experience, I think some clients see that as risky.

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  • Robert Park

    Maybe it's just me. But I don't see anything wrong with the idea that if a public organisation is looking to spend money on a project (which was probably hard fought for), that they might want to see evidence that an architect has experience of said project type.

    The main problem with the PQQ process, is that it has just been a way of funnelling designers into the PFI procument route. So the questions are geared towards things that are important to the contractors who will be paying the fees. Like value engineering, and how well you might fall into line under duress.

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  • When appointing a contractor team any Architect normally carries out pretty stringent PQQ to determine their suitability. Why shouldn't an Architect's team go through a reasonable PQQ process for their own selection.

    Oh.... the keyword is reasonable. 'Reasonable' is something that the PQQ boxtickers don't understand, nor do the designers of ever more complex and unnecessary PQQ questions!

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  • Richard Truscott

    Great that Steve Tompkins pointing out that over-onerous PQQs (& frameworks I would suggest), make it ridiculously difficult for newer, younger, more innovative, imaginative & yes skillful architects to get public sector work AND great that they are seeking to do work to improve the lot of Palestine & Palestinians

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