How to run the perfect design competition

crop-Alan Berman portrait 2

Architectural contests are a minefield to get right. Alan Berman has been on both sides of the fence, as architect and advisor

Competitions are the best way to select an architect – and the worst. They can deliver to a client the best of buildings or the worst of buildings. They encourage established well-resourced and suave practices at the expense of the small, the lean and the less articulate, and they cost everyone time and money. In short, they are dangerous territory.

So the competition organiser (the CO) carries significant responsibility. Having retired from Berman Guedes Stretton Architects (BGS) where I participated in many well- and less-well-run competitions, I’m now asked by institutions to help with theirs in various ways, so I’m aware some of the dangers. I try to mitigate them in the following ways:

1. It is essential to invest time to understand the client’s aspirations and culture, what it hopes the building will do beyond the functional and how it will reflect the institution’s ethos. This can be difficult particularly with multi-headed clients: unanimity among decision makers and, if possible, users is essential. I’ve known chief executives and COs left to run competitions who are later told by colleagues when they see the winning project: “No thanks, this isn’t what we want.”

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