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Architectural competitions are a sacred institution of sorts. They put important commissions in the public debate, with visibility and transparency of the procedure. They promote innovation and quality, giving a platform to commissioners to choose a fitting partner for their projects, a best-value-for-money. And they promote meritocracy, giving the chance to more and younger practices to show what they are capable of. For architects, competitions remain the main entrance to public commissions, and I would guess there is hardly an architect who has not participated in at least one.
Yet, having experienced from close several competitions of various sorts, sizes, and speed in the last fifteen years, I witness aspects that distort a process with good intentions to a perverse one. This is especially the case in more complex assignments where multiple stakes and stakeholders meet, where an invitation for an architectural design often contains a quest for a strategy to deal with complexity, to find common ground between different interests and claims on space. The purpose of sharing the reflections below is in the hope of a reframing of the procedures of these competitions.
We could talk about a triple interest to safeguard in a competition process: the best interest of the project and of its client, the best interest of the design teams, and the best interest of the practice and discourse of making cities in general. Current processes feel somewhat off balance, in that a lot of weight is given to a specific part of the first, against the general interest of all three.
From the point of view of participant teams, competitions are a balancing exercise in opportunity-seeking and risk-taking. They provide the ground to test visions in short time. Strategies and solutions formed during competitions are notoriously feeding back to other projects and enriching one’s practice. But they also require a high degree of investment and versatility from the teams, enough engagement to enter the role and embody the vision proposed, and at the same time enough pragmatism to deal with the hypothetical nature of it all, considering that an invited competition gives a pre-selected team at best 30%, usually 20%, chance of becoming the chosen party. Participating is exciting as well as draining, produces but also consumes energy.
If we then extrapolate this invested energy in the totality of teams and competitions, it produces an image of a procedure high in waste of intelligence (next to the somewhat sad picture imagining dozens of people on the eve of a competition deadline simultaneously bending over the same topic in isolation). It questions if the future institution, square, public infrastructure etc cannot profit better from all this professional intelligence than putting it in concurrence and discarding most of it.
The following examples attempt to illustrate typical bottlenecks that could become entrances to a reframing:
If it’s ultimately about the vision, can we keep it sketchy?
Architectural design competitions requirements are very high. Probably in an attempt to reduce risk during the later stages of the project, ensure technical performance and budget control, as well as trying to avoid any risk of juridical complications of a process, the requested output aims at completeness and comes currently mostly close to the level of a Preliminary Design. This increases the financial risk for a participant team, sometimes even for the winning team, while competition fees are sometimes very low. But finances is not the point here, even when every entry is remunerated to the value of a preliminary design, it is a question if there is a discrepancy between the early stage of the project and the detail required.
This tendency seems to have increased over time: Comparing early competitions that were won and led to successful projects (at 51N4E where I am active, but also elsewhere), if the same submission of 15-20 years ago would enter a competition today it would simply be disqualified for being too sketchy, too much of just vision, not covering all contemporary requirements in detailing, budgeting, solving the project.
And while containing risk is an understandable concern in relation to public resources, the twist is that in the end, the selection for all competitions that I have happened to witness is still made based on the vision. A proposal needs to be fully worked out to qualify for evaluation, but is of course never chosen just because of its elaborate detail; it’s the matching vision, the good chemistry between the concerns of client and service provider that matters after all.
If it is a project partner that you are looking for, can we make sure to enter a dialogue?
The typical competition procedure results in the submission of a document, accompanied shortly after by an oral presentation of the proposal. And while a moment of live exchange after submission sounds as exactly what needs to be done, the way this is orchestrated is counterintuitive: The submission is usually already quite complete with vision, narrative, project strategy, design, methodology, technical solutions etc. The oral presentation is asked to do this all over again but in a nutshell. To not repeat, you have to rephrase, summarize (based on what you think should stand out); To then enter a questions round to find out that the concerns of the jury members might lie elsewhere than where you guessed. That some aspects that you may find clear, might not be clear for others. That some jury members misread aspects of the proposal, or simply didn’t manage to digest all the info and they wait for the presentation to give them an executive summary to allow them to catch up, to then judge it on the spot based on the oral rather than on the actual submission.
Need for explanation and discussion is normal, an integral part of a dialogue of any kind. To a ping, there is a pong (and another ping, and another pong). A good interlocutor will not only say what his dialogue partner already expects and thinks, but will try to expand, open up new directions, even challenge aspects based on his own vision and expertise. The other might have questions, doubts, worth clarifying, where crucial new insights for everyone can come from. This is the value of the dialogue, getting us further than where we already stand. What is wrong here is the procedure: the team presents (submission), and then presents again (oral) without any feedback from client and jury. Then they get to find out what the jury is concerned with, but then it’s kind of too late, you get something like 15’ to explain & clarify what took hundreds of man-hours to make. That’s a ping, and again a ping, and a po-and the game is out.
Can we fine-tune the process to keep it sustainable?
A quick illustration of a slightly different process to the examples above that would allow a more gradual selection and more of an actual dialogue: Let us imagine the selected teams submit their proposal. The jury studies each submission and responds in a note that lays out their understanding and appreciation of the proposal, but also challenges it formulating their questions and concerns. Then the team is invited to present the project orally, now having the chance to address those concerns, clarify those questions.
Too much effort to do this for so many detailed proposals? Then perhaps check to reduce the volume on the way. Select 5 teams based on their capacity and vision and ask them to detail their vision into a concept design, have an exchange round focusing on the essence. If not a clear match, ask 2 to detail their proposal and have another, deeper & more technical round around a preliminary design.
In more or less the same envelope of time and finances for the client, such a process adaptation would allow for a lighter engagement of the teams, a more correct compensation of detailed design work, and most important, a more interactive process, more gradual and with more safety valves: is the team competent to execute the project? Do our visions rhyme? And finally: Does our dialogue work?
Can we make competitions a safe space for innovation?
There are plenty of different forms and variations of processes emerging internationally to learn from, with ‘dialogues competitifs’, interview rounds during selection stage etc; If one starts to look at existing processes in Belgium and abroad, resolving such difficulties with the processes seems like a feasible goal, one that does even not necessarily require drastic changes to what is there now, a fine tuning could already make a big difference.
But some change would be more than welcome. If the procedure does not update itself, there is a real risk of teams getting demotivated, refraining from attempting to participate in too many of these competitions because they cannot handle the load, or even worse, stepping away from public commissions altogether because these don’t offer healthy working conditions; (or, if one does not have this luxury of choosing and depends on public commissions, resorting to doubtful practices such as exploiting motivated and cheap young labor to compensate)
It’s crucial to keep public assignments as drivers for innovation, and it’s becoming urgent to keep the teams motivated in public assignments, to not make the procedure punishing while it’s these very assignments that ultimately shape the commons of the urban environment and deserve a maximum of intelligence and attention.
The Belgian context has already produced serious innovation in the culture of competitions, had long ago the reflex and the capacity to switch from ‘open competitions’ to 2-step processes, and has today already an interesting diversity in formats. It must be possible to take a next step renewing -or just diversifying – the process, evaluating and steering it to better serve its multiple important purposes. For the complex urban questions and their delicate balances, it will only help everyone forward. Ping?