A competitive culture

The Australian screen premiere of The Competition sparked lively discourse on the relevance and efficacy of architectural design competitions in a debate held at the Melbourne School of Design 30 July 2014. Panellist Tania Davidge argued that a healthy competition environment can elevate the culture of architecture, as well as the business of architecture.

With the recent screening in Australia of The Competition, it is an ideal time to discuss all things competitive. Directed by Angel Borrego Cubero, an architect based in Madrid, the film does not do much to dispel the perception that architectural competitions are time consuming, labour intensive money pits with little light at the end of the process. However Borrego Cubero, regardless of how his film casts the architectural competition, is a strong advocate of the public competition process. After all, what architect doesn’t love a competition?

In recent years, the public architectural competition has fallen from grace. The architectural profession has neglected it for economic reasons, while clients have shied away due to the lack of control over risk and outcome. The standard arguments against the public competition process from architects spring easily to mind – too much time and cost for too little recompense, too much risk, too little sleep making too many grumpy architects… The list goes on. However, the majority of arguments against the public competition process are deeply embedded in the business of architecture and quantified primarily in terms of time and money, risk and reward.

But what of the culture of architecture? What of the relationship between architecture, the public realm and its inhabitants? In the current climate, where competitive processes have shifted from the public to the private realm, to the detriment of the culture of architecture (and perhaps also the business of architecture), the public competition process needs to be argued for as an important strategy in the procurement of architectural design. The public competition needs to be re-framed. The question is not, “Why aren’t there more (or fewer) public architectural competitions?”, but rather, “What does the competition model have to offer?” We need to ask what competitions offer beyond typical forms of procurement and what a public competition can offer to the profession, key stakeholders and the public.

One of the most important roles of the public competition is to provide an interface between the architectural profession and a broader public. The reality is that for the vast majority of the population, unless you hire an architect you have very little engagement with the architectural process. According to the oft-quoted statistic, architects design less than 5% of new homes in Australia. Extrapolating from that statistic, we can imagine that even fewer people come in to contact with the architectural process for a public building or space. Yet the built environment has a significant impact on the way we live.

In day-to-day life, there is very little opportunity for people to engage positively with the architectural process. Our primary contact with the process comes through the media, where architecture is often linked to the over-development of our cities and suburbs, or the planning process, which is adversarial and structured on the basis of objection – imagine the neighbour writing a glowing report on the proposed building next door! One of the most important things a contemporary public competition process can provide is a space where conversation about our built environment takes place in a positive and constructive way. Three very different, recent competitions provide some insight into how this might happen.

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station competition in 2012 saw almost 19,000 public votes1 cast for its short-listed designs. The voting process was neither simplistic, nor overly complicated, and it allowed the public to engage beyond a cursory look at the ‘hero shot’ by providing all the drawings. While the competition was resoundingly criticised for its lack of commitment to actual development, with a reader’s poll from The Age newspaper suggesting that 75% of respondents did not believe the winning proposal would ever be built2, the competition generated significant conversation about the station and the station precinct amongst the general public and the architectural community. This was an important conversation, given the condition of the station and its prominence, and it is a conversation that is being sustained in the lead up to the 2014 Victorian state election.

The winning proposal for Flinders Street Station design competition by Hassell + Herzog & de Meuron.

The winning proposal for Flinders Street Station design competition by Hassell + Herzog & de Meuron.

The Green Square Library and Plaza competition in Sydney, also in 2012, took the conversation a step further by exhibiting its Stage 1 entries for public comment. This public commentary formed part of the Stage 2 documentation, against which a short-list was assessed3. The exhibition of the long list is an important part of the competition process. It is an opportunity to engage the community and it gives an incentive to the architectural profession to take part in the conversation. Architects provide the conceptual ideas and visual documentation around which the conversation can take place and this contribution needs to be valued.

The winning proposal for Green Square Library and Plaza by Stewart Hollenstein + Colin Stewart Architects.

The winning proposal for Green Square Library and Plaza by Stewart Hollenstein + Colin Stewart Architects.

The Royal Adelaide Hospital Site competition in 2013 defined itself as an open ideas engagement process, testing the potential of the site by actively bringing together the community, architects, and key stakeholders. Addressing a culturally, socially and historically significant site, the long-list and short-list were exhibited and public discussion solicited at each stage. As Sarah Lake and Stuart Harrison of SLASH, half of the winning partnership with Phillips/Pilkington Architects, say of their engagement: “The competition process worked really well for our team. We decided early on to seriously engage with public and stakeholder feedback as part of the strategy for the site; it made sense both theoretically and in terms of the viability of the scheme. As this engagement ran alongside the competition timeline, it provided us with an ongoing framework throughout the process to test our ideas and helped shape the final outcome.”

The winning proposal for Royal Adelaide Hospital design competition by SLASH with Phillips/Pilkington Architects.

The winning proposal for Royal Adelaide Hospital design competition by SLASH with Phillips/Pilkington Architects.

The South Australian government Office for Design and Architecture (ODASA) framed the questions for the final stage competition voting to provoke a discussion of the site in relation to the existing city and the type of city we aspire to live in. Addressing issues of connectivity, innovation, economic viability, inclusion and cultural heritage4 the voting criteria prompted the public to think about the city and the things that are important in the creation of the public realm beyond aesthetics, locating architectural built form in the network of forces that influence its development.

It is important that the public competition process is designed to encourage discussion, debate, participation and engagement. One of the criticisms of the competition process is that the architects involved have very little opportunity to engage meaningfully with the client. But perhaps instead of narrowly defining the client, we might imagine that the client is not just the people who pay for the buildings, but also the people that use them. Defined in this way, the public competition process can be designed to create meaningful engagement with a community.

Public architectural competitions are an opportunity to proactively target issues that the architectural profession currently faces. In addition to providing a platform for public engagement and conversation public competitions could also be tailored to provide opportunities for emerging practitioners and foster creative architectural thinking beyond the normative market driven practices that determine the built realm. And, they are an opportunity to reframe the culture of architectural practice and architectural thinking within the wider context of the city and the people who live in it. The architectural profession needs to address not only the ways in which public competitions can be encouraged, but also ways in which the public competition process can create a platform to talk about the city and its future in a positive and productive way. By getting more people to take part in conversations about architecture and the form of the cities in which they live, we strengthen not only the culture of architecture, but also the business of architecture.

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