In competition

The debate surrounding the method of design procurement of the new Australian Venice Biennale pavilion highlights larger, complex issues surrounding the procurement of public buildings in Australia. Tania Davidge and Christine Phillips of OpenHAUS survey the existing model of competition in light of the Venice conversation and ask: Can architects with less experience gain more from being in competition?

Competition models that don’t request credentials in their initial stage have become increasingly rare in Australian architecture culture. However, these types of competitions can play a key role in the delivery of innovative and thought-provoking design outcomes. As this model has traditionally allowed emerging practitioners to gain recognition and add diversity to their portfolios, the shift in the procurement culture disproportionately affects emerging practitioners.

Design procurement through competition poses as many difficulties as it provides answers. However, the problem remains that while many emerging practitioners have a clear understanding of the difficulties that entering a competition poses to their practices in terms of resources and outlay, a significant number believe there are more considerable obstacles to their engagement with, and access to, public commissions.

Anthony Balsamo, chair of EmAGN (the Australian Institute of Architects’ Emerging Architects + Graduates Network) believes the current method of procurement for public buildings within Australia “has the potential to [encourage and support emerging practices] but is not there yet. The National Prequalification System for professional service contractors (including architects) is available for emerging practices to apply for. Depending on their experience, QA and insurance particulars they can get a category rating, making them eligible for undertaking varying types of government projects. I don’t believe the system encourages emerging practices as it relies heavily on past experience.”

This issue has been identified at a government and institutional level, with some key bodies in Victoria beginning to implement procurement strategies that support and advance emerging practitioners. RMIT University, for example, has recently established the Architectural Selection Framework (ASF), a program for the procurement of future RMIT architectural commissions. One of its objectives is “to support innovative Australian architects and nurture new architectural talent … with selected emerging architects to be paired with larger firms [to] support the delivery of their projects.”1 VicUrban has also explored this model through the invited competition for the masterplanning of the Maribyrnong Defence Site, which required collaboration between established and emerging practices. This approach creates a mentoring relationship between established firms and emerging architects, allowing the latter to gain valuable experience.

While these programs are exemplary, the procurement methods for a significant number of other public buildings in Australia require a level of credentialled experience. This is carried out through an expression of interest (EOI) process, invited competitions or building register lists. The engagement of a well-credentialled practitioner provides a level of surety regarding the built outcome and an understanding of an experienced practice’s processes and their established client and consultant relationships.

Recent conversations with emerging practices from around the country articulate the frustration:

Australian Institute of Architects National Emerging Architect 2011 and director of Harrison and White, Marcus White:

“Competition seems to be less common. Instead, selection seems to be based on what is perceived to be the ‘safe option.’ It seems like we would prefer to use an architect that can show examples of ten buildings of the same kind they have done a terrible job of designing, than take a ‘risk’ by using an emerging practitioner.”

Paul Curran, director of Push:

“Most emerging practices will face the difficulty of creating credibility to any available client market. ‘Runs on the board’ are generally necessary to convince clients you are capable, even if a large amount of experience may have been gained at another practice prior to beginning … We are ten years old this year, consistently awarded by our peers for our work, and not one government institution would consider us for a project.”

The increasing request for credentials in the competition process mirrors an increasingly risk-averse culture. But experience does not always equate to quality architectural outcomes.

Melonie Bayl-Smith, director of Liquid Architecture:

“I think that government bodies have to be convinced of the value of design excellence, not just average, box-ticking design work. I think we would see a distinct change in who was winning projects if design excellence became an essential tender/EOI assessment criteria alongside track record, risk profile, office procedures and, of course, fees.”

Anna Tweeddale, architect, urbanist, artist and educator:

“In other fields we proactively set systems in place to ensure that talented people are connected with opportunities. This country provides scholarships for talented athletes and coaches to attend the Australian Institute of Sport. We establish grants to allow artists, musicians and performers, to develop their skill and practice … We fund mentorships and even start-up grants for business entrepreneurs. Yet we do not invest in talented design professionals beyond their university studies and leave their development to the private market.”

Aaron Roberts, director of Room11:

“I’m of the belief that all public buildings over a certain value or size should be run as either an open competition, or at the very least an EOI from a selection of practices that are at various stages in their career. The results of these competitions should be widely publicized and critiqued, increasing awareness of the practices involved and further educating the public on the value of architecture.”

Europan: a tested open competition model

There are already tested models for open competitions aimed at supporting emerging practitioners. One example is Europan, a biennial competition model aimed at European architects under the age of forty that focuses on urban and housing issues. It is an open suite of competitions run by a European federation of national organizations, to which participants can submit entries anonymously. These competitions are launched simultaneously in several countries with common objectives and rules. For each session, briefs are developed for multiple sites around Europe in relation to a theme of investigation. Entrants select a site to develop and submit a design proposal. The competition phase is followed by building or study projects that often lead to commissions and built outcomes. The Europan website states that “on average, on two-thirds of the sites, nearly fifty percent of winning teams become involved in operational processes” and twenty-five percent are realized as built projects.2

The competition has been running for twenty-two years. One of the reasons for its longevity is its commitment to delivery after the competition phase. One of Europan’s primary aims is to “use all necessary means to incite cities and/or planners of sites to entrust the prize-winning teams with operational follow-through.”3

MVRDV launched its practice after a Europan win with a scheme for Berlin. Although the scheme did not go ahead, due to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the recognition they obtained and the ideas explored have provided a conceptual framework for their practice. The Lasesarre Football Stadium in Spain, designed by Eduardo Arroyo, was also the result of Europan and hundreds of other emerging architects have successfully delivered large-scale projects across Europe via the Europan process.

Veronika Valk, director of ZiZi and YoYo:

“Public competitions are a truly valuable way for younger practices to gain recognition and have opportunities to work on public projects. An experimenting mind can express scenarios for the future of the field via competition entries – to build a reputation as a ‘visionary.’”

A proposal by OpenHAUS

We, at OpenHAUS Architecture, propose the development of an Australian competition model targeted at emerging practices as a way of promoting innovative architectural outcomes. This competition should deliver a public project targeted at regional Australia. Due to our growing population, regional areas have increasingly become a focus for development.4 They are ideal places to identify public/community projects that emerging practitioners can engage with. While restricted funding has often prohibited local councils from procuring architectural services for smaller projects, there are now funding grants available through state government initiatives, such as the Regional Development Victoria (RDV) program,5 that can help support these projects.6 We are interested in working with all tiers of government to identify sites of opportunity within regional areas to be developed as community projects.

The architectural competition is not a new method of project procurement. The Australian Institute of Architects has established guidelines outlining a number of different competition models. These include project competitions, ideas competitions, open competitions, limited or select competitions, commissioned competitions and student competitions. To promote innovation and give architects an “equal opportunity to be selected on the basis of design merit,” the competition should be open to all emerging practitioners.7 The Institute defines an emerging architect as an Australian citizen who has graduated from a two-tier or five-year Bachelor of Architecture or Masters course undertaken in Australia in the past fifteen years and registered as an architect in an Australian state or territory.8

In line with the Institute guidelines, we propose a two-stage competition to allow for the development required for a real project. The first stage would be open to emerging architects and would be an anonymous entry process requiring a schematic design submission. The second stage would require design development by short-listed practices in consultation with an expert panel and client body. For this stage, practices would be paid a fee to develop their designs.

We propose that this competition:

  • engage with regional Australia
  • deliver a public/community project
  • encourage progressive architectural thinking
  • foster architectural development
  • enable emerging practices to establish a body of built work within the public realm
  • create conversation and critical engagement around public architecture and what the architectural profession has to offer.

Architectural competitions can have a truly transformative effect on a practice. Donald L. Bates, director of Lab architecture studio, in a letter to Malcolm Turnbull in support of an open competition for the design of the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, wrote:

“I know what unexpected and transformative opportunities can accrue from a truly open design competition, such as the one we were awarded for Federation Square back in 1997. As a new practice with no previous built work to our name, Federation Square was our first commission. Its ongoing success is a testament to the power of progressive architecture to change a city. The vociferous debates engendered by our design from announcement to completion (and even since) have formed a part of Melbourne’s architectural education at the broadest community level.”

In 2007 Suzannah Waldron and Nick Searle, directors of Searle x Waldron Architecture, were short-listed for the Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning Exhibition Competition in China, and then attained first place in a UN-Habitat-organized competition for a mobility centre in Kosovo. Both competitions did not require credentials.

“Winning a competition launched our practice … While neither of these wins resulted in built outcomes … these competitions gave us the impetus, confidence and cash flow to start our own practice. Most importantly, we feel that our competition wins were a key factor in us being awarded the public tender for the Art Gallery of Ballarat annexe.”

In 1999 John Choi and Tai Ropiha of Choi Ropiha Fighera won the open competition to redesign the TKTS discount tickets booth in Times Square, New York. Their competition entry broke the rules but has transformed the site.

John Choi states:

“The immediate impact was that the win gave us the confidence to set up practice together. The competition publicity exposed us to the architectural community and provided a ‘platform’ to build the practice. Looking back, we find it also had a significant influence on the way that we approach projects. We found ourselves continually drawn to a more expansive view of architecture, looking outside the immediate brief to bring bigger ambition and value to the project.”

The next step is to develop this proposal with the architectural community and to find local and regional government bodies who support this aspiration.

1. Architecture & Design website, http://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/article/RMIT-University-plans-pre-qualifying-program-for-architects/531240.aspx (accessed 5 September 2011).

2. www.europan-europe.com/e11/en/home/why.php (accessed 5 September 2011).

3. www.europan-europe.com/e11/en/home/10points.php (accessed 5 September 2011).

4. For example, the Victorian state government offers a regional bonus for first-home buyers, the points test for skilled migrants if they have lived and studied in regional Australia, and there is a visa category, Skilled – Regional Sponsored, targeted at migration to regional areas, www.immi.gov.au/skilled/general-skilled-migration/regional-growth.htm (accessed 5 September 2011).

5. Regional Development Victoria website, www.rdv.vic.gov.au/ (accessed 5 September 2011).

6. Doug McNeill, Colac Urban Design Framework, Colac Otway Shire Council.

7. The Australian Institute of Architects Guidelines for Architectural Design Competitions.

8. The Australian Institute of Architects Emerging Architect Prize Guidelines.

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Published online: 2 Nov 2011

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Architecture Australia, November 2011

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