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Feature article

The Architectural Competition:


WORDS BY Michael Smith

It is hard to think of another profession that so willingly gives away their professional services for free. Doctors are not paid on the basis of providing a correct diagnosis or prescribing an effective treatment. Accountants are not paid on the condition that they reduce your tax liability. Whilst it is true that some lawyers do have a “no win no fee” clause, this is only when their client is bringing a case, not for any other service. For architects, free work can take many forms, but the architectural competition is certainly the most visible.

For a small practice the architectural competition can be an opportunity to turbocharge their practice. If successful it can launch a practice into new building types and a new stream of opportunities. However as a method of winning architectural work, the public architecture competition for the vast majority is a lousy return on investment. Consider an average architecture practice who were particularly enthusiastic about open architecture competitions. Recent examples of such competitions have attracted between 100 and 300 entrants. The 2013 competition for the hypothetical redesign of the Prime Minister’s Residence attracted 242 entries, whilst the 2015 public toilet competition on the Sunshine Coast attracted 185 submissions. If our enthusiastic, yet statistically average practice enters 5 open competitions a year, optimistically they would on average win one competition every 20 years. If one were to suggest that each competition entry took 100 hours of free work, it would take an average of 10,000 hours of work across 100 schemes to be successful just once.

Despite these rather ordinary odds enthusiasm for competitions is still strong. Perhaps we think that these figures don’t apply to us, as we are better than average. Perhaps we think we can improve our chances if we put in a few more extra hours and a few more late nights. In a profession that continues to struggle with a variety of issues such as low fees and a culture of long hours, it must surely be strange to the outside observer that we continue to invest so much in public competitions, or that they even occur at all.

The public largely don’t see the profession engaging in an architectural competition as in any way being an altruistic endeavour. At the completion of the competition all they see are some ‘artist impressions’ and a winner, likely to be given a government contract. What they don’t see are the hundreds of hours of professional services given away for free in the pursuit of broadening a conversation and finding the very best solution for a complex problem.

The 2012 Flinders Street Station Design Ideas Competition highlighted this point exactly. Despite the process delivering excellent value for money for the State, it was still attacked by some as a waste of taxpayer money. For the $1.6 million in government funds it cost to run, it quite likely produced over $10 million in architectural services.

Another way to look at the benefit was in the production of cultural output. A collection of the world’s very best architects each produced a design scheme. As a piece of artwork in itself, what price would the original hard copies of Zaha Hadid’s Flinders Street Station design now attract at open auction?

The evaluation of the competition benefit to the State must also include the value of conducting a community consultation process of over 19,000 Victorians and perhaps most importantly the winning scheme. The State in now in possession of a long term plan that would unlock the potential of this most critical site, should they wish to proceed with it.

It is clear from a profession services perspective, cultural output perspective and a community consultation and planning perspective that $1.6 million was an absolute bargain for the taxpayer.

This value proposition is why so many architects believe in the future of the public competition. Despite the downfalls to the profession, the free work and the slim chances of personal success, open competitions produce excellent results for the public and for our cities. The richness in design of many of Victoria’s most loved icons and landmarks are the direct result of architectural competitions.

If the open competition is good for the city, yet bad for profession, it is dilemma we must evaluate. Perhaps in the ideal world we would have far more competitions but with a limit on the number of entries per competition. After the first 100 entries, is there as much benefit in evaluating another 100, or would it be better to have this second group designing and considering a second site or problem.

As a profession that prides itself on thinking outside the box and solving complex problems, there is no reason why we couldn’t redesign the competition system to work for both the public and our profession.