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COMPETITIONS:
A CONVERSATION.

In many regards, architectural competitions are equivalent to beauty pageants: dazzling, skin-deep displays of ingenuity that promise winners high media exposure and career kick. Yet, what do these constructs really mean for our profession? And who is best served by the construct of competitions?

To flesh out the layers of this topic, I have framed the article in conversation with my fellow PROCESS co-curator Amelyn Ng. We recently unpacked the topic of ‘Competitions’ at PROCESS, and thought it apt to use the April discourse as a catalyst for this article.

LG. In essence, architecture is a service-based industry. Ingenuity, competence and time are the fundamental commodities with which we barter. As architects we seem to have this precarious relationship with competitions. So, why are we so willing to impart our time and knowledge, often for free, in the pursuit of the glorified architectural competition or end prize?

AN. I think at its core, the construct of competitions is a ‘meeting of the minds’, bottomup mode of inquiry that values diverse inputs. It is a very useful tool for the overall task of progress and pushing the envelope. It is also in its original form one of the more democratic means of generating ideas; the 18th Century Enlightenment period was enabled out of this open sharing and critical appraisal of new proposals.

LG. On the one hand, competitions provide a sound framework to spur creativity, allow for collaboration, discourse, diversity, progress and exposition of ideas, studio camaraderie, and upskilling. Clearly there is merit in competitions, otherwise they would not be as prevalent as they are. Yet, we all know that submissions are long, hard and often results in profitless work. And we also know that winning doesn’t always result in built projects. During the recent PROCESS ‘Competitions’ edition, Peter Malatt raised some pretty interesting statistics from the Six Degrees submission for the Flinders Street Competition, Stage 1. The office spent 432.5 hours, which totals an estimated $64,875 cost to the business. If there were approximately 100+ entries to the competition, and if each entrant allocated the same resources as Six Degrees, we could approximate the cost to the profession at over $6,000,000. Malatt also assessed that during Stage 2 of the competition approximately 8000 hours were spent, totalling $1,200,000. There were 6 firms shortlisted, so this might equate to $7,200,000 spent all up, on a competition with a prize of $1,000,000

AN. Perhaps the contention we have with competitions today lies in the ways they are structured or managed. For example when competitions become closed invitations, available only to a select few practices; when competitions are ambiguous as to whether the winning scheme will translate into a built project. This sort of approach to competitions perpetuates not only elitism and a decline in transparency, but also to an extent predetermines a design outcome- this seems counterproductive to the original purpose of the competition.

LG. The notion of procurement is an interesting one as it can also lead to a lack of diversity in ideas. Open competitions are more diplomatic, although due to the cost to a business, or individuals, does it preclude people from entering and therefore joining the discussion?

From architecture school to professional practice, we have been exposed to creative competing at every stage of our careers. It is ingrained in our education. By nature, I am a perfectionist, and in principle, competitive environments would seem to suit me. It provides an opportunity to ‘prove myself’, to collaborate, to express creative energy, to develop a professional body of work outside of the traditional workplace/university framework, with the added incentive that it could propel my career forwards. However, I wonder how relevant the traditional format still is today?

AN. I am still optimistic that the architectural competition has a very productive place in our industry. Healthy opposition is useful: keeping practitioners on their toes, maintaining relevance and keeping the designer’s mind sharp. However without a benchmark level of public and professional transparency, it is easy for the competition model to stumble and have its outcomes muddied.

LG. I agree. As with anything, there is a risk associated with competitions, I think we need to address the notion of giving away things for free. The existing framework for competitions is a symptom of a bigger issue…  In business, I have always been taught that it is an exchange, quid pro quo, that architecture is a negotiation. Yet, the concept of haemorrhaging our value, giving away intellectual property, infuriates me. I would like to see a shift in perception that what we do has value and deserves financial recognition.

AN. It is quite easy to agree that architectural competitions result in superficial work largely contingent upon the visual seduction of hero renders and reductive, easily-digestible concepts that fit on presentation boards. Basically anything to capture the hearts of the jury as quickly as possible. Because competitions are about ‘winning the job’, the architect’s target is shifted from long-term development to short-term production. However, in the absence of real-time site conditions the competition is fertile ground for architects to exercise design freedom, project design fantasies and reach for the sky. To an extent these proposals are a sort of mirage and illusory of their post-competition reality: where the winning design then undergoes a period of rationalisation. We have to be careful also that this inevitable process of reality doesn’t dilute the potency of design-otherwise it defeats the purpose of running the competition in the first place.

LG. A potential solution I see to address this shift is to apply the level of skills we embody as a profession and begin genuine conversations with others who are not architectural professionals. We as a profession need to start engaging with user participation and expanding discussions about what architecture can be in a wider realm. Perhaps historically this has been through competitions. Let’s get people away from staring at computer screens and start genuinely engaging with people. Perhaps then we can start to craft the places that people want to use. Interestingly, I began this article anti-competitions, yet despite the downsides, I finish buoyed by the opportunity to experiment with ideas. It is how you structure your approach to a competition that is important. So here’s to 2017, perhaps the year I start entering competitions.

Lisa Gerstman, Amelyn Ng and Joe Gaucci-Seddon are PROCESS co-curators 2016.