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Feature article
1966 Winning Entry by Yuncken Freeman

OVGA message 

Architectural competitions can be exciting but also incredibly frustrating.

Exiting the lift, on arrival at the Office of Victorian Government Architect (OVGA), hangs a photographic record of an architectural competition held in 1962. The limited competition was to redevelop the Treasury Reserve precinct behind the Old Treasury Building. Critically, the winning scheme did not comply with the brief.

The competition brief initially called for a high rise tower, directly behind the Treasury Building, one of Melbourne’s most admired 19th Century buildings. Despite the brief, the winning entry was awarded based upon its sensitivity to the historic context, by proposing an alternate design proposal with three offices. Each was uncompromisingly modern, while at the same time the tower behind the Treasury Building was discrete and well mannered. The small classically proportioned window openings and location of the taller tower to one side of the Old Treasury and off the Collins Street axis, was a measured contextual response by architect Barry Patten of Yuncken Freeman.

The OVGA views competitions as a unique opportunity to seek high quality design as the major selection criteria for a project. With an appropriate budget in place, competitions can generate excellent outcomes for clients, opening up the field, generating public interest in the project, and stimulating the profession. Investing time to fully develop the competition design brief assists in attracting quality submissions.

So what guides the process given most competitions in recent times emerged in the space of large public projects? The first Union of International Architects (UIA) competitions guidelines were drafted in1956 and set a benchmark internationally for competitions including the Sydney Opera House and Pompidou Centre. At a state level the OVGA supports more competitions for public projects which are framed by the Australian Institute of Architects competition guidelines.

In 2014 Angel Borrego Cubero, Architect, Film Maker and Director of The Competition, made the point that he was surprised that as a nation, competitions are few and far between in Australia yet when it came to sport we are very competitive on the world stage. Competitions are a regular feature in Belgium for projects with a project fee value in excess of €75,000. The Danish Government seeks to involve at least one emerging firm in selected competitions and liaises with Phase Eins a Berlin-based firm that specialise in managing limited design competitions. The Danish architectural practice 3XN focuses specifically on competitions and enters at least 20 competitions per year. Kim Herforth Nielsen, Director of 3XN, highlights the collaboration required for competitions within an office – “We do competitions all the time, and you often see one good idea from one competition flow to another. You cannot have that in a space where you don’t share anything”.

The first question that should be asked of a project is – is this an appropriate form of procurement? A competition is considered appropriate:

  • When the process will benefit from the public interest generated by a competition.
  • When seeking ideas, innovation and design excellence is a high priority.
  • When a project will benefit from a wide design analysis.
  • When Government as a ‘smart client’ is able to set a clear and unambiguous brief.
  • When the project is of public significance or on a significant or unusual site.
  • When the budget is derived from satisfactory benchmarking and can meet the design ambitions of the competition process.


Best Overend entry 1966

Under Construction, 1967

Photography by Wolfgang Seivers


The OVGA assists government by advising on the characteristics and virtues of each form of competition. Competitions generally have two purposes where they either lead to a commission for the winner, or they don’t. For example, a Project Competition (Shepparton Arts Museum, Frankston Railway Station, Tanderrum Bridge) or an Ideas competition (Flinders Street Station).

Within that subset exist categories including Open Competitions, Limited (open) Competitions, Limited (select) Competitions and Select Competitions. There are different types of design competitions that vary in their scope and application. Decisions about which competition process is used will depend on the size, objectives, time constraints and design flexibility of the project. They are often staged and may be structured as either one or two stages. Finding the right fit is the critical point.


The jury must not be about celebrity but rather design proficiency. The jury should include a mix of specialists that will generate a broad level of interest and engender the respect of the architectural design profession and the broader community. The selection, quality and status of the jury will inform not only the outcome but also attract and enhance the breadth of submissions and entries. Without a strong jury there is potentially less capacity to think more broadly about the entries submitted. If the juror Eero Saarinen had not retrieved the scheme by Jørn Utzon from the unsuccessful pile, Sydney would be a very different place from what it is today. A good jury will think beyond the brief with the insight to understand the potential in the idea submitted. This demands a design-led process, as it can’t be assumed that everyone on the jury can read architectural drawings


Competitions need to be well paid. For competitions in which contestants are required to produce a design, a good rule of thumb is that the total prize money should be equal to the schematic design fee that would be due to an architect working under a direct commission. Ideally the architect of the winning design is engaged as the project architect and based on the rigor of the process, this appointment is apolitical transcending a change in government.

Competitions within government should encourage emerging practices and not just apply to architects on the government’s Construction Supply Register or those with extensive experience in a certain typology. For example Federation Square, the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre were done by people with no previous experience in that typology.


Competitions are a great opportunity to elevate design in procurement beyond a design and construct process, generate new research and develop a greater awareness of design within government. At both state and local government, competitions must not evolve into tenders where cost takes priority over the design quality aspects, compromising critical design thinking and debate.

Competitions can lead to innovation where ideas form part of future projects or underpin the research and development in a practice. The 1962 competition for the Victorian State Government Offices for example broke new ground with an innovative use of precast concrete cladding incorporated as load-bearing elements supporting the floor slabs edges, thus allowing column free internal spaces. Competitions are also an opportunity to engage stakeholders. The questions that formed part of the People’s Choice award from the Flinders Street Competition mirrored the questions asked by the jury and opened up the design discussion for the public. This key move helped to demystify the competition process and demonstrated the rigour associated with design critique.

Competitions are an opportunity for everyone in the profession from students to emerging practice, to the shared learnings when local architectural firms form a joint venture with an international firm. Design aspirations can be raised when competitions are transparent. The process and decision making with the Green Square competition in NSW exhibited the long list of entries whereas the competitive process for the St Kilda Triangle site only disclosed the winning scheme, narrowing the discussion of the community and stakeholders.


To benefit good design the OVGA recommends that competitions:

  • Appoint a competition advisor to assist in the process and offer impartiality and confidentiality.
  • Ensure that the competition advisor and brief writer set-out the competition process and define the rules to avoid false assumptions. This helps to support a balance between risk and reward for the profession.
  • Set a clear, unambiguous brief with relevant background material, the vision and the rules, and one that draws on good examples and follows a well-laid- out format.
  • Engage other stakeholders to review the brief.
  • Identify and be clear about the proposed method for delivery of the built project.
  • Get the tone right: It’s important to inspire people to get the vision right.
  • Familiarise entrants with the site by ensuring the context is explained.
  • Establish and publish the criteria by which the entries will be judged.
  • Establish a reasonable budget and programme that accurately reflects the brief.
  • Offer sufficient prize money to attract competitors.
  • Protect the intellectual property and the moral rights of the architects
  • Pay bidders for work in a second stage.
  • Should the project proceed the winning team will be engaged to deliver the project.


As a profession we need to recognise that with the correct strategies in place, design competitions can take us to places we never expected to be.

The OVGA advocates that, when done well, competitions can raise the public profile of a project, engage community in debate, distance the project from political issues and unlock the potential of a program or context. Further there is a need to appreciate the cultural legacy of entries that don’t win or the winning entry that may never be built. Competitions act as a powerful catalyst to elevate the design conversation and should be embraced by government to enhance the culture of exemplar public buildings.