Competitions are nothing if not controversial. They evoke optimism and excitement in as many architects as they do dread in others. The anonymous open competition can be transformative for young firms and there are many inspiring wins. In fact, when I was considering architecture, a friend’s father showed me 21 year old architecture student Maya Lin’s winning entry for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Appearing as a wound in the earth, Lin’s proposal was realised despite opposition to the unconventional design and criticism that referenced Lin’s ethnicity, gender and lack of experience.
Invited competitions as a means of procurement can be draining on established practices when they miss out on several in succession. Even when fees are paid, they can be loss producing activities with high expectations of deliverables. So, for larger practices with fixed overheads and many mouths to feed, they are taxing on resources and require development of a particular business model.
Even the debate over the merits of open ideas competitions for young practitioners has taken a different direction over that last few years. A piece by blogger, Derek Leavitt, gave 5 reasons young practices shouldn’t do open competitions only to be countered the following day by ArchDaily’s Karen Cilento. Together the two writers define the division in a ‘high-risk with low yield’ versus an ‘ideas and passion’ argument. Leavitt argues that, amongst other things, competitions are a waste of time and money as projects are rarely built, and rather cynically devalue architects. He proposes greater benefit and publicity could be derived from doing pro-bono work, and concludes by suggesting going to a bar instead – there is more chance of meeting someone who commissions you than there is winning an open competition.
Cilento counters by pointing out inspirational wins throughout history, and acknowledges that, while demanding, ideas competitions are both a relief from ‘real world’ and a “staple in our profession which pushes the field forward”.
In today’s risk averse procurement environment, there are very few local open competitions. Particularly the type that launched the practices of O’Connor + Houle (Heide Museum of Modern Art extension) or Lab Architecture Studio (Federation Square). The 2014 Tanderrum Bridge (Batman Ave. pedestrian bridge) open anonymous competition – awarded to John Wardle Architects – is a rare commissioning event in Victoria. Recent competitions are more likely to be closed or for invited participants with an emphasis on OHS and capability criteria and either include a handful of large practices or international architects, nearly always excluding emerging practices. The current Lend Lease Circular Quay Tower Competition, for example, includes 2 Australian firms and 5 internationals. Not all competitions are created equal. Many are not well formulated. Some competitions require architects to assign copyright and have a miss-match of brief and budget. Today the word ‘competition’ usually describes hybrid processes of collecting design ideas, past experience and lengthy OHS schedules. Before embarking on a competition, it is worth considering both whether a competition is warranted and whether it is appropriate for your practice.
Compared to other approaches, an architectural competition may generate a wider range of project design ideas potentially forming new pathways or identifying a spectrum of architects, including emerging architects, who may not otherwise be approached. They may generate international conversations on a page; they may also generate local public interest in the project or its purpose and expand discussion about design in general.
An architectural competition may not always be the preferred way to select an architect or concept because it may offer limited exposure to the client, users and stakeholders. Competitions require significant amounts of potentially unwarranted unpaid time to be spent by a substantial number of architects. They can provide an unreasonably limited time frame in which to address very complex brief requirements and allow limited scope to control the budget.
The Australian Institute of Architects has Competition Guidelines, and it encourages any competition entered by its members to be one that is formally endorsed by the Institute. Institute endorsement is given to an architectural competition that complies with their ‘Architectural Competitions Policy,’ in, at least, the following ways:
The Australian Institute of Architects believes a competition is appropriate when the project is of public significance and will benefit from a wide degree of design investigation; especially if it is on a significant or unusual site. Will the project generate and benefit from heightened public interest? And, will it promote a high level of design excellence for the project type or location?
Conversely, a competition where a suitably qualified jury is not appointed, a well-developed brief is not available, or is substantially inconsistent with current development controls for the site is considered inappropriate. Similarly, a competition where the following is not clearly stated in competition conditions is deemed inadvisable: if the project is speculative, funding is inadequate or uncertain for the project or the running of the competition, the prizes are inadequate or the client is unsure of proceeding with the project.
The Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) has taken steps to encouraging government departments to run competitions that include smaller ‘wild card’ practices on their list of invited entrants in an attempt to introduce more diversity. The biggest inhibitor to emerging practices is the requirement for previous experience in a typology, even if it is not complex and the budget small. The OVGA argues that if experience is in question, an emerging firm could be partnered with an established one as a way to up – skill younger firms. Established practices also have a growing role in embedding design aspiration and content into a brief, and as an educating voice on selection panels. The OVGA have recently partnered with the government’s Department of Transport (DEDJTR) to run an open competition for Frankston Station, suggesting a potential model for future projects. So perhaps change, while slow moving, may be happening.
The Australian Institute of Architects has encouraged both the Premier’s and the Minister’s offices to implement design excellence into the (pending) suite of planning documents on the Zoning Reform Review, the Apartment Standards, Inclusionary Zoning and C270 Central City Built Form Controls; which, in draft form, included uplift for procurement via competition.
Congratulations to Rowan Opat and Yvonne Meng for putting together this issue of Architect Victoria.