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Feature article
Competition Drawing of The Palace of Westminster by Charles Barry


WORDS BY Andrew MacKenzie

There is an exhibition I have been itching to curate for years called ‘Virgin architects: a history of first times’. Amongst its protagonists would be the British Gothic Revivalist Charles Barry, the Chicago émigrés Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, and the highoctane Polish-American architect Daniel Liebskind. What binds these unlikely bedfellows to such a salacious title?

It is true that they have all designed something extraordinary as a result of a design competition. But that’s not all. For each architect it was, in a sense, their very first time. Barry had never designed a parliament building before designing the Palace of Westminster, the Griffins had never designed a city before laying out their designs for Canberra, and Libeskind had never designed a major civic building before designing the extraordinary Jewish Museum in Berlin. At the point of their respective competition wins, Barry was 40 years old (and his collaborator Pugin was 23), the Griffins were 35 and 40, and while Libeskind was a more sagacious 53, he had, rather spectacularly, not built a single building by then. He had spent the previous decades teaching, painting and playing the piano.

The world is full of such stories, of Saarinen who had never designed an airport before Dulles, of Corb who had never designed a church before Ronchamp and of course Utzon had never designed an opera house before Sydney. Everyone has to start somewhere, and some start at the top. Almost always it is the design competition that facilitates such a spectacular opportunity. It’s a kind of dating service of sorts, bringing intriguing projects and giddy architects together, consummated on a roll of butterpaper.

Perhaps the role of the design competition is therefore quite simple: to create the opportunity for architecture to reinvent itself through new talent, and to project boldly into the future.


Throughout its illustrious past, aspects of the design competition have remained remarkably unchanged. Controversy, for instance, has followed in their wake for centuries. Competitions can be inherently riskier than the tried and tested, yet often they are used to procure major civic buildings (read ‘tax-payer’s money’). This combination of risk and other people’s money will always get front page. Such budget controversies often bleed into more complex debates about public spending and the social fabric of a city. Or more bluntly, about the competition between public and private interests.

It’s almost two decades since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened, after years of local dissent and, of course, an international design competition. Now is not the place for a full exploration of that
particularly late colonial export, except to say that while the crude cost-benefit analysis may have served Bilbao’s exchequer pretty well, a number of other high profile Guggenheims, have faired less well, both commercially and culturally.

Now it seems that the Guggenheim Helsinki may join that unfortunate club. Despite significant debate about the likely scale of public financial burden on a small economy, the proponents for a Helsinki Guggenheim threw their full worldwide marketing machinery behind a competition process that garnered a gargantuan response. And to what end? Pier Vittorio Aureli has since disparaged the competition as a cynical rouse, delivering consensus and a good story, while drowning out the project’s more controversial issues. And with 1715 submissions, six finalists and one winner, Jeremy Till describes it as being a “process that is 0.058% energy efficient.” As I write this, the Finnish government has just announced it will not fund the museum, making it possibly architecture’s greatest waste of energy, imagination and unbillable hours of all time.

Though it is also important to note that not all ‘failed’ competitions are in fact so. Many unbuilt competition winners over the ages have left a significant legacy. From Mies van der Rohe’s famous Friedrichstrasse glass skyscraper to Zaha Hadid’s Peak submission or OMA’s Jussieu Library, each went bravely to where no office, club or library had gone before. Architecture, as an unfolding and shared body of knowledge resides as much in ideas on the page, as in their translation into building.

This is an appropriate moment perhaps, to reflect on anonymity in competitions, celebrating as they do the purity of ideas over the anxiety of delivery. Anonymity creates a level playing field, where young architect with a good idea for something they have never attempted before, can have their moment to shine. Yet sadly today anonymity is no longer the norm. This single fact signals a change in mood, towards a competition environment less inviting of the surprise unknown talent, and points to a profession that is shadowed by the twin neurosis of fear and control.


Consider insurance. A generation ago many middle class homes had barely anything insured. Maybe a house, a car, a life. That’s it. Spool forward to today and the same family is likely to have insurance for home and car, computers and phones, books and bicycles, healthcare and work. It’s not unusual for an individual to carry a dozen insurances. An industry that was born at a time of candles and congested timber houses barely two centuries ago now touches everything in our lives, from heart surgery to paper cuts.

This global explosion of insurance, and the monetizing of risk, has had a major net affect on both the profession as a whole and design competitions in particular. One effect of relevance to this theme, is the rise of the normative, the proven and the risk-free in project delivery. Most project managers and clients, stakeholders and proponents view creative design, despite all the ‘innovation’ spin, through the negative lens of risk and fear. In short, we live in an age of feardriven decision making.

At the control end of the equation, the profession is equally benighted by an everincreasing growth in regulation, principally expressed through planning codes. Developed nations can now claim the dubious honor of having cities that are more controlled by planning than ever before in history. Blanket planning provisions can now significantly determine a building’s form, height and materials, its façade articulation and its period expression, its garden planting and the position of its postbox. This level of control, exercised over everything from a house extension to a major museum, is antithetical to the spirit of good design. Under this regime of fear and control, there is a growing disconnect, between how design competitions might best serve the city, and what the city will now accept. Or perhaps better, an asymmetry between an architectural culture bred to produce the bespoke, in an urban condition that aspires to the standard, the regulated and the known.

It has not always been thus. Indeed competitions blossomed at the precise moment when 19th century civic institutions and the rapidly expanding cities that housed them, embraced the new. During that period’s great urban expansion England alone produced more than 2500 design competitions. This was a time when very little about the city was standard, regulated or known. Cities back then were a great experiment, in which architecture competitions played their own experimental part.

We still think of competitions in this light, as if thriving amidst the search for something new, something we haven’t seen before. And yet the two dominant forces of fear and control has transformed the city from a great experiment into a management exercise. In the cybernetic fantasies of engineers, politicians and planners, the city is little more than an array of components, to be tweaked up or down, slower or faster, a little bit to the left, add some houses there, sprinkle some transport nodes there. This managerial version of the future can be actively hostile to the unknown and the emerging.

Helsinki Guggenheim Competition Entries_ Image by Yle Finland


Seen in this light, for competitions to have a productive role in the future, accommodations need to be made, on both sides. The recent Australian Institute of Architects’  national review of competition guidelines made some modest progress in addressing problems related to changed conditions within the wider procurement environment. However, faced with tectonic shifts out there in the real world, the review may have responded to its members preferences, but remains inadequate in responding to the profound changes taking place beyond its ramparts. If competitions are to remain important generators of tomorrow’s architecture, a more significant root and branch review of competitions needs to be undertaken, and resourced. There are some things that we might, and indeed could change. Call this the start of a much larger wish list.

Firstly, as I write this, the work that the Victorian Chapter has been doing, lobbying state government to incentivise the use of properly structured design competitions, faces an uncertain future. The political poker game of holding onto your cards until you’ve got a flush, means the state is not giving away anything as to the outcomes of various reports and consultations that have recently taken place. We can only hope that the recent windfall of increased stamp duty, which has bolstered state coffers, will embolden attitudes to improve development outcomes, ideally through demanding better design procurement processes.

If the state government sees the light, these Incentives might mean the promise of reduced friction in planning, and other little bonuses, for instance additional value uplift through height or density. Such incentives already lie behind Sydney’s Design Excellence processes, helping to bridge the gap between civic and commercial benefit. It’s not perfect, but there is no reason why such incentives could not be improved and refined. It is to be hoped that other states are exploring such measures.

Secondly, while Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are not design competitions, they are competitions that have design content, which means they are worth investing in. Sometimes they get a good design result, based largely on whether the evaluative criteria allow it. Being optimistic, and at the risk of getting burned at the stake, they are potentially something to learn from, representing an opportunity to insert design thinking into the structure of more major public procurements, at a very early stage. Except to the modest extent that the brief can convey a client’s wishes, competitions mandate the removal of the client and the building’s users from a more interrogative role in the early development of the design. If PPPs could be improved, it is possible the classic design competition could indeed learn something: about how to engage the client, users and the whole combined team, in a competitive design process, right from the start. Imagine that.

Thirdly, there needs to be an understanding that design competitions and Quality Based Selection (QBS) are not entirely mutually exclusive. I understand the probity principles behind attempting to keep them separate, but trying to do so simply fails the reality test. Hybrid beasts, which are part design competition with some element of capability criteria are increasingly inevitable. However, we need to review what ‘qualities’ are being assessed, as many procurement processes place emphasis on business competency and the shallow indices of quality management systems, while failing to assess the actual quality of design outcomes. A related problem is the pernicious rise of mandatory criteria, including insurances, liabilities and such, which is almost entirely pointless at competition stage. There needs to be an insistence on design quality as the primary criteria for any QBS. To do this, the profession as a whole needs to somehow present a united front, to lobby state government and local councils, and to knock some discipline into what has become a degraded tender environment, where default settings are delivering easy wins to the same handful of large practices, over and over again. We can all be very attentive to conventional design competitions, but unless we are also attentive to all the low-grade competitive nature of increasingly prevalent hybrids, we might be just rearranging the deck chairs.

Project type track record should continue to play little or no part in modest scaled projects where the risks of failure are controlled. Clients are shortchanging themselves, by excluding great design teams based on the dubious virtue of project type experience. Meanwhile, where a project is larger, more complicated, high profile, and importantly, where the client may have a job on their hands wrangling a mixed, diverse and opinionated stakeholder group, it may not be unreasonable for an architect’s past design successes to underwrite and help bolster consensus from a community, provided this factor plays a minor role within a design competition. In a perfect world of design-based decision-making, I’d go anonymous every time. In the world of 2016, we either adapt, or get sidelined.

Because of how the above could advantage established practices over new ones, the fourth item on my wish list, identifies a counter-point: which is to say, there is a real risk that the issue of size, track record, and dubious assessments of ‘quality’ is leading to monopolistic tendencies within the profession. Small and young practices are methodically disadvantaged by invited competitions, up and down the country, through the indiscriminate use of capability profiling. To the extent that small and young practices are also members, we need a nationwide strategy, to compliment existing state initiatives, combatting the inequality of opportunity that Australian Institute of Architects members face. Otherwise we are consigned to a situation where small practices design small projects, while a handful of very large practices design everything else.

We need to stop pretending that competitions can be a panacea, or a preserved bastion
of how things used to be. They cannot be simply protected from the rapidly changing, and often hostile conditions of professional practice, just because we want them to be. If anything, competitions may well amplify those very challenges.

Competitions need to evolve, and no amount of handwringing will change that fact. If they do not, they will face the Hobson’s choice of facilitating the monopoly of the six or seven dominant national practices, or becoming a procurement method diminished to the territory of the occasional small-scale regional art gallery. If, on the other hand, they can be re-engineered to meet the changing conditions of practice, and if thorny questions can be addressed with candor, they still have the capacity to launch a new brilliant career, for tomorrow’s Barry, Griffin or Libeskind.