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A bit of healthy competition…


Entering a design competition is hard work, but capture the public’s imagination and you will be rewarded. Winning one can transform an emerging firm or revitalise an established practice.

Competitions represent the currency of talent in architecture. We all live in a world where talent defines not just our professional successes but our competitiveness as nations.

For a client looking for a fresh approach, a successful competition brings new ideas, generates a narrative and establishes a compelling project identity months or years before a physical building is open for business.

For an architect or practice, there are multiple benefits: a chance to show deep skills, break into new markets, test the team, build collaborations.

The celebrated Modernist Finnish architect Alvar Aalto entered over 100 competitions in his career. He saw competitions as an essential function of being an architect and appreciated that they should not be normal office routine. Aalto planned each carefully: someone to analyse the brief, someone trusted to draw up his early ideas, and a whole-office commitment to getting the submission out the door, often at the last moment.

Aalto’s success rate was good (almost 50 percent wins), but he also saw that a loss could generate good PR, attract other clients and keep the firm on its toes. We’ve seen this many times, with shortlisted firms picking up subsequent commissions through the wider PR exposure around a competition.

However, as ever in business, read the fine print carefully. There is an increasing phenomenon of competition organisers staging contests with no real client or brief, seductively presented on dedicated websites. They’re easy to spot: usually with an entry fee, low prizes, obligatory surrender of copyright and lots of press promised (sadly, many appear to be endorsed by the architectural press).

Cheap PR?

The uninformed perspective from the architecture industry is that competitions are a good deal for clients: all that free work and cheap PR. This is mistaken. Clients can spend significant sums arranging and running a competition, and frequently expose themselves to political or community pressure at a fragile time in developing a project. But the good clients see the overall benefits of deeper value: connecting with stakeholders, testing options and securing design quality benchmarks.

Competitions are at their best when the project is complex. That’s not to say that more straightforward buildings are best procured in another way (in fact, some successful school programs around the world have emerged through design competitions), but it recognises that the intensity of innovation and multiple skill sets is more relevant when the project is unique.

This is undoubtedly a direct consequence of the growing complexity of many projects: a combination of multiple stakeholders, total site ownership held under public and private partnerships, and the intricacy of new building technologies. Design competitions are responding to this complexity by asking for integrated teams, not just an architect, and often promoting global collaborations and tie-ups between established and emerging firms.

We’ve been privileged to run design competitions around the world, including in Australia. While competition customs differ in detail in each country, there is much in common. They set the bar for most public projects and typically forge the career of younger talent (who can forget the story of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers entering the competition for the Beaubourg Centre in Paris with a combined staff – including themselves – of four, as the launchpad to their respective global reputations).

Justifying time and resources

Perhaps the key question we are asked by firms in our network is: how can we justify the business cost of putting time and resources into a competition instead of more typical methods of marketing?

There is little value in approaching this question from a direct cost/benefit viewpoint. The key – as Aalto discovered – is to mobilise the office for non-normal routine and to keep at it until you have established a successful process. Should you make the shortlist, embrace the opportunities offered to promote the individual strengths of the firm and make the best of the PR offered in making the shortlist or public exhibition of entries. Crucially, use the competition to build your own network of first-class collaborators – clients globally are looking for expertise and creativity; they want the best the world has to offer.

And winning?

While good visuals are essential, many practices sink all of their effort into super-seductive CGIs. But this is a trap – it makes the office feel productive and the ‘hero image’ is a way to project an architectural identity; but does it address the client’s needs? Clients who promote competitions are looking for more: they have invested time and money, expecting to be on the receiving end of some good, old-fashioned thinking around their problem. The catalyst is analysis: analysis of the underlying client objective, analysis of the opportunities, analysis of value as distinct from cost. In a competition environment, demonstrating your grasp of the opposing factors contained in the brief can be a powerful message that you are in tune with the client.

Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a strategic architectural consultancy that helps clients to imagine and define contemporary environments, both built and natural. MRC is the leading specialist in devising and managing design competitions internationally.

Malcolm will also be featured in a Business of Architecture and Design podcast early in 2020, discussing architecture competitions with HASSELL’s Steve Coster and Mark Loughnan.

This article originally appeared in Architectural Review #162


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