A panel of experts debated the role and relevance of architectural competitions at the Competing Ideas event recently.

Architect and former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu knows well that architectural competitions bring out new ideas from the best and brightest the field has to offer.

“Competitions are an opportunity for architects to shout!” he said while attending Competing Ideas, a public debate on the role and relevance of architectural design competitions in Melbourne and Australia.

The debate was produced as a follow-on event to the Australian premiere of the film The Competition, a raw documentary following the journey of five starchitects (Sir Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Dominuqe Perrault) as they vied to win the commission for architecture for the National Museum of Art in Andorra.

Professor Donald Bates from the Melbourne School of Design and LAB Architecture Studio moderated the debate, which discussed the decreasing number of architectural competitions in Australia and for the few that remain, the negative stigma that has begun to surround them over the last decade.

The debate panel included architect and director of the competition Angel Borrego Cubero; architect and president-elect of the Australian Institution of Architects Jon Clements of Jackson Clement Burrows; architect, teacher and advocate Tania Davidge of OpenHAUS; teacher and director Suzannah Waldron of Searle X Waldron; HASSELL architect and principal Mark Loughnan; and associate Victorian government architect Jill Garner of Garner Davies; OVGA.

Australia’s most recent and renowned architectural competition was for Flinders Street Station, but before that it was Federation Square in 1997. The general consensus from panelists was that the Flinders Street Station competition was successful but that today’s architectural competition still needs work.

Bates asked the panel whether architectural competitions are about ideas or simply a form of seduction through images, and whether these competitions cater primarily to new or established firms.

Cubero said Australia was the “last resort” for those looking to reinvigorate the architectural competition sector.

“In the last 10 years, in Europe, competitions have gained a bad reputation – mainly with the younger generations,” he said, adding that many established architecture firms dislike the practice.

In a trailer for The Competition, Sir Norman Foster agreed, expressing scepticism.

“Sometimes they’re fantastic, sometimes they’re, shall we say, a little suspect,” he said.

The panelists noted architectural competitions could evolve into a tender process – one that would make governments happy but could limit the opportunity for the industry in general and emerging professionals and firms in particular.

They also widely noted that in Australia there a movement toward “private” or invite-only competitions. Garner believes that in some countries, working on paid competitions is even a business in itself.

“There is a spate of limited competitions, they are becoming more like tenders rather than ‘real’ competitions and I also hear very critically that there is a handful of architects that seem to regularly win these,” she said. “In many ways, that is not surprising because many practices have become extraordinarily skilled and accomplished at the competition process…an ability to catch the eye of the judges or imagination of the founders assessing the submission.”

Garner also highlighted the extensive list of considerations firms must ponder before choosing to take part, while Clements and Loughnan discussed the growing divide between time, cost and prize money for contemporary competitions.

Clements said architectural competitions are “certainly opportunistic but also costly,” with the divide between the opportunity and cost only getting greater.

“In the last 10 to 15 years there has been this emergence and this divide of the private competition and it’s a big concern in the market of a tender, or a bid or a competitive bid,” he said. “It’s perhaps where most of the damage has been done in a space and it’s damaging the traditional competition that might have been endorsed.”

Loughnan referred to his competition experience at Hassel posing just a few of the long list of the questions that the firm considers before participating, including:

  • Is the competition real?
  • Do they have funding?
  • Is it about a real project or is it about innovation or ideas?
  • Who is the client and what is the client’s aspiration?
  • What is the history of the project?
  • Is it political?
  • Is there a developed brief?
  • Who is on the jury?
  • Are we going to make any money or realize beautiful architecture?

Despite the extensive thought process required pre-submission, Loughnan still believes there is a market for architectural competitions, particularly for less established practices, though he says they require more balance and relevance.

“In Australia, there is a reputation for firms to have industry or a typology expertise, like a sector mentality, so I think competitions are a relief to that,” he said. “They open the door to a talented creative architect to get into a new realm of work that may be in the market that only to to particular professionals.”

“(Competitions) shouldn’t become a source of cheap IP, and the built environment needs creative thinking and a creative outlet…the industry needs an appropriate and respective balance of what a competition is and what is expected.”

Loughnan added that many Australian firms team up with larger/international firms in order to gain additional recognition.

Waldron, who used a competition forum when beginning her practice, believes competitions are great for emerging professionals, though she questions whether iconic competitions are the only model.

“Emerging practices have to be careful; death by architecture is a definite possibility both physically and financially,” she warned. “In an ideal world, all competitions could be one stage or anonymous but we are limiting an architects point of view.”

Davidge said competitions could be used to target issues facing the architecture industry, saying an architectural competition is “a vehicle of opportunity, especially in relation to emerging practitioners” and “the potential interface between the architectural professional public audience.”

Loughnan added that competitions can boost morale and allow architects to hone their talents and showcase innovation.

The panel also listed a spate of concerns, from costs to high expectations that entrants will understand the competition/client’s needs without speaking directly to them.

Despite the drawbacks cited, the panel said the idea of the architecture competition is not dead, but that the formula needs tweaking. Clements said the AIA is in the process of reviewing new competition guidelines; the last draft of guidelines was completed in 2003.

“I think we need to do a lot of good work and better work of designing competitions,” Cubero said.