Wednesday, September 1, 2010

dear other architects,

Please stop entering design competitions. It’s sheer folly. Here’s why:

1. It’s massively wasteful of your time and resources. Can you think of another comparable industry, or, more pertinently, profession, that spends so much time and money on bidding for work? Do doctors undertake a number of unpaid, speculative operations in order to convince people that they really need a hip replacement? No.

2. It gives away your main asset – your ideas – for free. After that, the rest is routine.

3. You are highly unlikely to win. This is just a fact. Some are better at them than others but no one wins them all and most lose often.

4. Even if you do win, it’s still unlikely that the building will be built. Most competitions are speculative, not in the sense that the client is looking for experimental architecture, but in the sense that there is little or no funding in place and they have not informed you of all the impediments still in the way of the project.

5. Therefore, there is often only one thing more disappointing than losing a competition and that’s winning one (in the long run).

6. They are a pretty terrible way of procuring a building. Imagine a system where you want something but you’re not sure exactly what it is. So you make a list of things you think you want and invite everyone in the world to send you their ideas for what it looks like. You have no other interaction with them, communicate – if at all – by email and, in the end, hope for the best and pick the one you fancy. This is the architectural competition process. It’s similar to internet dating, but less fun.

7. Competitions momentarily flatter you into thinking that you are designing, say, Oslo Opera House or a New Town outside Madrid but, in reality, you’re not. Until you get the commission it’s just pretend.

8. No one else in the world understands why you’re doing it. They just get used to you not coming out or refusing to take a holiday or forgetting to wash for five days. But they still think you’re mad.

9. You could do without the stress. All that time. All that effort. The all-nighters and the break-neck journey to the printers to get the boards made up! The intern dispatched to Inverness to hand them in because you’ve missed the courier’s deadline! The anxious wait for the results that sometimes never come! Honestly, you could do without it.

10. Remember: it’s not the failure that will kill you. It’s the hope.

So, if you’re thinking of entering a competition, don’t! Take your office down the pub instead. It will be more fun and cost a lot less. You might even meet someone down there who wants to give you a job. Remember: if you stop, I can too.

32 comments:

Adham Youssef said...

HAHA : )
very cynically funny, what a miserable career we're leading..

Anonymous said...

http://www.conditionsmagazine.com/index.php?/competition/

Matt Tempest said...

I spent many happy Easters and summers in the late 1980s/early 1990s at RIBA Wodehouse Square, Leeds, unpacking anonymous competition entries, and (hopefully) correctly filing the paperwork to match up with the plasterboards.

Ben Jones said...

All true, of course. But there's one thing. We do competitions because we LOVE them. They're escapism. The time when we cast off the shackles and move into a realm (we like to think) of unhindered creative expression. No project managers, design officers or cost consultants. Tantalising briefs for things like opera houses, art galleries, or blocks of flats for developers with taste. Juicy words in the brief like "design exemplar". The potential kudos if you win. Despite the anger when the shortlist is announced and you're not on it, and the promises to yourself to never do one again, then the next one is announced and... hang on, maybe just this one, it's a cracking site... We love to dream and we can't, and won't, ever stop.

Charles Holland said...

Anonymous, thanks. Looks interesting. I might enter that one.

Ben, yes, See point 7. Although I can't be as romantic/positive/tragically resigned about it as you!

Charles Holland said...

p.s. Matt, I always wondered who it was who did that! Were you tempted to deliberately mix them up?

FLASC said...

Yes, they are mostly a big FAT waste of time (see what I did there). Very dispiriting but then there is not much project work about so it's a good way to get the brain ticking over if not worrying about how to pay the bills.

Tarek Merlin said...

LOL. So true. Oh the shame, the shame.

Matt Tempest said...

No need to do it deliberately - was nigh on impossible not to do it accidentally.

Great holiday job, though - lovely people. Scottish head honcho chap died year or two back, remember seeing the obit.

Matt Tempest said...

I am only joking, before some eagle-eyed Building Design hack spots that comment. Was very conscientious in what was a surprisingly laborious and physical job - those big plasterboard entries were bloody heavy. And, yes, mostly arrived by intern/sweaty architect in a panic.

Anonymous said...

I remember a lecture by MAD: After 100 competition entries, won on the 101st go (the swirly tower thingy).

So there! Oh well...

Miguel Villegas said...

Dearest Mr. Holland:

Would yo mind if I translate your text to spanish and publish it at our web http://arquitextonica.net, never mind you as author would be properly identified and linked.

We have a say in Spain: "You are righter than a Saint"... ANyway, can't consider quitting this "vice".

Charles Holland said...

Miguel,

I would be happy for you to do that. Would be an honour in fact, so translate away....

Charles

Miguel Villegas said...

Will get to it as soon as we finish the presentation for... a competiton :P no kidding, a friend wants to have her own house and has invited three architects (all friends of hers) to a closed competition...

Charles Holland said...

Miguel,

Ha!

Good luck!

C

cloo said...

I know how to win competitions: You have to convince everyone else it`s a waste of time :)

Steve Parnell said...

Entering architectural competitions won't cease until architectural education ceases to be a series of architectural competitions from years 1 to 5.
It's what you're trained to do!

Charles Holland said...

Steve,

You are absolutely right. I should write a follow up: Dear other architecture tutors,.....

I also like the Jason Bourne connotations of your last sentence....probably an apposite reference to the brainwashing of architectural education.

blog said...

Bravo. Thinking of the compelling need of an existing person or institution and hint (without spending much time) how you could solve their problem if a far more likely and entrepreneurial way of winning work

Anonymous said...

steve parnell - you are right. design competitions devalue your time and effort - the same way architectural projects for education devalue your time and effort, self serving to the institutions and those who run them.
time limits - in man hours - should be imposed on school projects as in practice.
and there should be enough self esteem to not work for free.

hcanes757 said...

I think the distinction between the type of competition should be stated and clarified. As it stands the author falls into the dear other architects, since invited competitions fall under the vague competition title. There is some value to this brief manifesto if the competition being referred to is strictly referring to IDEAS competition where no compensation is given. A majority of competitions have some monetary value. There is a risk in taking part in these competitions, agreed. Design like anything only gets better with practice. With this job market younger 'architects' have a better chance of winning a competition that offers a monetary prize of some sort than landing a job with an office that actually pays their interns. Most of this younger generation are already working for free so let them roll on a crap shoot that they having nothing to lose in the first place.

shawn pitz said...

If your ideas are the most valuable thing that you have to offer, then you're not a very good architect. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and are not the hard part of architecture.

The focus on ideas, on the part of the entrants as well as the judges, rather than an understanding of the other 90% of the work that goes into actually designing a building is a root cause of many of the other problems that you listed.

C said...

thanks, we`re off to the pub then...

cheers!

Carlos Bisbal
ZFYB arquitectos asociados
www.zfyb.cl

Charles Holland said...

Amazing really, the nerves touched by this post. All of which is very revealing about the fragility of architect's self-image. I've been wondering whether to answer the reaction in a proper reply post but, briefly, my post uses a certain amount of hyperbole and a good deal of sarcasm (both of which seem to have been missed) to make a central, serious point about how easily architects give their time and effort and, yes, ideas away for free. As Steve Parnell points out in one of the comments above, the seeds for architecture's masochistic devotion to working all night every night on some personal and private vision are sown at college.

The monetary value of even invited competitions doesn't, in my experience, add up to anything like the man hours and effort put in. So you have to ask yourself why architects live with a situation where so much time, money and effort goes into the winning of work rather, as pointed out above, doing the job itself. My view - reinforced by the slightly hysterical comments the post has received elsewhere - is that it is due to self-regarding mythologies of what it is to be an artist i.e. half dead from exhaustion, broke and miserable. Me, I think people should be paid for their work and that cultural and artistic work should be valued properly by society as vitally important and adding to the sum of human happiness. As should lots of other work which people do which is currently poorly paid and undervalued. Shifting this won't happen if we continue to blindly buy into myths of artistic creation that don't help anybody and only serve to encourage myopic acts of bewildering self-sacrifice. End.

Anonymous said...

Dear Charles

If you consider architects to be office workers - which we are 97 times out of 100 - then I can't think of any profession "wasting" time on bidding for work to such extent.

After spending many, many... many nights on competitions and many disappointments following them shortly after, I still have to disagree with your manifesto.

It sounds to me like an office clerk – a piano hobbyist, spending evenings preparing to yet another concert with his amateur orchestra – commenting on the nonsense of the international piano competitions, which he would never be able to take part in.

Now, being particularly privileged, we all can enter almost any competition we wish but only 3 out of 100 will make a good use out of it. That’s life and that’s the rule in general for every single profession, passion and path of life in the world.

Flying is not for everyone…

Le Foreigner

Anonymous said...

Too true, and the RIBA support this process, it should be illegal.

Anonymous said...

"Do doctors undertake a number of unpaid, speculative operations in order to convince people that they really need a hip replacement? No. "

sorry, just saw this line..he was kidding probably?? doctors & scientists never do any research or experiments anyway..isn't it hahahaha :p

oh and I think Bruce Mau mentioned about this on his manifesto,about 12 years ago???

http://www.brucemaudesign.com/112942/

deepa Ramaswamy said...

this post has been circulating all around. Its so true yet you seem architecture schools and office wasting tons of money on competitions.
And on the flip side is the Europan competition that does generate amazing critically relevant ideas through the medium of the competition. Maybe we need to revisit the purpose of the architectural competition

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles

I can hear that you have not won any contest.
Why so bitter?

Matt Tempest said...

The post caused a bit of a Mass Debate, I remember. Without wishing to reopen all that, an interesting historical fact-ette my Dad told me at Christmas, for the record and historical comparisons.

He entered the competition for the Runcorn estate eventually won by Jim Stirling (back in 1972ish?). Didn't win, but as one of five runners up, received 500 pounds. Now, that's 500 pounds in 1972 prices - which he told me was enough to put down a deposit on their first house. I presume you don't get the equivalent of 500 pounds in 2011 prizes for not winning competitions these days?

Charles Holland said...

That's great - has it been published ever? An exhibition of second placed entries to famous competitions would be good....

As for the money, well yes that seems a massive amount in comparison to today. There is prize money in some competitions, but often not and people do it for the glory and the highly statistically unlikely dream of winning. Then again, that's not exclusive to architects I guess.

Point is, as a systems of procuring work it's still total madness despite incidents like your Dad's. We have quite a good record here but of the five or six competitions we have won only one has resulted in a building.

archian said...

The reasons for not joining architect competitions are valid. I just want to add that Architects need to avoid competitions except for few prestigious ones. The important thing is also to go back to the company mission and purpose.
These times of recession, it might be wise for companies to focus on Projects that are earning.