Sunday, March 13, 2011

To the cry of compete

Two recent architecture competitions have caused some grumblings on Twitter, as much for the sheer number of entrants as anything else. Living Architecture’s A Room For London attracted a staggering 500 entries while the comparatively low-key Ullswater Yacht Club competition had over 180. 

Ullswater’s entry is the more remarkable because of the comparative complexity of the brief, the need to make a site visit to a fairly inaccessible part of the world (and I don’t just mean that it’s not in London) and the fact that it had technical issues such as flooding to deal with. A lot of work in other words for 180 practices to expend with such poor odds of winning.

How exactly do you assess 180 entries? If as I suspect, the answer is that a good 100 of them get short shrift and are chucked out for choosing the wrong font size or having funny colours, then you have to question the viability of an “open” competition. To whose advantage is it to have so many entrants, so many redundant schemes, so much professional skill expended for no reward? Clearly not the architects involved. Economically it made absolutely no sense for 179 of them. 

I recently reviewed Eric J Cesal’s excellent book Down Detour Road and it has some very useful things to say about this issue. Cesal has an MBA as well as an architecture qualification and so is able to apply some basic business models to the methods architects use to win work. And the competition system is revealed by these as an unequivocal act of commercial suicide.

Like turkeys voting for Christmas, architects still defend them though. My recent-ish Dear Other Architects post imploring architects to stop entering open design competitions gained some enthusiastic comments but an awful lot of criticism as well. Two  particular strands stood out. The first was that competition itself is a good thing, a necessary stimulus to excellence and innovation. Implicit in this is some notion of artistic natural selection, a belief that the talented will out. Losers should stop whingeing and up their game, essentially.  

The second strand was that my observations about pointlessly long hours spent on projects that earned no fee painted me as a venal philistine, interested in money and not art (if only). Both these criticisms reveal some interesting if depressing attitudes prevalent in architecture, not least the fact that the profession can hold two seemingly irreconcilable prejudices in its collective head at the same time. Funny really, how devotion to the artistic cause can sit happily alongside neo-liberalism. 

In truth, architectural competition culture fits a model of ruthless market fundamentalism perfectly. In its combination of long hours, use of unpaid interns and endemic short-termism, architecture is a flag bearer for the kind of ‘precarious employment' favoured by extreme capitalism. Working long hours for little or no fee in order to win work drives down wages and increases the ‘hire and fire’ tendencies of architecture practices. Firms ‘employ’ unpaid interns to do work on competitions because that’s the only way they can afford to undertake them. This in turn undervalues the work of all architects. If large amounts of design work are worth nothing, then what part of the job can architects legitimately charge for? Simply put, doing work for free is inevitably a bad idea - as this excellent diagram points out. 

This all has a very contemporary relevance. The coalition government's plans to repeal laws protecting employees of small business will be music to the ears of  some avant-garde practices. It's interesting too how the self-harming tendencies of architectural practice resonate with Mark Fisher’s analysis of market driven neo-liberalism in his recent book Capitalist Realism. Fisher is interested in how the mobile, transient and unprotected workforce that capitalism increasingly demands leads to serious mental health issues. The coalition government's sole 'growth strategy' is based on eroding employment rights and increasing job insecurity even further.

I'm aware that an architect whingeing about low fees might seem pretty small beer, or even in bad taste when compared to say, 50,000 people being sacked from the NHS. But I believe that all work should be remunerated and that to think otherwise is the preserve of the financially privileged. Architecture increasingly relies on artistic myths to justify various forms of exploitation. This is doubly ironic because architects tend to disavow getting rich as a motivation for what they do whilst happily assisting other people in their efforts to make money. 

Because their motivation is primarily artistic* and because they have little or no business training, many architects are simply very bad at asking for fees. This leads them to devalue what they do in particular and all forms of cultural and artistic work in general, as if they are a luxury bolt on to society. No one suggests this is true of accountancy or legal advice, both of which are assumed to have some primal necessity for human existence. 

The unsuccessful entries to the Ullswater competition that I've seen involve a level of technical competency that no other profession would consider giving away for free. They go way beyond 'pitching' - something that almost businesses are involved in at some level - to constitute a form of unspoken voluntary work on the client's behalf. And this is the point. In their eagerness to work, in their desperation in fact, architects are prone to being endlessly exploited. In turn, they exploit others further down the food chain, abandoning the principle that work should be remunerated or labour protected from exploitation.

* I'm using these terms pretty much at face value however naive they sound, in order to make a point. So, don't shoot me.


Chris Matthews said...

Good and timely post. Here's some worse news: an article about graphic designers who now have to pay in order to work:

I did offer the idea of creating a union for graphic designers but I think Adrian Shaughnessy and co. still adhere to the Otl Aicher argument about graphic designers needing creative freedom. I wonder if that may be an outdated ideology without contemporary historical context.

p said...

some great points here. to me it seems that small practices see open competitions as a way of gaining work they otherwise wouldn't. I agree it's mostly pointless, but in a world where you need to fill out endless pre-qualification forms just to have a shot at designing a public building, and that is if you can prove you have done it before, I can see the allure of an open competition.

having been working in a large Swedish office where we had an employee whose main task was filling out pre-qualifications I can see why a smaller office would like to believe there is some kind of short cut to larger or more interesting projects.

I know you've written about the pointless paper exercises and form filling before, but I'd imagine this red tape is a huge reason for the situation with today's competitions even if it actually de-values the work we do.

oh, and what regards ridiculous numbers of entrants to competitions: a competition to extend Asplund's Stockholm City Library attracted about 1 200 proposals. nothing came out of it in the end, needless to say.

Mike Horswill said...

As a third year Undergraduate just about to enter the big bad world of practice these are the kinds of issues that really concern me. I worry that to gain the necessary experience I may have to work for free... I am after three years of higher education with no income aside from student loans not really in a position to do this.

It saddens me that access to many of the 'top jobs' now requires young people to work for free to gain experience to even be considered for a job. This will lead to many of the current generation of graduates feeling undervalued and disillusioned with society, how can we function as individuals within this hyper-global economy?

As Charles has alluded to here there is an element of 'artistic' pursuit in the architectural profession, how can we reconcile this with our role as businessman and technician without being part of what the building futures report describes as a 'one stop shop international practice'. For me, people are what really make buildings come alive and an organization like this really does have no connection to the individual.

I think we need to make sure that we get remunerated for the work we do. If we decide we want to be 'artistic' and be wholly creative, if it is within the means of the practice it might be better to attempt to self generate projects as this whilst in the short term might have a negative financial impact for the practice or professional in question the design energy expended will create opportunities and benefit society if a project comes about. With an open competition we waste so much deign energy and give it away to an organization for free.

This is not a sensible way to conduct business, I can see this and I'm still an undergraduate.

Jon Goodbun said...

Hi Charles,

interesting piece..

I have pasted below a short section from an old paper that I wrote for Paul Davies and Torsten Schmiedeknecht's book a few years ago, on drawing and value, which I think has something to do with your discussion. The paper was developed out of Ed Robbins' book 'Why Architects Draw', and a distinction he drew between social and cultural value (a slightly updated version of the original paper can be found here:


Because of the capability of architects to produce drawings without significant capital outlay, the drawing is in no small way responsible for the tendency of architects to engage in large amounts of unpaid or low paid speculative work. This has direct effects upon the market value and social importance of architectural work, because the value or cultural capital that drawing and image production generates within architectural discourse does not come primarily from the sectors of society engaged in the production of the built environment. It comes rather from the cultural sector (this would include academia, the professional media, certain commissioning clients within the public sector, especially galleries, museums, etc.). For the necessarily small number of architects and architectural practices that are able to situate their practice within the cultural sector, it is possible to make an at times lucrative living. However, the vast majority of architects and architectural practices attempt rather to position themselves in relation to the broad sectors of general building production. For this group, a paradoxical situation arises. The primary means of their communication with their social sector is itself responsible for economically devaluing their work. This is because the cultural value that architects add to their work (primarily in the form of new drawings and additional designs or extra detailing, etc.) is not culturally valued in this social sector – i.e. the majority of individuals and organisations involved in the production of the built environment. If architectural practitioners as a whole are to increase the economic value of their work, it would seem that there are two possible responses to the above condition. Firstly, architects might attempt to reposition their practice in relation to currently underexploited (by architects) sectors engaged in the production of the spatial and communications environment, where their work might already have cultural capital, such as advertising, branding, and digital and media environments. Secondly, architects might look for ways to increase architectural cultural capital in the sectors within which they currently operate. This might be by somehow revaluing its current productions, including drawings and images. Equally, it might be by developing new forms of discourse and types of knowledge that are beyond the cultural and social logics of drawing that operate within and contribute to the social and cultural realities of the broad sectors of general building production. Such forms of knowledge and practice might emerge through an entrepreneurial and political expansion of architectural practice “up the food chain”(18) into more direct relations with planning and property development. Equally, it might be based in the changes in architectural and building production brought about by recent developments in computer aided design and manufacture – changes which architects might be able to exploit to reposition and revalue themselves to some extent in relation to building production. More politically and socially interesting no doubt, are attempts to radically reposition architectural knowledge with regard to other social actors in the built environment - often those more typically excluded - through new forms of design activism, and an engagement with what Jeremy Till and Tatjana Schneider have described as Spatial Agency.

Aidan said...

Architects will never have collective bargaining power and to the extent this is true, they are only as valuable as their cheapest competitor. As it happens, competition is broad and deep in this field and the broader it is, the less value our own labor commands. This hyper-market model seems to result in a race to the bottom (will work for free) with coincident aspirations of a life at the top (superstar). This seems characteristic of contemporary neoliberal capitalism--more and more exaggerated polarities within all levels of social life. Is this analogous to the modern era of higher paying jobs at the very top and greater poverty at the bottom? Whatever it is, we're all the simultaneous propellants and ultimate victims of its faustian orientation. Competitions highlight the very absurdity and cut-throat desperation at the core of our professional lifes. And while we can all agree on the hapless comic tragedy which is the fateful mark of all studios--"allnighters", reluctance to charge, countless iterations, hours spent outlining clipart etc etc--something tells me that the minute we're downing browsing these comments, approbating and casting off a little indignation, we'll all go right back to it with a collective "Awww fuck it."

Charles Holland said...

Ta for comments all.

P, yes the OJEU notice is so dull and pointless that doing a design, any design, becomes desirable.

Aidan, I think Jon's comments above are very acute in this respect. The difference in the way that 'cultural' and 'professional' work is valued being highly important. Architects with one foot in either camp have always been torn in this respect and never sure what they are actually charging for. Is it ideas (like an artist) or drawings or technical knowledge?

Increasingly though the professional aspect seems very old fashioned, driven out by market ruthlessness. Architect's used to be much more tied by codes of conduct, not competing on fees etc. but that has all gone.

Which leaves the cultural model which accentuates the starchitect few and underpaid many. So, yes the wealthy few and exploited many is perfectly encapsulated by architecture's decline as a reasonably well paid and comfortable profession.

p said...

Charles, I think my point was more along the lines that the procurement of public projects nowadays are so wrapped in exercises whose pratical application, even if maybe not their aim, mean that just a few firms are allowed to have a go.

and that maybe in that climate you do everything you can, even waste the one capital you actually have, just to get a chance?

it has sad implications for the profession, though, you're very right about that. even over here where unpaid interns was unheard of a couple of years ago.

fede said...

Hi Charles,
did they publish the result somewhere? or where you part of the judging panel? Ta

Charles Holland said...

p - yes i get the fact that ojeu's are both onerous and pretty pointless if you are a small firm.

fede, no, I just saw some posted on line (e-architects i think have a couple).

p said...

oh sorry, I didn't mean to bang on about it, especially as I've neither ever participated in a competition nor had a position where I've had to fill out that kind of paperwork.

on another note, there seems to be ways to sustain a successful business (including paying all of your staff decent wages) in architecture while retaining some kind of artistic credit. one of Sweden's most succesful architects, both commercially (judged by the constant growth of the office) and artistically (judged by awards and competition wins), seems to manage very well. it does, however, seem to require a schizophrenic attitude within the office with that architect stating in a newspaper 'I hate indoor shopping environments' while his firm is working on some of the largest shopping centres the Scandinavian countries have ever seen.

I'm not entirely sure that solves the problem of architects not getting paid what they're worth, though, as I assume the commercial part of the firm is subsidizing the more artistic endeavours.