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Nothing wrong with a bit of competition…

Stephen Frame, Project Director at Buro Four asks the very important question - are architectural competitions the correct approach to procure your design team?

Image © Stanton Williams
Image © Stanton Williams
Image © Stanton Williams

At our Museum’s round table, ‘Space for Creativity’, lots of discussion focussed on the importance of engagement between the client and the architect in stimulating creativity. The relationship between architect and client is a key to success for any project. However, for a cultural building - where the client explicitly seeks to use physical space to create a relationship with a public audience – the importance of this relationship – and the opportunity for genuine collaboration - is  Intensified.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the preferred method of appointing an architect to design a public building in the UK - the design competition – often precludes any meaningful engagement until after an appointment has been made.

Nothing wrong with a bit of competition…

Design competitions can of course be a great way of encouraging creativity, giving teams the opportunity to visualise a project, free of many of the constraints that may be imposed later. However they do attract their fair share of criticism, sometimes for encouraging gestural, eye catching proposals rather than necessarily provoking an optimum response to the brief.

This problem of encouraging spectacle can be compounded by what you might call ‘the curse of the CGI’. For many clients, an attractive visualisation is a key outcome of the competition process. A strong image can anchor the project in the mind of the audience and potential funders and can be an important tool to help maintain momentum during the fragile early stages of a project’s genesis.

There is a therefore a risk that the competition becomes an end in itself, focussed on generating commodifiable outputs – a win for the architect and a marketing aid for the client - rather than what it should be, which is a process that facilitates the foundation of a successful creative partnership. Also, Clients - be careful what you wish for. A fabulous concept stage CGI can haunt a project for ever; a continuing reference point for stakeholders resonating long after an initial proposal has been shown to be impractical or unaffordable.

Is there another way? Simple answer: Yes.

At Buro Four we believe that great public buildings are the product (at least in part) of the process by which they are imagined. Part of our responsibility as project managers is to identify those moments within the project programme where engagement - fostering that spark – is particularly important. One of our aims in hosting the roundtable session was to encourage dialogue between clients and designers on when these moments occur.  There was a resounding consensus that one place this must happen is right at the beginning; in selecting a team.

In its “Guide for Clients”, the RIBA offer as an alternative the Design Competition the ‘Competitive Interview’. This process is, in their words designed to “enable the client and designer to develop and evolve the design together” and is “particularly useful in projects of a complex and sensitive nature”.

As an alternative, Buro Four might propose ‘the Creative Interview’, where shortlisted practices get the opportunity to collaborate on a design challenge with key members of the client team, to ‘get into the sandpit’ problem solving in real time as a pre-cursor to giving a response to the project brief.

Final selection can then be made on the basis not only of the architectural quality of the final submissions, but can also take into account the quality of engagement within teams; the extent that dialogue, exchange and even (yes!) fun helped move things forward. Processes such as these are expensive - teams should be rewarded for their input. They require a significant time commitment – in particular for the project champion. Also,  if the ‘the Creative Interview’ has to be nested within an OJEU framework, it takes longer.

However, at Buro Four we believe that for cultural projects – particularly for heritage buildings - where so much of the joy is in the interplay between the architectural and the curatorial – and in the context of the lifetime of a 100 year building, it is money – and time – well spent.

For further information on running a ‘Creative Interview’ process, or for more details on our Arts Sector Breakfasts, please contact Lauren McKay at