Unfair but Indispensable
If only time and effort were tangible things. We’d be absolutely amazed if we could see all the hours and the dedication that so many architects have put into projects for competitions without receiving any rewards whatsoever. So many unbuilt ideas, and so much hidden work! But we know little about most of those projects. They often end up stashed away a drawer, in forgotten files and filing cabinets or buried in the depths of a hard disk in a computer somewhere. At most, the work that took a studio several weeks to finish ends up being used just to add another render to a portfolio.
In 2011, Eduardo Souto de Moura organized an exhibition of competition projects presented by his studio between 1979 and 2010 – a total of 50 designs. It was a good way to show the public all that unseen work. Souto de Moura stated that, on average, he manages to win only one out of every eight competitions for which he submits designs. And even when he does win, that’s not always a guarantee that the design will end up being built. That success rate clearly demonstrates just how unsustainable architecture competitions are for studios, especially considering that here we’re talking about one of the biggest names in contemporary architecture. In fact, competitions are so unfair and unsustainable that they’d be totally unthinkable in any other profession or sector. Unpaid work and an outlay of talent and resources with only a minimal probability of remuneration: what other profession would accept that? Strangely enough, I’ve never heard any general media outlet report on this situation, although the problem is superbly illustrated in this distant, highly recommendable article by Stepienybarno.
For now, though. we don’t seem to have any reasonable alternative to competitions as a means of guaranteeing democratic access to public projects for all architects. And that’s what makes competitions necessarily indispensable, despite all their shortcomings. We haven’t been able to find formulas that are more respectful towards the profession but still perform the same function, that of providing an opportunity for participation on an equal footing. On the other hand, most competitions convened today are increasingly more restrictive, making it impossible or immensely difficult for young people or emerging architects to take part. As a result, the value attached to a degree in architecture is non-existent, because a formal qualification is often insufficient to be able to compete unless the tenderer can demonstrate prior experience or a high turnover. So what’s the point of competitions?
This debate needs to be fomented and brought into the public forum, and we all need to come together to seek a solution. We need to find ways of alleviating as much as possible the costs and the sacrifice incurred by studios in each tender process, and of achieving working conditions that are, within reason, fairer for participants. At the same time, we need to create a level playing field where no architect is excluded, for any reason whatsoever, at least in the initial stages of the competition. It should be remembered that for some studios, success in a public competition was, fortunately, the basis for a whole history of outstanding architectural achievements. It’s a shame that such a success is now increasingly difficult. The important thing, then, is to propose ideas for minimising the dramatic dimension of competitions while at the same time maintaining their capacity to promote emerging talent. The secret lies there, in that fragile balance.