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Are architectural competitions a game?

Bigger and better known firms tend to dominate anonymous architectural competitions - maybe it's because they're very good "gamers"

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Entry in Flinders St Station Design Competition by Architecture Studio C

I’ve been musing further on why, despite strict anonymity, four of the six short-listed finalists for the Flinders St Station Design Competition are major international and national architects.

Perhaps it simply reflects the field. If two thirds of entrants were big-name architects then there’s no surprise.

Alternatively, it’s possible the very best designers inexorably reveal themselves to discerning juries. I don’t find that very convincing – over a large number of competitions the established firms might start to show an edge in reaching the finals, but not in one or two.

It seems to me the first stage of a competition like Flinders St Station is a reasonably level playing field. The contest is primarily about visual impact rather than experience and reputation – that should even up the competition a lot.

I’m reminded of the poor performance of wine judges. They have awful trouble being consistent across competitions and between each other. They’re also not very good at distinguishing the best from the second and third best (see this paper on concordance between wine competitions and this one on ‘blindfold’ tastings).

So I’m intrigued why four big names made the short-list. Some no doubt think the judges weren’t up to the job, but I think there could be another, kinder explanation.

I’m wondering if bigger and better-known firms “game” these sorts of contests, either deliberately or unconsciously.

If a competition is strictly anonymous as per the claims made in the brief for the Flinders St Station competition, then that privileges small firms over established ones because it undervalues the importance of experience and reputation.

Firms entering a competition necessarily invest a lot of effort in preparing their submissions. A firm of ‘starchitects’ is going to lose its biggest advantage in a truly anonymous contest.

A smart strategy would therefore be to make sure its “signature” is very clear to the jury. It could include enough characteristic design touches or references in its proposal to signal clearly that it’s the work of one of the hottest firms in the business.

There are some potential downsides for the client though. One is that the efficiency of the proposed solution might be compromised by the priority given to signalling its provenance.

It could also mean the client gets a building that looks a bit too much like every other one by this starchitect, thus diminishing the prospects it’ll be the singular icon the client might wish for.

The upside for the client is it increases the chances the jury will short-list a high proportion of firms with lots of experience and the proven capability to manage large projects.

Juries could be unwitting accomplices. They know a brilliant and complex design should be backed up by organisational capacity, so some members might well be receptive to the right clues, perhaps without realising it.

Some jury members might instinctively appreciate how much clients – especially public sector ones – like to be associated with glamorous architects.

If entrants really do engage in this sort of subtle signalling, then it would explain why juries, despite the effort made to maintain anonymity, seem to be implausibly good at picking the big international and national firms from the “dross”.

I don’t have any evidence that firms really do this, but it would be remarkable if they don’t. The incentive is just too strong.

There’s another twist to this way of thinking. Small firms could counter by adopting a cuckoo strategy.

They could improve their chances of making the short-list by submitting an entry that looks like it might plausibly be the work of one of the current darlings.

I expect this would be less likely in practise though, because architects value originality extremely highly.

Let me emphasise again that I don’t know if firms do or don’t engage in this kind of signalling: this is a speculation. However competitions are made for “gaming” – they reward strategic thinking.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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