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Should the public have a say in choosing architects?

The public don't get much say in the selection of designs for major public buildings even though they're the main users, but there's a case for them having a bigger role

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An unsuccessful proposal for the redevelopment of Flinders St Station (render by Kilograph)

In an opinion piece published by Fairfax on the weekend, It’s our station and we should have a real say in its future, journalist Shane Green argues the people should have a bigger role in choosing the architect for the redevelopment of Melbourne’s Flinders St Station.

Six finalists were selected by a jury late last year from a pool of 117 applicants who submitted entries in response to the international design competition for the redevelopment of the iconic station (see Will Flinders St Station be the next Guggenheim?).

The fully-developed proposals of these six will be put on display around the middle of this year. The public will then be invited to vote and their preferred scheme will get the people’s choice award.

The nub of Mr Green’s complaint is that under the competition rules the results of the popular vote will be kept from the jury. The jurors won’t know which proposal the public prefers when they decide who wins the commission and the $500,000 prize. He says:

I’m profoundly disappointed the people will not be heard on what should happen to this remarkable and beautiful building. Would the jury’s discussion be compromised by knowing what the people think?

He doesn’t say if there’s a groundswell of popular opinion supporting his view. Nor does he say what the practical benefits would be beyond, presumably, the sense that greater decentralisation of decision-making is a good thing.

I can see two positives, although I’d put that in the context of extending the idea of a popular vote to also include active consultation as an input to the jury’s deliberations.

Being aware of the public’s preference could increase the likelihood the jury would select a building with wide appeal (or reject one that many people are hostile to). The public would have a better chance of getting the sort of building they like.

It could also give punters an incentive to inform the jury of specific technical problems with any of the proposals. In effect the final outcome could be improved by crowdsourcing.

If the public is viewed as the key “customer” of the project, then giving individuals and community groups a bigger stake in the design process is just good business practice.

The jury might not listen, but that depends largely on their marching orders and on the sorts of interests they represent. The jury for the Flinders St Station competition has a range of skills.

On the other hand, there are potential drawbacks too.

The jury might feel pressured to reject innovative and unusual designs. It might be hard to believe from today’s perspective, but it can’t be taken for granted that back in 1957 a majority of the NSW public would’ve preferred Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House.

There’s also a risk the jury might compromise important practical considerations by selecting a popular “show pony”. Flinders St Station has key functions that can’t be bargained away.

Most importantly, it is the busiest interchange in the city’s public transport system. It is also arguably in the city’s most important location, on the pinch-point connecting the cultural precinct with the CBD and Federation Square.

It would be a mistake to assume all six schemes will be equal other than for the way they ‘look’. They won’t be direct substitutes.

They’ll doubtless all be competent and professional, but they’ll make different trade-offs and compromises. It’s probable at least one will “stake all” (so to speak) on a lavish visual statement.

I think the issue raised by Mr Green highlights the folly of the Government committing to a competition in the first place (it was an election commitment).

The incentives inherent in a competition can be perverse. Each finalist only has a one sixth chance of winning the commission.

They get some payment to prepare their proposals (an “honorarium to assist with costs“) but it’s not enough. There’s little incentive to “go the extra mile”.

The better alternative in my view would’ve been to select an architect based on capability. That way the design could’ve been developed in a measured and iterative way in full consultation with the many and various parties who have an interest in the project.

It could’ve been worked up in active consultation with the public too. It would’ve provided the time and incentive to market-test different proposals with the public (a practise that seems surprisingly uncommon in architecture).

Still, where competitions are held, I’m inclined to agree with Mr Green that the views of the public should be taken into account by the jury. I think that should be structured as a positive consultation process, not just a vote.

The public is a very important client for a building like Flinders St Station, even if most members have a very limited understanding of the relationship between all the variables in play in such a complex project.

There are risks, so the selection and obligations of the jury are extremely important. A good principle though is the more information it has the better.

Note: I don’t know yet who the designer of the scheme in the exhibits is (it’s not a finalist). It certainly has some interesting ideas; the tower puts me in mind of a Gunther van Hagens dissection – the sinew sliced away to reveal the bone!

 

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