Competitions: who really wins?: Adrian Ellis weighs the pros and cons of the most popular way of commissioning public buildings

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Thanks to the National Lottery, architectural competitions are set to become a major cultural force in Britain. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on buildings over the next decade. Some will be spent on heritage projects, some invested in extending existing art or sports facilities, but large sums will also be sought from the lottery for new buildings to celebrate the millennium. Competitions will feature prominently in the selection of the architects.

Britain has pretty well lost the knack of commissioning great architecture and urban design. The legacy of the past 20 years is less distinguished than in those countries with whom we would like to compare ourselves. We had better rediscover the knack quickly, or the opportunities presented by the National Lottery will be fumbled.

The most common device through which major public buildings are commissioned is the competition. Consequently, the relative decline of public architecture can be gauged by the fact that in 1992 Britain had just 15 competitions. In that year, France had more than 1,000 and Germany 600.

Competitions are open to all qualified architects in the European Union (or internationally), or are by invitation only. In an invitational event, six to 10 selected practices compete with each other. Participants will have been chosen by the competition organisers on the basis of each practice's experience, skills and design philosophy.

The spate of major competitions inspired by the lottery include one by the South Bank Board to find ways of improving the Hayward Gallery and the rest of its concrete landscape, and the Tate Gallery is planning to hold one to turn the Bankside power station opposite St Paul's cathedral into a museum of modern art. The international competition for an opera house in Cardiff has entered its final stage, with a shortlist containing Mario Botta, Sir Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Itsuko Hasegawa, Rem Koolhaas, Neil Morton & Associates with Percy Thomas Partnership and Manfredi Nicoletti.

Open competitions offer young architects and designers who have not yet established their reputations a chance to break through. They evaluate architects solely on their design abilities, not their reputations or marketing skills, because, if organised properly, the assessors do not learn the names of the entrants until they have made their choice. The careers of Sir Richard Rogers, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and Jorn Utzon were launched this way, their relative youth or inexperience hidden by the cloak of anonymity.

Competitions stimulate a wide range of approaches, so the client or sponsor is more likely to find an outstanding design. Moreover, there is a wealth of valuable intelligence to be gleaned from the jurors' comments.

Competitions have another virtue: they force clients to prepare proper briefs. This makes them think through what they really want (and can afford).

So why do British architects moan about competitions? They can be seen as 'rip-offs', ways of trawling through the profession's ideas. Open competitions demand hundreds of hours of unpaid work from competitors. And even where honorariums are paid, they provide scant reward for time and effort.

The final straw is when you win and have to watch as the commission melts away like snow in the sunshine. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, but a common one is organising a competition without having secured the funds necessary to build the winning entry. At the moment none of the lottery-inspired competitions can promise a building because the organisations involved in the dispersal of lottery money have not yet invited applications, let alone decided who is to receive it.

Competitions are an expensive, time-consuming and elaborate mechanism, not for clients who are faint- hearted, slapdash, opportunist, or impoverished. They require a conscientious client committed to the process, a competent professional adviser, a thorough brief (which includes a budget), fair and precise rules and submission requirements, a realistic timetable, a qualified jury, appropriate honorariums and proper publicity for the winning design. Any competition that leaves the architectural profession feeling slighted or short-changed will result in less effort, enthusiasm and goodwill for the next one.

Yet the very nature of the competition process, with its anonymity and stiff preoccupation with propriety, can be counter-productive. Architecture is a business of particulars. When architects are asked to propose something in a competition for a client whom they do not know, it can be difficult to design more than a standard product.

Architects perform best when they and their clients understand each other, and hence the nuances of the brief and the design. Giving the candidate architects an opportunity to work alongside the client for a couple of days can help, but because everyone is on such unusually good behaviour these 'getting to know one another' sessions tend to be strained.

Especially important, however, is public consultation. Before a competition is set in train, the client really must ensure that the general proposal - be it an opera house, a museum or a sports stadium - has been debated. If not, then no matter how good the designs generated by the competition, they will be attacked in order to criticise the very basis of the project itself.

Assuming the project is publicly acceptable, there remains the matter of how far the public should be involved in the choice of a particular design. Architects do not often rush to put their designs up for general approval. They have understandable fears of public - and royal - conservatism. The non-architects on the jury carry the burden of attempting to judge and articulate popular reactions.

The most that can be said is that competitions are like democracy: they are better than the alternatives. And since they will be an essential mechanism in the commissioning of new architecture, their integrity and refinement is of pressing importance.

The author is a director of the arts management consultancy AEA. Details of a conference, 'Commissioning for the New Millennium', to be held in Edinburgh on 9 June, can be obtained from 031-452 9963.

(Photograph omitted)