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Back to the drawing board

Architectural competitions are crucial to architects. They can make or break their careers. There's nothing new about the idea. Historically, many public buildings have been chosen by competition. Edinburgh's New Town was the result of a competition in 1767. So were the Houses of Parliament in 1835, won by Barry and Pugin. But now competition is compulsory for new public buildings in Europe. So Sir Norman Foster won the Reichstag in Berlin and the Millennium Bridge across the Thames to link St Paul's with the new Tate at Bankside - which was itself a prize for the Swiss duo Hertzog and de Meuron. Other foreigners who will build for Britain include Daniel Libeskind with both the Spiral extension to the V&A and the Imperial War Museum in Manchester; and Norwegian Narind Stokke Wiij at the Edinborough Architecture Centre. We still don't know who will win the competition to design Wembley Stadium, but Loeb Partners came first for the main stadium at the Sydney Olympics.

The Chicago IIT campus contest that Rem Koolhaas won (see left) was a very polite affair. The four finalists who lost had the blow softened by $20,000 payments. In France and Germany, where public buildings have to be selected from open competitions, shortlisted architects can be paid between pounds 5,000 and pounds 150,000. In Britian it's seldom more than pounds 2,000.

Other competitions, such as the process to find a design for the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, are not shaping up so well. No sooner had Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, announced that it would be built at Holyrood, a World Heritage Site, than he moved swiftly to give "architects throughout Scotland, Britain and indeed Europe, the opportunity to bid for the chance to design the Parliament".

"It's a tender, not a competition, to find the architect for the Scottish Parliament," Richard Haut, publisher of the weekly architectural and design Competitions listings throughout Europe believes. The first stage will be completed by the end of March, when application forms from design and architectural firms are due at the Scottish Office. These forms are designed to weed out all but the bigger practices. So the first question on the application to the Scottish Office asks how much experience the practice has in designing pounds 50m buildings. Asking this will "disenfranchise many architects", as the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland provocatively asserts.

But Richard Haut is optimistic that architects without the pounds 50m building behind them can hitch up with a structural engineer to get in their initial application. Even if the Scottish Office is looking in the first instance "for architects with a proven ability in producing buildings of the quality, complexity, and sensitivity we are looking for on the Holyrood site", the pounds 50m question is hardly in the spirit of their stated intention to hold an international design competition. This procedure will allow the Scottish Office to choose an architect, rather than a design. It should have been dropped for an open competition in which architects registered in the UK were invited to submit sketched designs anonymously against a brief.

Holyrood hopefuls will have to get their skates on. Scottish architects suspect that the four practices which were engaged - and paid - by the Scottish office to make feasibility studies of the potential sites will be shortlisted for the building itself. Eight other names are expected to go forward into the first round, which closes at the end of March.

The RIAS has expressed disappointment at the rush - "After 300 years, for a building with an expected lifespan of hundreds of years, what are a few hundred days?" NN