Competitions aren’t just about winning

A few weeks ago I was talking to an architect. When I asked if he was busy he said he had had a mad weekend because he had just decided that his (relatively small) practice should enter the competition for the Helsinki Guggenheim. It was just before the deadline, and his team worked flat out. 

He hadn’t been going to enter and then, he said, he looked at it and thought that it was such a nice competition that he might as well have a go. I don’t think he really thought he stood a chance of winning, and when Malcolm Reading, the organiser of the competition, announced earlier this month that there had been a staggering 1,715 submissions, he must have realised that his chances were very small indeed. 

Still, somebody has to win, and unlike a lottery, not everybody is equal in a competition. If it is well run – and the competitions that Malcolm Reading runs are widely considered the best – then talent should out. Architects are not short on self-belief so they usually over-estimate their chances. Yet the odds are obviously not favourable.

A while ago I wrote a document for BD on ‘How to win work’. This was mostly about appraising which jobs to go for and how to direct your effort in the most productive ways. On a cold analysis, entering an open competition like this one looks insane. Look at the work put in and the chances of recouping the time spent, and it seems a definite no-no. But… Of course for many practices, should they win they would catapult into a different league. There are several architects around today who have made their name in just such a way, of which the most obvious is Richard Rogers (with Renzo Piano) at the Pompidou in Paris.

And even if you don’t win, there are other rewards. It will have stimulated the minds of everybody in the office, they may have advanced their thinking and upped their game and … insert management cliches here. And it was doubtless fun. Having fun at work is very important, especially if it is fun that you have working and not in spite of work. If architects made all their decisions on a hard financial footing, then the first decision would probably be… not to be an architect at all.

In the end they are in architecture because they love it. Much of the time they will have to bear the balance sheet in mind if not focus on it entirely. But every now and then, entering a mad competition is just the right thing to do because you want to. And who knows? You might even win. 

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