Com­pe­ti­tions: Before & after Covid

October 2020

Energy Sheds
Ener­gy sheds


In a Rome desert­ed by tourists I had the chance to sit on a small emp­ty bench on the Piaz­za Navona right next to the ’ Fontana dei Quat­tro Fiu­mi (Foun­tain of the Four Rivers) — usu­al­ly hid­den from view by oth­er tourists — which was designed and exe­cut­ed by the sculp­tor Cav­a­liere Berni­ni in 1651

Rome was emp­ty and we had all the time in the world to look at every detail carved in mar­ble: toes, hors­es, robes, fish, emblems and hair on the famous baroque foun­tain. Our smart phone with Wike­pe­dia was our guide.[i]

The foun­tains were designed for Pope Inno­cent X, whose palace over­looked the piaz­za. The foun­tain also was the result of a design com­pe­ti­tion for archi­tects and artists for which Berni­ni was ini­tial­ly not invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate. It was sug­gest­ed the sculp­tor had ene­mies because of his pop­u­lar­i­ty and suc­cess. After all the Borgh­ese fam­i­ly were his patron. Fil­ippe Bal­dunic­ci, Bernini’s biog­ra­ph­er writes in 1823:

[..] the Pope had designs made by the lead­ing archi­tects of Rome with­out an order for one to Berni­ni. Prince Nic­colò Ludovisi, whose wife was niece to the pope, per­suad­ed Berni­ni to pre­pare a mod­el, and arrange for it to be secret­ly installed in a room in the Palaz­zo Pam­phili that the Pope had to pass. When the meal was fin­ished, see­ing such a noble cre­ation, he stopped almost in ecsta­sy. Being prince of the keen­est judg­ment and the lofti­est ideas, after admir­ing it, said: This is a trick … It will be nec­es­sary to employ Berni­ni in spite of those who do not wish it, for he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.”[1][ii]

The reac­tion of the pope to Bernini’s mod­el is one we all hope to illic­it from jury mem­bers when we sub­mit a com­pe­ti­tion. For them to stop in ecsta­sy and to only suc­ceed in deny­ing its beau­ty by not see­ing it. 

When I searched more I found Archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tions have a long his­to­ry. The first com­pe­ti­tion being held in 448 BC for the design of the Parthenon.[iii]

Oth­er build­ings that were the result of archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tions: the White house by James Hold­en, in 1792 cho­sen from 9 entries and the hous­es of par­lia­ment, in 1835 by Charles Bar­ry cho­sen from 98 entries.

Jaques Caban­ieu from the MIQCP [iv] , France’s body for qual­i­ty of con­struc­tion, writes that com­pe­ti­tions in France serve two pur­pos­es: the client gets to choose a design rather than an archi­tect, so is not being forced into some­thing by the archi­tect and it breaks the grip of what he calls the star prac­tices’ of the pro­fes­sion by open­ing up the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bid to a wider range of prac­tices. It also gives a prac­tice and its staff a chance to think dif­fer­ent­ly about a project and push bound­aries. The com­pe­ti­tion sets the lev­el of the build­ing that is aspired by both the archi­tect and client which makes devel­op­ing the pro­pos­al into some­thing tan­gi­ble eas­i­er. At the same time Caban­ieu acknowl­edges that com­pe­ti­tions are a waste of cre­ative ener­gy and pleads that archi­tects should be reim­bursed for their work. 

Not clients in all coun­tries are equal­ly seri­ous about real­is­ing the com­pe­ti­tion result which means that the com­pe­ti­tion process and after­math can be cost­ly and waste­ful for archi­tects. Espe­cial­ly if more than 200 prac­tices enter com­pe­ti­tions and the process of choos­ing itself becomes a lot­tery. The Archi­tects Jour­nal held in May 2018 a pan­el dis­cus­sion on the mer­its of com­pe­ti­tions in What’s wrong with archi­tec­tur­al com­pe­ti­tions’. The points Caban­ieu makes are acknowl­edges but the over­all crit­i­cism is that more and more of open ideas com­pe­ti­tions are a cheap way for clients to get many ideas and a lot of pub­lic­i­ty.[v] Doing com­pe­ti­tions is expen­sive and labour inten­sive for prac­tices. As the foun­tain sto­ry showed, the pre­sen­ta­tion has to stir the jury mem­bers even after they see 250 oth­er presentations. 


Dur­ing COVID my prac­tice par­tic­i­pat­ed in many ten­ders and com­pe­ti­tions and for sev­er­al rea­sons: First of all there has been lit­tle work dur­ing COVID19 for a recent­ly estab­lished prac­tice with­out a clear iden­ti­ty such as mine. It is dif­fi­cult to meet new clients over zoom and dur­ing lock­down: Clients who do have work will prob­a­bly go with the prac­tices they know as zoom is not the eas­i­est plat­form to meet peo­ple for the first time. 

The sec­ond rea­son is that dur­ing the ear­ly days of the lock­down, every­one was spec­u­lat­ing on the future: the econ­o­my, com­mu­ni­ties, the work­place and the rela­tion between the three. Doing com­pe­ti­tions was a good way to devel­op ideas about the future and giv­ing us the feel­ing we were equip­ping our­selves for a future yet unknown. Look at the amount of play­ful social dis­tance pro­pos­als that have been made and ways of shield­ing and wear­ing masks. This has now turned into jobs for prac­tices who can turn offices into safe spaces. A third rea­son, which builds on the sec­ond one: com­pe­ti­tions, whether won or lost, pro­vide a way of build­ing up a port­fo­lio and cre­ate a sense of direc­tion for the practice. 


Com­pe­ti­tions were all sub­mit­ted elec­tron­i­cal­ly, times have changed since Berni­ni, and while mak­ing last­minute draw­ings for the think 2025 com­pe­ti­tion I missed the dead­line by 1 minute. 

The idea for think 2025 (the idea of a new future was in the names of many com­pe­ti­tions), a think­ing shed’, con­tin­ued on the sub­mis­sion for anoth­er com­pe­ti­tion, Homes 2030, which we par­tic­i­pat­ing in. Despite being crit­i­cal of its pur­pose: the solu­tion to the hous­ing short­age isn’t one pre­fab method that can be repli­cat­ed for­ev­er. We there­for pro­posed a hybrid con­struc­tion method in order for archi­tects and com­mu­ni­ties to be able to adapt a con­struc­tion sys­tem to a spe­cif­ic site, in a rel­a­tive­ly short time, where small amounts of hous­es at the time can be built, involv­ing com­mu­ni­ties and cre­at­ing jobs. 

The fac­to­ries in which the hous­es would be con­struct­ed would also dou­ble up as Car­bon Free and Low Ener­gy infor­ma­tion cen­tres’, pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion and guid­ance on the lat­est cli­mate research, to invite peo­ple to con­tribute to the debates and to teach peo­ple in how to live car­bon neu­tral and how to achieve it in their homes and gar­dens In the 1960s good liv­ing’ exhi­bi­tions were held all over Europe (some coun­tries gave even class­es) to show peo­ple how to live in apart­ments and how to use mod­ern bed­rooms, bath­rooms and furniture. 

[i] <https://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​F​o​n​t​a​n​a​_​d​e​i​_​Q​u​a​t​t​r​o​_​Fiumi>

[ii] Fil­ip­po Bald­in­uc­cis The life of Cav­a­liere Berni­ni (1682):





[iv] Mis­sion inter­min­istérielle pour la qual­ité des con­struc­tions publiques. – _Comp_217.pdf

[v] See also AJ 10/03/2020 Maria Smith: Boy­cott this phoney home of 2030 competition.