Survival Tactics

December 3, 2010

- by Tor Inge Hjemdal and Anders Melsom

We met up with Dorte Mandrup in her Copenhagen office to discuss her opinions on current competition culture within architecture, based on her extensive experience both as a jury member and as a competing office.

Anders Melsom: What role do competitions have for your own practice in terms of developing innovation and new ideas?

Dorte Mandrup: I think that the competitions are no longer the arena for developing new ideas. We do a lot of competitions because we depend on getting new assignments in this way, but the competitions are more and more focused on being “safe” rather than finding new possibilities. Quite often we find ourselves in the dilemma between trying to develop something new, knowing that we won’t win, or trying to win by giving the client what the client expects. The way competitions are set up at the moment focuses on an immense amount of documentation and jurisdiction, not on facilitating the best program for the best architectural work. This way the client consultants think they can keep the client safe, but they turn focus and energy away from the core of the matter. This setup also influences the way the juries work. The general appointment and attitude of the juries seems to be above all, pragmatic.

Many competitions do not even have a proper jury or experienced competition advisor, and even if they do they are controlled by different measurement systems, again turning the discussion away from the matter. The tendency is to serve the client in a practical way: “effortless is better”; don’t cause any trouble; the client should get something that is economic, buildable and safe. Not so long ago the architects in the jury were expected, on behalf of their colleagues, to fight for the best architectural proposal no matter what, and by doing so also serving the client in the best way.

You can discuss whether this is good or bad, but it’s not pointing at the core of architecture, and not at all calling for innovation.
This is part of the reason why competitions are not able to develop new ideas today, and it’s really a pity, because where else can you actually develop new ideas and get them published and discussed. We don’t even discuss competition results very much in Denmark anymore, not even among colleagues. So there is kind of a silence around it, and it seems like everyone accepts that winning competitions are much more about reading the program and making the answer that the client would like.

AM: To kind of break the code of the client?

DM: Exactly, to break the code of the client, and sometimes this is really well done, but it’s not necessarily the best or the most innovative architecture that comes out of it. We have been discussing it in the office a lot. If you use the competition to search in some direction, it means you don’t have a chance to win and nobody will discuss it, so it is somehow wasted.

AM: You say there is always this dilemma that you have the opportunity to use the project as research, or to develop architectural ideas, but somehow along the way you have to choose?

DM: Yes, sometimes we say we want to do this for ourselves because we want to try this out, but we know we won’t win.

AM: Even though you somehow have the feeling it’s the wrong strategy toward the client?

DM: Yes

Tor Inge Hjemdal: Do you then have a clear strategy for reusing the knowledge you have been developing?

DM: Not a clear strategy, but I guess since we are always building models, if there is an idea we think is interesting, we will keep it. When you discuss a new competition or a new assignment you can take this project out and say: this was interesting and maybe we could develop that. So in that sense we reuse ideas and we also have this internal database. We made this database with most of the projects we did not realize, and categorized them into housing and so forth. You can go into this database and see what we were actually doing five years ago. And sometimes you find something really interesting that can be developed now because times have changed and it’s a different situation. Sometimes, it’s not that you are in front of time but that you are out of time. But I don’t think we are that successful at doing competitions, even though we do a lot. We have always been much more at ease with developing a project within the time it takes, and that’s all the way through to the building drawings.

AM: Can we ask you how many competitions you do each year on average, and are you also doing open competitions?

DM: We almost never do open competitions. There are not that many and it’s too much of a lottery and too much of a risk I guess. If we were richer, we would probably do more. We are mostly doing prequalified competitions, and spending a lot of time getting prequalified.

AM: How is that in Denmark? In Norway there has been a lot of criticism that to be able to partake in competitions you have to have experience with similar kinds of project; for example, to prequalify for a school building you have to have drawn a school before.

DM: Yes it’s the same here. It doesn’t help with the development of things. We gave up on trying to get pre-qualified for competitions on day-care institutions, because the demands are on how many day-care institutions you have done and how many you have done within the last 3 years? The architects who have done the most will be prequalified. We have only done three and that was more than 3 years ago, so we were out.
The whole of Denmark is subject to juridification. Lawyers will sit and check your papers, see how many day-care institutions you have done, and now we also have a system of “grade books” where the client grade different things in the process. The demands are now that you have to send your grade books with the prequalification. All this doesn’t have anything to do with quality; it has to do with point systems, organisations, economics and time management, and the people that decide this are not architects; they are lawyers and economists.

AM: So this leads to more specialization among the architecture offices?

DM: It leads to specialization and it also leads to nobody discussing quality anymore; everybody discuses the point-system for getting prequalified, getting the good marks from the clients. So I guess having an architectural office is always a fight you could say. It’s not that you have to be a difficult person, but there are always difficulties you have to fight for if you want to make good architecture. There are matters in the process where you need to be maybe not so smooth. In that sense it gets more and more difficult in the whole process from getting prequalified and all the way through because the goals are set in a different mindset: that of lawyers and economists.

TIH: Is this somehow linked to the quality systems?

DM: Yes, it has a lot to do with EU regulations and with standardization. Since it’s so expensive now to do a competition, it’s so expensive to do a bid if you are a contractor, everybody who finds a mistake in the process will complain. Everybody is very afraid of complaints, so they get stricter and stricter; it is kind of a spiral.

TIH: In an interview with Jensen & Skodvin in our last issue, they stated that the whole system is not geared towards achieving quality but rather towards avoiding mistakes.

DM: Exactly. I guess it also has to do with clients being more anonymous now. Of course the representatives of public clients have always been a bit scared of getting their asses kicked, but with the harsher consequences of mistakes, it’s certainly not getting better.
There are not many private clients that are not in it just for the fast money, and they don’t care very much about quality that can’t be capitalised on. You find very few clients that are actually interested in architectural quality for the sake of it; they just want their house to be safe, warm and air conditioned. The difference between real quality and just getting everything done right is very big.

AM: You said that the way this system works has changed a lot over the last five years?

DM: When we got into the prequalification system within the EU it took a while for the system to make all the structures work, and it seems that now it’s taken over totally. Some of the municipalities have whole departments of lawyers to avoid mistakes.

AM: Do you see this increased juridification also influencing the way private clients think?

DM: You can still get a good private client, but usually the private client is now a developer, and they are mostly interested in what the market says right now. They are not interested in developing new things. Why should they be? It’s a risk.

AM: This is a pretty dark and grim picture of today’s situation.

DM: I think it’s a realistic picture!

AM: Do you see other ways of doing research and development in architecture if competitions are not a viable option anymore?

DM: As schools are getting more aligned with university standards, you can work with a PhD candidate in the architecture school and maybe pay half the cost, or you can work in some sort of collaboration. These kinds of investigations you can do, but I think any kind of real tectonic investigation you won’t be able to get funded anywhere, so you have to do it by yourself. You need in every sketch project you do, to put in a little development. But it’s on your own cost, of course. And sometimes you’re lucky that the client wants to be within this development, and then it’s really great.

TIH: We see an increase in engaging with people with different knowledge, to include them in the process to develop new ideas. Is this a strategy for you?

DM: I think that is a great strategy and we like very much to work with people from different spheres. But it has also been a very superficial strategy that the clients have had for competitions the last few years. They think that if you have a very large team doing a competition, the result will be more innovative. But in real life, sometimes it can be interesting working with anthropologists, designers and artists, but a lot of the times you actually do these changes to please the client, and not because you want to. In Copenhagen it’s become accepted practice to include different fields, different knowledges, and maybe a young office in the team. Everybody is just doing it, otherwise you won’t get in. It’s actually very difficult to do the competition because you don’t get enough money and a lot of the times the experts that you take into this team, they don’t have the possibility of earning later on if you win the competition. In a way, it’s kind of exploiting their knowledge in the competition. They spend a lot of time on it, and they don’t have a chance to get any further work. The client doesn’t have an idea of the enormous amount of work they demand to get this little house done. It’s just totally out of proportion in relation to what they can offer in the end. And then there’s this idea that this competition is so interesting that everybody would like to pay to be in it.

AM: Often there seems to be a great gap between the ambitions in the competition stage and afterwards in the implementation.

DM: Yes, we often see enormous demands on documentation of sustainability, climate, economy, BIM models and high technical standards. In the end the client just wants to go by standard budget, materials and timeline. The more you demand, the more you get; this is not true. The more you invest, the more you get. It’s very naïve to think that the more demands the program lists, the more quality you will get.

AM: In Norway it is part of the discussion now that it is impossible, for example, to build starter apartments at a reasonable price because of all these new demands and rules implemented by the government in accessibility and environmental concerns, just building a very simple flat is becoming so demanding. In the end, a lot of people can’t pay for it anymore, and it becomes a double edged situation.

DM: I guess it’s not so much about the government’s demands as the way the client consultants view the whole process. If you put pressure on everything, you are able to give the client a diamond, that’s just not true.

TIH: You are mentioning the increasing knowledge and respect, are those the best strategies for getting new ideas implemented?

DM: I think the way to work if you want to develop things outside the competitions is to make more specific projects outside the competitions. In a way getting more specialized on solving special problems or going into very complicated situations, either a building or a very difficult environment. More and more, this is how we are getting assignments.

TIH: You are mentioning relevant issues like social difficulties and challenges in society. Is it not your role as an architect then to locate architecture in a wider perspective?

DM: I know what you are getting at, but it’s more like if you have a very complicated assignment that requires thinking out of the box, or a spatially complicated solution.

AM: Again, you are putting up a pretty dark picture of the situation, but you also point now to a fascination with the very limitations, and they come to you because you are becoming an expert at dealing with these kinds of constraints.

DM: You need to become an expert in this, and it’s the only way to survive. You can say that it is very dark, but architects have to be very cautious that they are not becoming engineers, that they are not going the same way as the big engineering firms that have experts on everything, but don’t know anything about the totality. And it seems big architecture offices now are more and more specialized, with experts on different topics. In a way they are trying to keep a very high quality level, but on the other hand, at some point it gets very impersonal. Even though they think they develop a lot, it doesn’t seem to me that so much happen concerning their spatial and core architectural development. It seems like the big offices are getting more and more daring, making increasingly wild shapes and designs, but there is no development with integrity. It’s more a kind of “styling”, and I find it dangerous when architecture becomes just a style. Architecture has moved far away from being based on attitude. This is also related to competitions, when you no longer show an interest in the attitude towards architecture. You look on the site and the program, answer by “styling it” and this becomes the “brand” of the building in a very superficial way. And then, nobody asks for more.

TIH: Who should ask for more?

DM: Yes, who should ask for more? As I see it, the only way out is if the architects association and the architects in competition juries take up the battle and demand that the architecturally most interesting projects wins. Why aren’t architects more interested in this? This is also why I find jury work motivating. I have taken part in many jury-panels. Of course the program has some criteria to be fulfilled, but in the end it is the jury that defines the criteria. It is very important in jury-work to start out with a very positive interpretation of all the projects, not starting out by trying to find all the mistakes. This way you are reading the projects according to their potential and possibilities, and not just from their pictorial appeal. What has happened to competitions in the age of the rendering is that projects are not evaluated in detail anymore; they are read just as images.

AM: So paradoxically, 3D rendering has made the evaluation of architecture less spatial and more 2D, more flat?

DM: Yes, there is a lost interest in the plan drawing, the medium that somehow tells most about the spatial qualities of a project. There is more attention to renderings and maybe diagrams because they are simpler to understand. This is what sells in competition projects.

TIH: Do you feel that your experience in jury work has influenced the work of your own office?

DM: Perhaps I see more clearly how hard it is to come through because it is all about giving birth to a thought or an idea. The process of doing a competition I really enjoy, and I become really angry by all the competitions you get exposed to. Here in Denmark a lot of architectural competitions are organized by engineering firms that don’t have a clue what it’s all about. The building consultants make a lot of impossible demands for all kinds of documentation. This means that the whole set of rules of how to organize a competition developed through many years, giving a fair treatment of entries and giving the jury a fair chance to carry out their assessment, is simply overruled and replaced by laissez faire conditions. It’s a question of culture, a culture that has not been implemented or has been broken down and destroyed. The despairing situation is that the commissioner often thinks that the more material and documentation they demand in prequalification processes and competitions, the more secure they can be of making the right judgement. And this is starting to influence the architecture itself, when people are doing competitions for complex buildings like hospitals and so on; the non-architectural demands are so extensive that you often end up with a building which is nothing more than the sum of all these demands.

AM: In our competition on the future of competitions in the current issue, we have raised the challenge on how to make the architectural competition more responsive to challenges and changes in future society. Do you have any views on this?

DM: From the position of the small architectural office, I have the impression that everyone who can save themselves, should save themselves, and find some void to live in! If I should be a bit more optimistic, the architectural association has to engage and create awareness for the unfeasibility of creating competitions based on architectural quality under the present conditions, and inform on the need for competitions that are more problem-focussed or attitude based. Again, this will put a lot of power of definition and responsibility on the jury – and courage to take conflicts with powerful commissioners, the public media and interest groups.



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