Dear Other Architects

Charles Holland, director at UK based firm FAT Architecture (see their public bathroom proposal for London) runs Fantastic Journal, an interesting blog on which he recently published the following open letter to us, the other architects:

Please stop entering design competitions. It’s sheer folly. Here’s why:

1. It’s massively wasteful of your time and resources. Can you think of another comparable industry, or, more pertinently, profession, that spends so much time and money on bidding for work? Do doctors undertake a number of unpaid, speculative operations in order to convince people that they really need a hip replacement? No.

2. It gives away your main asset – your ideas – for free. After that, the rest is routine.

3. You are highly unlikely to win. This is just a fact. Some are better at them than others but no one wins them all and most lose often.

4. Even if you do win, it’s still unlikely that the building will be built. Most competitions are speculative, not in the sense that the client is looking for experimental architecture, but in the sense that there is little or no funding in place and they have not informed you of all the impediments still in the way of the project.

5. Therefore, there is often only one thing more disappointing than losing a competition and that’s winning one (in the long run).

6. They are a pretty terrible way of procuring a building. Imagine a system where you want something but you’re not sure exactly what it is. So you make a list of things you think you want and invite everyone in the world to send you their ideas for what it looks like. You have no other interaction with them, communicate – if at all – by email and, in the end, hope for the best and pick the one you fancy. This is the architectural competition process. It’s similar to internet dating, but less fun.

7. Competitions momentarily flatter you into thinking that you are designing, say,Oslo Opera House or a New Town outside Madrid but, in reality, you’re not. Until you get the commission it’s just pretend.

8. No one else in the world understands why you’re doing it. They just get used to you not coming out or refusing to take a holiday or forgetting to wash for five days. But they still think you’re mad.

9. You could do without the stress. All that time. All that effort. The all-nighters and the break-neck journey to the printers to get the boards made up! The intern dispatched to Inverness to hand them in because you’ve missed the courier’s deadline! The anxious wait for the results that sometimes never come! Honestly, you could do without it.

10. Remember: it’s not the failure that will kill you. It’s the hope.

So, if you’re thinking of entering a competition, don’t! Take your office down the pub instead. It will be more fun and cost a lot less. You might even meet someone down there who wants to give you a job. Remember: if you stop, I can too.

Cite: Basulto, David. "Dear Other Architects" 05 Oct 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=80663>

63 comments

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Piki is right. As much as tedious and tiring this profession is, I believe we come up with good innovative ideas through competitions with each other. If competition was removed from the profession, design would just head to, for lack of better word, stale.
      Don’t compare us with doctors. There’s a reason why the two courses back in campus were in different rooms.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        if you “came up with good innovative ideas through competitions”, why do you became an architect, if you like to run, race and whatever, why do you became an architect; i came up with good ideas outside competitions, because i like what i do and i want to do it better and better; and competitions have nothing to do with my professional development, just because architecture and sport have nothing in common

  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Are you kidding me? Have you ever taken a run to prepare for a race? Was that also not fun? Thought can atrophy if you’re not careful. You may think you are someone who can think, but if you don’t test that, then you may come to realize one day that architecture is something you used to do in school. Compete.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Very good point….

      Unless you are a company that gets so many comissions that you get to design all the time and stay fresh.

      I think there are about 10 of those in the world though.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    it’s a great letter——– i still think that lots of NEW architects want to get into those competitions….. to get recognition….. that would be a great achievement….
    everyone is free to giveaway ideas or solutions…. it’s up to you…..i mean…. you have to get lots of stuff before a deadline…. maybe you say all this because of your personal experience and of course its a valid point…… but at the end it’s only your opinion……. and it’s a respectable one. thanks for sharing it…. greetings from mexico

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    So Mr. Holland does not want to enter any competitions. Ok, fine. There’s no problem with that.

    But Mr. Holland also wants to dictate that no other architects should enter competitions? Sorry, but that’s not a very admirable appeal. I’m not tempted to enter more competitions just to piss him off.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Sorry for the typo. I meant to write:

      I’m now tempted to enter more competitions just to piss him off.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    1) Winning a speculative or ideas competition is a great form of marketing, especially when our profession has tight regulations on self-promotion
    2) ideas competitions elevate the profession as a whole. You may not profit greatly if at all, but if that’s what you’re after, perhaps pursue a career in finance or law
    3) Comeptitions for a commission are a way of getting work, but make sure it’s approved and abides by competition guidelines as sanctioned by your local chapter or regulatory board.
    4) If you can’t win competitions or always end up spending too much time when entering one, then maybe you should consider sticking to checking shop drawings

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    And seriously, why is this garbage even being published on ArchDaily anyways? More pretty buildings please. Thank you.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I think this phrase summarizes this whole statement’s irrelevance “Remember: if you stop, I can too.” There will always be someone willing to work for free, to spend countless hours on a meaningless task, to torture themselves for just mere hope. We have to keep competing…

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    So, would you suggest architects-to-be should avoid school altogether, too? I mean, think about it. 99-percent of the time, our projects will never be built, and we’re putting our ideas out there for free. In fact, I have to pay a Hell of a lot more to attend school than I do to work on a competition. As for numbers 8 and 9, I have one word for you: studio. Ever tried it?

    Competitions aren’t necessarily about winning and losing. They’re about challenging one’s self and developing ideas, understandings, and abilities as an architect. And, it never hurt anyone to dream big.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    wow…

    I am actually kind of shocked that there is not more praise for this letter. Seriously, the design profession is so stupid. How many professions (yep, it is a profession…even if you live for this shit) give it away for free. Architects are paid less than EVERY consultant on a building project. But hey why not also slave away for free? Nothing paints a clearer picture for the value of design than a bunch of designers tripping over one another to work for FREE. Wake up!

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      The schematic design phase is only worth about %12-15 of a total contract for a project anyway. Conceptual design is prolly worth way less. so wooopy ding dong. every endeveour in the free capitalist world involves competion. architects actually have it easy considering how protected the profession is. everyone will take a hit when starting out. You need to be able to pitch a job before you get it.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      It’s not about working for free. It’s about exploring, learning, inventing. Design competition for architects is the same as R&D for physicists, medics and so on. It’s a field where you learn stuff, where you share ideas and where you develop new techniques. The result from R&D like this is way less expensive than in any other kind of industry. Some of best participants get even prizes for the results. And everybody gets new information free to use. Close all the factories of new ideas and you are in a damp or charged heavily.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    The gentleman has had probably quite bitter experience with competitions. Although he makes some valid points, there is one very basic reason to enter a competition and it is to get noticed. Besides, it’s a breath of fresh air for many who are stuck with boring, routine work. One should choose wisely which competition is the right one for him/her before jumping in.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Good point about being noticed. Who are we architects trying to be notice by? Our peers or our clients? Who is more important?

    I am all for competitions as a way to explore new ideas and stay creative. In fact, sometimes I miss a good studio crit where I leave feeling pissed at the world. But like golf, one great shot keeps you coming back no matter how the rest of the round went.

    However, it is second to my job.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Oh, really? MR Holland. If you want to keep your ideas for yourself, maybe you should show them in a notebook and keep it until you die. So you son will get a lot of money by publishing your books.
    If necessary, you should build all your designs by yourself. haha. I think it’s better than entering design competitions.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    He’s right.

    It’s time for architects to stop giving clients free work.

    Especially after the way so many of these clients have behaved in this economy. Not paying us, firing their own workers to pocket more money, etc.

    It’s time for architects to boycott giving clients free work. They don’t deserve it and they haven’t earned it.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    My favorite portion of this letter is in the last paragraph. “if you’re thinking of entering a competition, don’t! Take your office down the pub instead. It will be more fun and cost a lot less. You might even meet someone down there who wants to give you a job”

    Exactly, let your employees have fun doing their job and let them know that you appreciate what their doing rather than have them slave for your far fetched competition project.

  14. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Well, I don’t know, but maybe it’s just because of my sense of humour, which allowed me to read it with a great smile on my face. I’m pretty sure, it’s just a Charles Holland’s great joke, something to point or just to laugh (all architects together) about our profession, which seems sometimes so foolish. It’s like: “You know you are an architect when:” joke. Also I’m pretty sure he had a great fun by writing this and having in his mind the vision of all these comment’s streams after, wrote by people, who took it in such a seriously and personal way. :)

  15. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Charles Holland is absolutely right:

    NEVER JOIN A (open) COMPETITION, IF YOU ARE DESPERATE TO GET A PROJECT – it won’t pay back, as chances are very little to win/get further commission/build.

    [Nor your lawyer, doctor or your plumber would work for free, only to proof to you how good he/she is, hoping for further commission!]

    BUT:

    Join a competition, IF:

    - You are eager to contribute to a topic/issue/problem and you understand architecture as a discourse, contributing to society, much rather than just building a house.
    - Your office has free recourses at the time, and you want to form a team for further tasks
    - You just want to.

    Otherwise, you should only join invited competitions, where you get paid for your effort.

  16. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Point #6 – while ‘what it looks like’ may be the limit of Mr Holland’s approach, the better firms I am aware of address a broader spectrum of concerns including programatic, operational, financial & cultural considerations – many of which may be best explored without being stick handled by a well meaning but usually untrained client – this can lead to innovation, raise the level of design dialogue, increase client self awareness & even save the client money by questioning first principles, clever strategies & innovation.

    Point #3 in fact reinforces the merit of the process (in good faith) in serving a client in that even a firm that wins many competitions may not have the best ideas ‘this time’ – but I believe an open unbiased process & expert jury is also required and … clients may also abuse thus undermine such a process in any number of ways.

    Designing the process may in fact be the condition precedent for success.

  17. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Imagine if the next time an architecture firm had the chance to spend a huge chunk of resources participating in a competition they instead decided to dedicate those resources on a pro bono speculative project that would benefit their community. They would still have the ability to stretch as designers. They could still use it as publicity. And they would have the opportunity to engage real people in a real discusion

  18. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    You look it only from one side. There are positive aspects of attending too – beside the negative ones – like training, getting noticed, self-realization and all the reasons they up there mentioned.
    Also it’s not so new discourse. Or is it a FAT promotion trick?…

  19. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    architectural competitions have started with Renaissance which started in the capitalist city states of italy where “the individual” began to be the center…

    look at what we deem as the greatest archtiectural products in history..which of them were commissioned with competitions?

    our crave to win a competition is a true result of our boundless ego, and indispensible feeling to best our negihbor. the same spirit that ignited the industrial revolution. when one wins a competition all others lose. our victory has to be some other’s defeat. looking at the abundance of the comments against the letter, it is not surprising at all since majority of the world belongs to this greedy industrial western culture.

    long live natural selection, darwin rules!

  20. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    YEAH SURE!!! Lets throw to the garbage THE method that sets the conditions for the most creative outcomes to flourish. Competentia is as old as civilization. Is a way to survive… Are you even in business? Incompetence is for the weak minded. You know what, heck im gonna write a letter too. Right here at this comment box. But this letter will not be directed for ‘WE’ The Others. It will be directed specially for you!

    Please stop writing dictated letters. It’s sheer moronic. Here’s why:

    1. YOU present yourself as a fool ‘dictator archaictect’.
    2. Nobody will want to work with YOU. (Already feel sorry for the ones who are. Castrated of their abilities to better themselves.)
    3. YOU obviously do not see the amounts of huge potential competition brings to us all. Just to name a few: Exposition, Promotion, Achievement, Reputation, Experience…
    4. YOU seem not to give-a-dam about working for passion or helping people in need, but only for $$$!
    5. YOUR notions of how we should work are like a thousand years behind contemporary trends. It’s the era of OPEN ideas, FREE to the world. Get use to it.
    6. YOU expose YOUR ignorance, and YOUR FAT need for attention.
    7. YOU’RE the type of guy who never learns from loosing, or defeat. Not able to see the opportunity to improve YOU just quit. Quitter!
    8. YOU think (if at all) the whole world should think the way YOU think YOU can think.
    9. YOUR frustration only reflects YOUR poor self-value and YOUR low self esteem. Do you feel better after the letter?
    10. Just because YOU can’t get a job trough this well proven method, means we should all embrace YOUR shitty perceptions and incompetence.

    So, if you’re thinking (if at all) of writing another letter or a reply, don’t! Take your office down the garbage dump instead. It will be a more appropriate environment for YOUR type of thinking. You might even meet someone down there who wants to give you a job. Remember: if you stop, ‘WE THE OTHERS’ be more than happy to take YOUR abandon opportunities and manage to make something with it you couldn’t.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      brother it is only about opinions, approve or disapprove, why are you that hurtful and insulting with your words? you are humiliating your idea and your character

  21. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    “The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.”

    …still wonder why are people trying their luck in competitions?

  22. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    both sides make great arguments:
    on the one hand, while we complain about the lack of respect our most cherished contribution to a project gets—the ideas, and the relatively meager compensation we get for it, aren’t perpetuating these problems any time we work for free?
    on the other hand, competitions are fertile ground, and fun—who hasnt dreamt of leap frogging over the years of toiling away to try to carve a niche in the limited group that gets the best commissions, about being the next Maya Lin, and being plucked from obscurity in an open anonymous competition to become a sought after Artist? and what is life without dreams?

    but there is one side of all this that no one has mentioned yet, and that is the ugly truth that the days of a Maya Lin taking the prize are over. where large lucrative contracts are at stake, it isnt left to “design merit” alone anymore. seriously. “anonymous”, and “open” are routinely trampled upon, with no one policing competitions in a real way.

    now, if there was serious oversight for architectural competitions, then great! what better way to have an unknown upstart compete against the old guard on design merit alone—that would be wonderful. too bad it doesnt really work that way.

  23. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    So, Charles, what’s the difference between design competitions and, say, competitive tendering or fee bidding? Fee bidding / tendering is incredibly time wasting in that only one out of goodness knows how many bidders will win the job. It gives away free information on how much things cost. Yet it is pretty much the standard form of procurement in the entire business world, from engineering to cleaning services and, yes, even architecture.

    So what is the better way to be judged Charles? On the strength of your ideas or on how much you can screw your staff in order to get the job?

  24. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Patricia, you are right, I imagine. So those people who are agreeing with him don’t understand, and those people who disagree are the impulsive, lead with you heart kind of lions who are just emphatic about architecture. Compete.

  25. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    well…. Guess he wants to be the only participant by provoking others not to join any competitions…

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