[ SCIENCE BLOG ON ARCHITECTURE, COMPETITIONS AND MEDIATIONS OF EXCELLENCE ]

WHO ARE THE CLIENTS IN AN ARCHITECTURE COMPETITION PROCESS?

Jean-Pierre Chupin, October 26 2019

Jury of the Beaubourg Plateau competition, 1971. From left to right: Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Francis, Jean Prouvé, Emile Aillaud, Philip Johnson, and Willem Sandberg

A favourite argument of the fiercest opponents of architectural competitions rests on the importance of the listening relationship, even connivance, between the architects and their clients. The competitions would have the adverse effect of interfering, preventing a balance between the expectations of one and the propositions of the other. In this representation of the approach – yet denied in the long history of these contests – the client would be ultimately largely absent.

This representation, recurrent but biased, tends to forget that the interventions of the clients marks the process: before, during and after the competition. Before, because it is up to the customer to formulate the terms of an order in the form of a program and quality criteria. During, since there are most likely representatives of the client in the jury; we will get back to this. After, because it can also be considered that it is legally up to the client to accept or to refuse the result: this rule being clearly written in most competition rules.

The enumeration of the client’s representatives in a competition is however expressive: the professional advisor, the quality of the competition documents, the members of the jury, the diverse committees, the public presentation devices, etc. Beginning with the professional advisor, who can carry out all the actions necessary on behalf of the client but can also limit his performance to a professional service to the one who pays, in detriment of the public’s interest. For example, can the chief librarian be considered the only client of a contest for a new public library? In all civil and democratic logic, the lambda user of the library, much like the Minister of Culture, would both be legitimate representatives of the client of the public library.

In this coil of responsibilities, typical of spaces and public spaces, the client cannot be confined to one end or the other of the decision-making chain and, paradoxically, all the members of the competing teams could also be considered as potential clients for the public building under study. It is an ability to anticipate the needs – to understand the expectations and the needs of the users – that emerges among all form of architectural empathy.

But in fact, like in theory, the entity that finds itself at the nodal point of the principle of the competition, the one who not only has the right but the obligation to behave as a potential client is simply the “jury of the competition “.

It is shocking to have to remind certain organizers, public and private, that the jury is the representative of the public and must be assembled to embody all the representations of the client. The jury is that “temporary client” to which the design teams submits their projects, in hopes that the process of collective qualitative judgement will be as fair and as representative as possible of all the interests at stake. In other words, the jury is the closest embodiment of an ideal model of the complex “client” entity of a competition for a public building.

That being understood, forming a jury with elected officials is as delicate as introducing an architect whose fame risks mobilizing or inhibiting debates. Even the elected representatives who are legitimate spokespersons of the public, should not impose themselves in a jury to avoid impeding all discussion and therefore all collective judgement by their apparently indisputable representativeness(1). As a general rule, the jury is composed of representatives speaking for the public interest, but some competition rules consider that neither elected officials nor the civil servants should act as members, since they can be subordinated to political or administrative interests all the while forgetting the needs of the general public. The history of competitions is a slow and continuous movement towards the democratic recognition of the public interest: the same way the history of the Internet reflects the tensions between transparent communication and manipulating propaganda.

In a competition database such as the Canadian Competitions Catalogue, the ontological structure of the computer program distinguishes many entities underlying the concept of “individual”. We distinguish for example the project manager, the representative, the professional advisor, the members of the jury, the designers, etc., but in this list the entity “client” is absent, because the logic of a computer system does not suit heterogenous entities.

This reflection, which may seem theoretical, does not signify that clients that choose the process of the competition to realize their projects would easily recognize that they are participating in a collective enterprise: even less in the production of architectural knowledge. But they sometimes happen to consider competitions as a way of communicating with the general public and nowadays it is not rare to encounter situations in which a new representative of the client, the “communication advisor”, will enter the decision-making chain to control the message, sometimes blocking the dissemination of the submitted projects, except, of course, for the winner. This intervention is problematic, since a process designed to preserve the representativeness of the public, as well as transparency, is transformed once more into a black box (2). Access to public understanding of a competition becomes impossible once communication officers – of clients as well as designers – focus on retaining information.

At a time where news – both real and fake – reaches us in real time, it is these exact characteristics of transparency, collective debate and fairness of the competition that determine its capacity to welcome all the interests and the representatives of the client.

It remains to be seen whether these interests are better represented in a call for tenders, where the customer hides somewhere behind spreadsheets and where, in the end, the “lowest bidder” could very well be the true name of the client.

Notes:

  • (1) To make this even clearer, and to use an extreme case, it is not uncommon to see a private client wishing to launch a contest surprised to about not being the only member capable of judging projects, as it is not uncommon to meet certain elected representatives that see themselves as the only legitimate representative of the public. The weight of the French President François Mitterand, in the debatable judgement of some major competitions of the 1980s in Paris, is now well documented and analyzed since the famous critics of François Chaslin (Les Paris de François Mitterand : Histoire des grands projets architecturaux, Gallimard, Paris, 1985) to Laurence Cossé’s work on La Grande Arche (Gallimard, Paris, 2016) twice awarded the price of the Book of Architecture and the François-Mauriac Prize in 2016, not to mention some doctoral theses remarkably documented such as that of Loïse Lenne: “Le temps de l’évènement architectural. Fabrication et mise en scène de tours de bureau et leurs quartiers : la City, la Défense, Francfort”. Thesis directed by Antoine Picon and Pierre Chabard, defended in July 2015, University Paris-Est.
  • (2) As Emmanuel Caille, editor-in-chief of the French newspaper D’A (D’Architectures) explains, in a special issue devoted to the competitions we conducted with him in April 2013, the contests are sometimes seen as essential elements of cities’ communication strategies. (https://www.darchitectures.com/que-savons-nous-des-concours-a1158.html consulté le 26 octobre 2019.)

Jean-Pierre Chupin

Translated by Jade Swail