Helping to make the unknowns well known

Competitions may be hard work, but they remain a fantastic opportunity for new talent to establish itself

41 Malcolm

Malcolm Reading writes for the AJ

Architects are, like us all, caught up in the talent stakes – perhaps at the sharpest end, for it is their creations that are most public. They must believe: if I have the ability, if I study and learn from the masters, if I dedicate myself to the design, then the landmark building, acclaim and success will follow.

Last week Ilian Mihov, dean of the global business school Insead, was widely quoted in the international media saying: ‘We live in a world where talent has become the core currency of competitiveness, for businesses and national economies alike.’

In a fair world this mitigates impossible hours, damp sites and sceptical clients. However, skew everything somewhat less fairly, and what preoccupies everyone, from the greenest design rookie to directors of international museums and heads of business schools is: how does the talent get through? How do you make air and space for unknowns lacking a track record or the resource of a large supportive office?

In Finland we’ve been running a low-profile competition over the past year for a client who wanted just that – to find new talent. Taking a design competition to Finland is rather like opening a patisserie in Paris. The tradition is part of the national identity. Standardised competition rules were established in 1893 and have, over the years, been refined by SAFA, the Finnish Architects’ Association. Even today, it is considered to be almost a duty to participate; it’s accepted that entering a competition is part of professional development.

Finnish architects feel keenly the aura of Alvar Aalto. Like his fellow designers, Aalto approached competitions as an essential function of being an architect. He appreciated that competitions were unlike normal routine. They force a pace and creative energy that sharpens both the individual mind and office dynamics. Large practices can test their design ateliers; small practices can learn to work as a team.

Aalto honed his process. He appointed someone to analyse the brief; made the first sketches himself; had his assistant draw these up; and then the whole office would work through the night to meet the deadline. Sound familiar?

Over half of Aalto’s work was won through competitions – he entered in excess of 100 and won awards in 55. There’s a deal of rejection there alongside the prizes. Aalto’s dedication to competitions is a good model for architects today. Competitions may be fewer and more arduous (caveat: check they are properly run) but they still allow a good practice to shine, match up to more established designers, and test their abilities. Most offer excellent PR and often an unexpected introduction to other projects. Receiving an honourable mention or making a shortlist improves your chances of being noticed by other clients. It can also be hugely motivating.

Not that the Finnish model is unimprovable. Relaxing its anonymity rules might encourage selection based not just on design but other abilities, such as skills in public engagement and multidisciplinary teamwork.

This way competing architects can meet the client and other stakeholders during the process and begin the foundations of a working relationship – something we have been able to achieve in Helsinki, uniquely with SAFA’s agreement.

One thing will never change: working through the night, ridiculously close to the deadline, is a tradition.

In Helsinki, the Sea Horse restaurant has been the scene since the 1930s for exhausted architects to meet after making submissions, to raise a glass, commiserate and anticipate that the next competition will be the one.