Manchester’s Factory is right not to have an architect on its jury

A knowledgeable and diverse panel is key, writes Malcolm Reading in the AJ

33 Manchester Factory Eero Saarinen
Image of Eero Saarinen © RIBA photograph collection

If I took a poll of AJ readers asking them the question, ‘To select an architect in a competition, do you need an architect on the jury?’, I’m pretty sure I would get a 100 per cent ‘yes’ vote. Isn’t it an article of faith that designers must be judged on the basis of design quality, and who else but another architect is qualified to do this?

For this reason, the ‘No architects on Manchester’s Factory competition jury’ controversy strikes a special chord in competition protocol. Although it’s probably only architects who are animated about this, the unconditional principle seems obvious.

But the client at Manchester disagrees. Pointing out that no design for the £110 million art space is being assessed, chair Richard Leese argues that the jury is well represented ‘with expertise in the commissioning of award-winning public and private developments’. And there is an impressive range of development and placemaking expertise on the supporting panel.

The Manchester example is interesting because – as Leese says – it’s not a competition for a design but the selection of a designer to work up a concept alongside the client team. So perhaps different criteria apply: cultural fit, capacity and track record, rather than design content.

Two millennia ago, Vitruvius had a more generous viewpoint: ‘In fact, all kinds of men, and not merely architects, can recognise a good piece of work’. Although in need of some gender balance, Vitruvius nevertheless appreciated that the skills needed to make judgements are not restricted to a professional mind.

Competition juries badly need people who can instantly connect with design outcomes and are highly visually literate. Sometimes an architect can fill this role, but architects by nature and training itch to design, to take the hand of the competitor and guide them.

Experience as a client is often a good indicator. Martin Roth of the V&A – a serial client and a juror on our competition for a new museum in Mumbai last year – is able to immediately conceptualise whether a design will work or not. This skill is immensely valuable to the rest of a jury because it enables a more meaningful analysis of the value of a design, not just its iconicity.

Architectural competitions throw up all sorts of complicated and complex issues. Most involve layers of added interrelated factors such as urbanism, placemaking, social anthropology, engineering and cost.

A good jury needs to mirror this diversity, assembled, as Vitruvius saw, as a meeting of minds and not just a tick list of qualifications.

The apocryphal story of Eero Saarinen (pictured) picking Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House design from a pile of discarded entries on the floor is invariably used (by architects) as prima facie evidence of the absolute need for an architect juror. The legend is not accurate (read Peter Murray’s excellent monograph of the building, The Saga of Sydney Opera House, for a more authentic analysis) and the tortuous development of that concept design is well known.

It’s not a dogmatic rule – there are exceptions like Michael Manser and Terry Farrell, who have a reputation for collaborative working – but the blunt fact is that practising architects are usually best on the other side of the table – pushing their passion, imagining the future and generating innovation.

A good supporting panel will combine technical expertise and peer review – it’s a great place for fellow professionals. Juries, on the other hand, need veteran building users and real patrons, people with experience and judgement who can enable others’ creativity to flourish and ripen, with the foresight to back the right team.

This mix, combined with diversity, familiarity with the brief and (often) brute stamina makes for the most effective outcome.

Malcolm Reading is chairman of Malcolm Reading Consultants, a leading independent organiser of design competitions.

Reprinted kind permission, the Architect’s Journal, London, UK.