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Everything you would like to know about contests, but are afraid to ask

25 of August '22

The text and conversation come from the05/22 issue of Architektura&Biznes.

On the role of architectural competitions in Poland, the erroneous stereotypes associated with them, why they are so necessary in the urban space, and the sarp's cooperation with the Chamber of Architects, Marek Kaszynski, president of the Cracow branch of the sarp, and Marcin Brataniec, vice president of the Cracow branch for Creativity, talks to Małgorzata Tomczak.

Malgorzata Tomczak:Why is it so difficult in Poland to convince investors to enter architectural competitions?

Marek Kaszynski: Because contracting authorities are not aware of the benefits that competitions can bring. This procedure is relatively uncommon and unknown.

Marcin Brataniec: And procurers are afraid of the unknown. Arguments are then raised about long deadlines and high costs. The procurers don't verify this data and simply don't know that competitions offer benefits alone.

Malgorzata: So let's dispel the stereotypes about the cost and length of the competition procedure.

Marek: A competition costs money, but every procedure costs money. For a tender you have to have de facto very similar materials as for a competition. On the other hand, a competition, first of all, pays off financially, because there is not the slightest chance that the contracting authority will acquire the same number of concepts on the open market for the amount invested in the competition. If a dozen or so dozens of works are submitted to the competition, their market value is astronomical, completely incomparable to the cost of the competition. Second, the ordering party gains the opportunity and the right to choose. Thirdly, it gains promotion, marketing, the whole competition environment: the competition is talked about both when it is announced and when it is decided. The competition is alive: it travels around the fair, its results are published, it is the subject of debates. These are some intangible benefits, which, by the way, can also be valued.

Marcin: In addition, there is a good chance of receiving a well-functioning building, because by comparing different concepts (and what is important - the comparison is made by professionals who are competition judges, appraisers, consultants) during the deliberations, which are often many days long, it is possible to screen the proposals very carefully and, as a result of this process, choose a building that will be the best functionally and economically.

konkurs na Centrum Literatury i Języka Polskiego „Planeta Lem” | I Nagroda, proj.: JEMS Architekci

Competition for the Center for Polish Literature and Language "Planet Lem" | 1st Prize, design: JEMS Architekci.

© JEMS Architekci

Malgorzata: To what extent is the competition a safe procedure for the contracting authority, to what extent is it competitive to the tender, still much more popular.

Marek: The competition must be 100 percent safe for the procuring entity.

Malgorzata: What does that mean?

Marek: It means that the procuring entity cannot be allowed to lose the money spent on the competition without any result. If this happens, it is, in my opinion, a badly announced competition.

Marcin: If you are preparing to build an important facility, it is better to think longer and more deeply. Think long, do quickly - the old maxim. A competition is such a deep thought, which evidently increases the security of the investment.

Margaret: So why is there a perception that competitions are risky? Or that they fail?

Marcin: I think in this case there is no difference between the various procedures. Not every tender is settled, not every tender ends with the selection of a bidder, not every signed contract ends with the making of a project, not every project ends with implementation. This is where the laws of the market and the specific conditions of the procurers are already at work. I think that in percentage terms, there are not so many unrealized competitions, this is comparable with other procedures.

Marek: In the case of many competitions that did not end in implementation, it was due to a lack of knowledge of how to conduct them correctly. A competition in which, as a result of not signing a contract with the winner, the contracting authority is left without any options to continue the investment, in my opinion, is a competition that was wrongly announced. The competition must give the contracting authority security. If it does not give him that, and if the procuring entity risks time and money in a game in which it may not win anything - the competition is wrong. Still another case (encountered already, fortunately, less and less often) are contests that were announced as implementation, but the procurer did not care about actual implementation, and the goal was, for example, current political needs.

Malgorzata: What should an ideal competition procedure look like?

Marcin: The most important thing is a clearly defined goal by the ordering party. If the ordering party knows what it wants, and really wants to realize it, then - I know this from experience - the process will end in construction and realization.

Marek: I would say exactly the same thing. A competition makes sense when the ordering party wants to implement the competition object (or space!).
There have been initiatives, and continue to be present, to develop model regulations, point by point, on how to make an architectural competition that will be great. In my opinion, this shows a lack of awareness of what a complicated and knowledge-intensive procedure a competition is. If I gave you a disassembled car and instructions on how to put it together, you wouldn't put it together, despite the instructions.

Margaret: Investor resistance to holding competitions is one side of the coin. The other is that architects themselves also very often complain about the competition procedure, mainly about the high cost of participation.

Marek: The competition should be beneficial for both the ordering party and the architects. The ordering party should care that there are as many entries as possible, and architects should feel safe in the procedure. The competition cannot be more favorable to one of the parties. What is important for the participants is the topic, the composition of the jury and the question - what after the competition, what is its future?

Margaret: Investor resistance to holding competitions is one side of the coin. The other is that architects themselves also very often complain about the competition procedure, mainly about the high cost of participation.

konkurs na Krakowskie Centrum Muzyki | I Nagroda, proj.: BE DDJM Architekci

Competition for Krakow Music Center | 1st Prize, design: BE DDJM Architects.

© BE DDJM Architects

Marcin: Also important are the conditions under which the architect - if he wins - will implement the project.

Marek: The quality of the competition is determined by the correct pricing of the investment and design work, deadlines, terms of the contract. I think that the prize pool is certainly also important, although - realistically - it is enough to wipe away tears, it is not the purpose of entering the competition, so I would treat it as a less important point.

Margaret: Marcin, what does it look like from the participant's point of view? What convinces you to take part in the competition? And what is it about the cost that keeps many studios from participating?

Marcin: First of all, I look at whether the competition will result in implementation. Does it result in commissioning the winner to develop the design documentation together with supervision. I don't participate in a competition when I see that the author's copyrights are taken away. No serious person enters such a competition, the architect is interested in implementation. Of course, studio competitions also make sense, but this is a separate topic. For me, the most important thing is whether the competition is interesting at all, how it is outlined in the regulations and whether there is actually a chance of realization.

Marek: I recall an anecdote. On the occasion of the competition for the Center for Polish Literature and Language "Planet Lem" (2018, First Prize - JEMS Architects), there was a lecture by Alberto Veiga in Krakow. He was on a great streak at the time - winning competitions and realizations, including the Mieczyslaw Karlowicz Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin (2014), which later won the Mies van der Rohe Prize. He said at the time that, from his point of view, whether to enter a competition is determined by whether he wants to be associated with a particular theme and place for many years. Winning, after all, involves arriving or coming to a construction site.

Marcin: As for the cost of the studio, I think it's enough to look at these things soberly. There are costs of premises, materials, trips, as well as time spent. We whine that it's not worth it, then a hundred entries come to the competition. From smaller, large, medium-sized, various studios, that is, however, the competition is popular. Of course, this generates costs, but still not enough is said about what profits it generates. By entering the competition, I reject my various day-to-day gas stations, apartments, upcycled PUMs, all that is the daily routine of many studios. I reject ad hoc design and suddenly become the kind of architect I wanted to be when I went to college, when I took on the profession. I can think and go back to the basics somewhere, that is, clear my head, open up. It may cost me money, but this work then stands in competition with others and is evaluated by the greatest architects in Poland, the greatest authorities, whose evaluation - applying - I wanted to undergo. And now imagine that I want to go with a project or with my thoughts to, for example, Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski or Maciej Miłobędzki or Zbigniew Maćkow or someone else. How to do it? To go to his studio and say: Sir, what do you think about what I think? If he were to give me a day or two, how much would it cost? And how much will it cost to talk about this work? And how to talk? So what the competition gives me is that I can gather my thoughts, go back to the basics of my profession, have my thoughts and skills professionally evaluated, juxtaposed with the needs of the orderer and see where I am. To recognize, perhaps, that I am underestimated, that, as in Monty Python, "nobody understands me, damned philistines. I designed such a slaughterhouse, and they don't understand any of it" [laughter]. And seriously, this development potential is huge. I've entered many competitions, I've also lost many, and I don't consider any of them a loss, because the ideas that arose at them were applied to other concepts. The thoughts that developed there went even further in other projects. There is no chance for such detachment in an ad hoc design like PUM, parking, office, jostling for a building permit. Participation in a competition is another layer that builds the intellectual, spiritual foundation of our profession, and it is very difficult to convert this into money.
On the other hand, the role of the organizer of the competition, including the Association, is to reduce direct costs as much as possible. We have done a great deal in the Association over the past dozen years to get to the point where we have two-stage competitions, that competitions are sometimes done on 2-4 boards, that the days of competitions for which you have to draw a set of plans in 1:100, seven details in 1:20, a set of elevations and so on are happily coming to an end. Too little, in my opinion, is said about the fact that the competition is an intellectual investment in the development of the studio. People are willing to pay for training, and de facto, by participating in the competition, we receive a kind of training. It's a bit of self-education, but also a bit of training using the potential of the judges.

Marek: It is true and I encounter that architects do not enter competitions also because the chance of winning or winning a prize is relatively small. I remember a conversation at the Architecture Biennale in Krakow with Simon Ewings, who at the time was a member of Snøhetta, the office that surfaced in the competition for the Library of Alexandria. Simon said that as the studio grew, they basically stopped entering open competitions, for two reasons: the number of participants in competitions and the quality of the work increased incredibly, making the odds level so that on the scale of their office, competitions became unprofitable. In Poland, such voices also appeared. From the point of view of the organizer, the large number of participants is of course gratifying, although there is a certain scale that is beginning to be a problem. In my opinion, exceeding the number of one hundred works in a competition that is to be judged in two days begins to be a problem, if only on the merits for the court. I know that in Western countries there are searches for a certain formula for limiting the number of entries or contests by invitation (they are also popular in Poland in the commercial market, but unacceptable in the public procurement sector). It seems to me that the new Public Procurement Law, which imposes a competition procedure in architectural proceedings, has come to some help, so that the number of competitions is increasing, and from our point of view, as organizers, we are seeing a reduction in the number of submissions to individual competitions at the expense of their dispersion among them. This seems to be beneficial for the participants, as it increases their chances of winning or winning a prize, and also contributes to spreading the ideas of the competitions.

Marcin: Contests - despite their various conditions, drawbacks, siege and so on - are still one of the few, perhaps the only chance for younger studios to access the market of large orders. I myself once existed in such a way, starting in one, second competition ended up winning, and then I realized larger public projects, which even in tender procedures, where recommendations, references are required, is very difficult. A young studio with a lot of intellectual potential can win a competition and establish itself in the public market.

Malgorzata: What does it look like on the timeline - how long does the average competition procedure take, and how long does a tender take?

Marcin: The timeframe - already at the start - largely depends on how prepared the contracting authority is in terms of setting the goal of a given investment.

Marek: A one-stage competition can be done in four to five months; a two-stage competition - six to nine months. Of course, this depends on the scale of the competition and the complexity of the project. A competition for a simple building, which the participants will come up with relatively quickly, can be announced in shorter timeframes, while a competition in which we are dealing with a multi-faceted building, requiring longer work, must have longer timeframes - this is the first thing. And the second - in a competition, various solutions can be used, including lowering the prize pool, shortening deadlines, but it always comes at the expense of something. The shorter the deadlines, the less interest there will be in the competition, so this benefit for the contracting authority is also smaller. Similarly with the prizes: smaller prizes mean worse working conditions and, consequently, less interest in the competition. A competition will only be as good as its weakest element. With an outstanding jury, with great prizes, and with extremely unreasonable deadlines - the competition will not be successful. With great deadlines, great prizes, but with a terrible jury - the same.

Malgorzata: And a well-prepared orderer is what kind of orderer?

Marcin: One who knows exactly what he wants. He needs to know how the facility is to function, meanwhile he often only knows that he wants to build some kind of facility, a school, a philharmonic hall or a dance hall. Then, in preparation for the competition, we still have to spend a great deal of time together to develop a functional program, a budget for the investment. And the ordering party should first of all know what kind of facility it wants to build and have a program for its operation prepared. In second place, followed by the budget. This is the first most important package. Then there are technical matters: reconnaissance of the site in question, maps, connection conditions, in special cases conservation conditions. And one more, who knows if not the most important thing. We live in democratic times, decisions are no longer made solely from the top down, as a result of some causal acts of authority, participatory, consultative processes are very strongly developed, so the ordering party should have recognized social needs, and therefore it would be very good for the results of social consultations to be prepared.

Marek: As part of the Association's self-promotion, I would like to add that there are sometimes procurers who do not even so much encounter the competition procedure as the need to implement anything for the first and perhaps only time in their lives. Then the Association plays the role of an auxiliary body: it helps to develop a program, advises on how to implement the investment so that it works as well as possible. We have knowledge and are specialists in architectural topics. We share this knowledge with the procurers.

Malgorzata: Does SARP, as the organizer of competitions, have any influence on the amount of awards?

Marek: It doesn't have a direct influence, of course, it doesn't impose anything on the ordering party, because these are often budget issues beyond our control. On the other hand, SARP has a very strong advisory power. SARP's experience or recommendations, precisely by showing the ordering party that something is more profitable for them, have often influenced the increase of the award pool. Awards are a very individual issue. I think that if the procuring entity wants to hold a competition, but has a limited budget for prizes, then you just have to accept it. I don't know if we have announced any competition under absolutely ideal conditions.

Margaret: Competitions are run by different entities. Why is it good to do a competition with SARP? What does the ordering party gain by turning to SARP for help with the competition, or by engaging it as an organizer?

Marek: The basis of the benefits of working with the Association is a know-how incomparable to any other entity in Poland. We have more than a thousand registered SARP competitions. Probably second as many unregistered, but organized or recommended by the Association's field units. No one else in Poland has done so many architectural competitions. Our experience and knowledge cannot be overestimated for the ordering party. Through cooperation with the Association, the ordering party also gains access to our most elite group, the members of the College of Competition Judges. This is a statutory body of the Association, and you need to meet two conditions to be in it. First, one must meet the substantive criteria (implementation experience, experience in competition courts, awards won), then the candidate is subjected to democratic elections during the general meetings of the branches, where, in addition to this substantive mandate, he or she gains a mandate of confidence from colleagues. In this way, we have managed to develop a very professional group of evaluators of competition works, which we make available to the commissioning party.

Marcin: With SARP, the ordering party gains security. In practice, it looks like this: if, for example, the topic of a competition for a concept and then a hospital design comes to us, we reach into the resources of the College of Competition Judges and ask colleagues who have already realized hospitals. They have gone through the design, implementation of this type of function, and they are both local architects and architects from all over Poland. The ordering party gains experienced advice from people who have already proven themselves in the realization of the function. The same is true for philharmonics, sports halls or other functions. We always look for people who have experience, that is, experts.

In the Public Procurement Law, the competition procedure has recently been greatly strengthened. Looking from this perspective, it may have been recognized that investments that are made on the basis of ccc (price works wonders) type choices, i.e. what is cheapest, simply do not pay off in the long run. The cheapest project chosen in a bidding process often means the least amount of time spent on it, the cheapest professionals who will spend the least amount of time on it, and so on. This results in the fact that at the level of technical details, choice of materials, various aspects that shape the durability and functionality of the building, the object fails. With a competition, on the other hand, there is time for reflection to work out quality. This is simply a long economic calculus.

konkurs na przebudowę placu Juliusza Kossaka w Krakowie | I nagroda, proj.: ngo + pasierbinski

competition for the reconstruction of Juliusz Kossak Square in Krakow | 1st prize, proj.: ngo + pasierbinski

© ngo + pasierbinski

Malgorzata: Does SARP cooperate with the Chamber of Architects on competitions? What does this cooperation consist of?

Marek: In the context of our Krakow experience, we have it worked out. In 2002, an agreement was signed between the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, represented by president Kazimierz Ferenc, and the Association of Polish Architects, represented by president Ryszard Jurkowski, on mutual cooperation, with a list of tasks incumbent on each of these institutions. To generalize: on the side of the Association remained creativity, on the side of the Chamber remained the conditions for the practice of the profession. In a competition these things are intertwined, because a proper competition moves seamlessly from the selection of a concept to the implementation phase. One of the stages is the signing of a contract with the winner, in which the most important thing is bilateral security: the security of the ordering party and the security of the architect. Based on our branch's very good relationship with the Malopolska Chamber, together we have developed model essential provisions of the contract, refined over the years, in many aspects pioneering in the country. This is primarily about the proper disposition of copyrights, the proper establishment of warranty terms, guarantees and so on. This gives the contracting authority the confidence that together with the winner they will bring the investment to fruition. A successful competition does not end with a pretty picture, but with a realized investment.
Marcin: We are actually one group that cares about the same thing. The Chamber, by virtue of its legal authority, guards first of all the hard fundamentals of the profession, that is, the safety of both parties, because our goal is to make this arrangement symmetrical. For the sake of the contracting authority, the architect must have good working conditions. The Chamber makes sure that the remuneration is due and the legal conditions are met. And the other way - so that an unreliable architect is disciplined by contract. Anyway, this is what the Chamber has its bodies for. In the Association we are aware of the formal and legal background represented by the Chamber, and this is a very important cooperation.

Malgorzata: Is it possible to determine what absolutely should be a competition for, and what can possibly go by tender procedure?

Marek: A competition - preferably for everything. It gives an opportunity to choose when spending public funds. This opportunity should be given to every expenditure of public funds, not only for a philharmonic hall, concert hall, auditorium, museum, theater or other public administration building, that is, let's say, an icon. Competitions are also needed for parks, squares, streets....

Marcin: We are very fond of the example of Kielce SARP, where a competition was announced for the entrance to a community center. It can be considered an extension of the vestibule with a hall, but someone thought about it, that it should be well thought out.

Marek: We have experience of working with the City of Cracow, with whom we have done both a competition for a very large facility, the Cracow Music Center (2020), with a budget exceeding 100 million zlotys, and aa competition for the very small but extremely important Juliusz Kossak Square (2021), which has a chance to become an urban space connecting the Vistula boulevards with the Old Town and the adjacent Kossakówka. Everywhere you need to think about, you need a competition. There are competitions for visual identification, for interior design, such as the outstanding realization of the arrangement of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow (2017).

Marcin: There are also competitions needed for small architecture for the neighborhood, for the square, for the addition of a gymnasium to the school, for the new school. These are also important objects. There is also a stereotype that if something is in the register of monuments, you shouldn't do a competition. This is a very bad stereotype. Such objects require all the more thought! If we are to introduce new communication, we need to ask ourselves how to do it. If the rooms are too small and we need to combine them - how? It is a very misconception that the more restrictions, the less room for architects. No! More restrictions, means more problems to think about, and the more there should be how many proposals to solve an issue.

Marek: We also regularly encounter the belief that there will be no competition because the development is not a building. And yet the space between buildings is just as important, if not more important, because it is our common good. With parks it is exactly the same. More than once I have heard the question, "And what to design in a place where trees grow?". Though alleys, benches, visual identification, the plantings themselves - landscape architecture is such a rich field, diverse, requiring thought, that we can't allow it to be done through tenders, that is, the cheapest and all the same.

Margaret: Competitions are a popular procedure mainly in large cities for important buildings with a cultural or public function. With a few exceptions, they have not caught on in small and medium-sized centers. What do you think is the reason for this?

Marek: In small cities the competition is much more important than in a big city. In a big city "there is somewhere to go," in a smaller center a new development is often the first important space in the city. A library with a plaza (sometimes the only one), a city hall, an auditorium. These spaces require the same thought and attention, because they are just as important as in big cities, and are often the most important for their residents!

Marcin: Small local governments with small budgets don't seem to be able to afford a competition, a good, sometimes actually more expensive, project. Meanwhile, those older and wiser than me said, "We have too little money to buy cheap things. What we have, we must spend wisely. Perhaps slowly this old saying will become an increasingly common signpost.

Malgorzata: Then how do you convince investors from smaller centers to use competitions more often?

Marek: It's worth saying that in every provincial city there is a SARP to turn to. Of course, SARP does not have and will never have a monopoly on competitions, but I think we have the best preparation for competitions and the greatest knowledge of how to do them. The most important thing is that public procurers, private procurers, from big cities, from small cities, from big institutions, from small institutions understand the advantages of a competition. They should want to have a choice, want to shape the space according to the criterion of quality.

Margaret: Mark, you are a great opponent of ideation contests. They are supposed to recognize the potential of a place and space and propose solutions. But by definition, ideation contests do not aim to implement a project.

Marek: Paraphrasing the classic that the building law in Podhale did not catch on, I can say that study competitions in Poland did not catch on. They function in the West and are of extraordinary value in searching for a program, directions for urban development. In Poland, for many years, study competitions were announced in two ways: either they were study competitions, which in theory were supposed to provide a foundation for the program, but the results of which were not used at all; or, last but not least, they were announced as study competitions, but de facto leading to the assumption of copyrights and used for implementation by tender. These were such quasi-implementation study competitions. As a result, in Poland, these competitions are not taken seriously by the participants, with all the consequences for the contracting authority. There are various marketing ways to make study contests more popular, but I know from experience that none of these efforts translate realistically into quality responses. That is, first of all. Second, and this is something we unfortunately also face in the Association, there is no public understanding of the idea of study contests. The general perception is that a competition that has not resulted in implementation, which is the de facto idea of a study competition, is a competition for nothing. It is thus a pebble against contests in general. Without a broad understanding of the difference between the idea of a study contest and a realization contest, any study contest will be a problem. For many years after a study competition, there will be discussions about why nothing came out of this competition? Why was public money spent on it? The realization competition, according to the Public Procurement Law and the Association's standards, is a competition in which the ordering party declares its intention to commission design work and ultimately realize the facility. So it is a competition with a real effect. It seems to me that this is what we need now - more tangible evidence for the ordering parties that competitions work and make sense.

Margaret: Thank you for the interview!

interviewed by: Małgorzata Tomczak

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