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Rebuild the ethos of the competition - a conversation with Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski

23 of November '20

A discussion of architectural competitions in Poland

Year after year, architectural competitions are becoming less and less popular in Poland, and their results are subjected to harsh criticism. This is not infrequently accompanied by almost sensational reports of behind-the-scenes activities or intransigence on the part of jury members. We talk to Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski about whether the competition procedure needs to be reformed, and the importance of public trust, as well as the integrity and professionalism of judges.

Jerzy SZCZEPANIK-DZIKOWSKI - graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology (1972). Designer of Ursynow Północny in Miastoprojekt Warsaw (1971-1979). Designer of the North Strand of Warsaw at the Warsaw Development Planning Office (1975-1979). Lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology (1980-1985) and thesis supervisor at the Faculty of Architecture at the Lublin University of Technology (2011-2015). Author's atelier with Olgierd Jagiello, within the framework of the Cooperative of Creative Work of Visual Artists Architects (1984-1989). Co-founder and partner in JEMS Architekci (1989). President of OW SARP (1984-1987) and secretary of the National Chamber of Architects (2001-2005). Recipient of the SARP Honorary Award (2002). Recipient of the Officer's Cross of the Order of Rebirth of Poland (2012). Author of many realizations and winner of numerous architectural competitions.

Alicja Gzowska: In your opinion, what characterizes a good architectural competition?

Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski: Agood competition is a good result. Most chances for a good result. If creativity means freedom within the boundaries set, then the requirements of the competition should not be excessively restrictive either in terms of content or form. Substantively, it is important to emphasize first and foremost the problem the contest is meant to solve. The standard formulation that "the purpose of the competition is to select the best design...", satisfactory from the point of view of the law, does not convey any expectations of the contracting authority. Participants in the competition should be told what the competition is all about. In the excellently prepared competition for the Grand Museum of Egypt (2001), two-thirds of the volume of the "terms and conditions of the competition" (a book of almost three hundred pages) was taken up by information about the historical context, the philosophy of the museum, the organization of the exposition, the history of Egypt, the museum's collections and dozens of other issues that would be relevant to know what is being designed and why. Further on there was technical information and rules for conducting the competition. Neither orders nor prohibitions can be found throughout the text - everything is just information. The injunctions were about deadlines, in part about presentation and how to send the works. This approach to the competition not only provides the participants with the necessary information, not only leaves them the maximum amount of freedom, but also appeals to their talent, knowledge and experience, i.e. takes them seriously, as people whose projects we are curious about and need.

A good competition is one that is well thought out and properly prepared from the point of view of the goal, including one in which procedures and formal requirements are reduced to the necessary minimum. The procedure can be dangerous both for the outcome of the contest and for the ordering party. It is enough, for example, for the board to be two centimeters longer than required, or the recognition number written in a different corner of the board, for the result of the competition to be undermined. Fear of such a turn of events, a misplaced recognition number, nearly led to the elimination of the work awarded in the competition for the Gate of Poznań (ICHOT). The supposedly serious jury, over which I had the honor of presiding, deliberated for a long time on what to do about it. There was not much missing, and the way the recognition number was placed would have decided to reject the awarded project, without going into the substantive evaluation. This would have been a disaster in terms of the purpose of the competition.

AG: Architects and investors agree that a competition is the best procedure for selecting high-quality projects. So why have many competitions recently been contested by both investors and architects or the public?

JSz-Dz: Underlying flaws produce flawed results. If competitions are not well prepared, if their provisions are easy to undermine even on formal grounds, if they are not judged by trustworthy people, then competition settlements are less and less likely to be seen as the best, and therefore unassailable. This is because the "ethos of the competition" is most important. How often do city or municipal authorities organize a contest as a political action, with no sense of real need. How often a formal protest is reached for the most trivial of reasons, treating the competition as a fight for a commission, rather than as a way to obtain the best solution and erect the best building. How often do we encounter suspicions about the lack of objectivity of the decisions. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult to dream of widespread approval of the competition institution. When ethos falls, ideals are trampled.

AG: I recall the competition for the extension of the Bunkier Sztuki in Cracow and the heavy atmosphere that accompanied its announcement and settlement. In your opinion, was this a case where that ethos was compromised?

JSz-Dz: Yes, this is a very difficult question, because many threads overlap here. Emotional, because the people of Krakow have a special sentiment towards the current state of the Bunker. Substantive, because the question of any interference with Krakow's Planty protected by the conservator of historical monuments is by definition conflicting. Ambitionally, because disputes over who should organize the competition, offended ambitions and ferment in the architectural community, and finally the status of my humble person as chairman of the jury, who at that time was not a SARP judge, and moreover was from outside Krakow. This is just a small sample of the friction that accompanied the announcement and conduct of this competition. For all of us - the organizer, SARP, the jury, the participants and the winners - it was a very difficult situation, and unfortunately we all failed to come out of it with a clear and legible message to the public, which would build the ethos we are talking about. It was the other way around, but don't ask me for details, because any answer will only sting. I will only add that in my opinion, the problems of this particular competition were not systemic problems, but problems of all of us, who did not know how to - although they probably wanted to - rise to the occasion.

AG: So let's go back to the systemic, as you called them, problems of competitions. There is a fairly widespread opinion that access to competitions is limited and does not allow young architects to participate, limiting the flow of fresh blood. Can something be done about this?

JSz-Dz: One can. While it is fair to understand the contracting authority's fears that a competition will result in a work that is not backed by a "serious" architectural firm, it should be noted that the treatments used to prevent this from happening are ineffective or even counterproductive.

For example, the threshold for participation is set by showing that the participant has designed some object similar to the one in the competition within the last few years. Anyone familiar with the profession knows that experience does not consist of collecting objects of a certain type. Its source is general familiarity with the profession, and if someone has designed a movie theater and not designed an office building, that doesn't mean he doesn't have the required experience. Experience is an instinct for design - it is not related to the type of building designed. This condition removes from the list of participants not only the young - many experienced companies have not designed crematoria, stadiums, airports. Setting such thresholds throws the baby out with the bathwater. By placing undue importance on the criterion of experience, talent is downplayed. And this one is at least as necessary. Contracting authorities are unable to believe that a professional jury can see from a competition entry whether its author has experience or not.

AG: Contracting authorities are sometimes eager to abandon the organization of open competitions, open to a wide range of participants. This was the case, for example, in the competition for the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Why? Was it precisely so that someone inexperienced would not get entangled?

JSz-Cz: I did not judge this competition. You can ask Maciek Miłobędzki, who was on the jury, about it. As far as I know, it was a competition preceded by two unsuccessful ones and a brawl with Kerez. The museum had had enough of standard competition procedures and was looking for another, more promising one. It was, however, an open competition in the sense that anyone could apply, and out of the dozens of teams admitted, the jury chose the winner based on the presentation of its vision for the museum, its sketches and a recounting of its approach to the competition task. Compared to the standard competition procedure, perhaps the biggest difference is that not only the vision was chosen, but also its author.

AG: The judging was not secret? The competition was not anonymous?

JSz-Dz:What was secret was the conduit, that is, the deliberations of the jury. But the participants and their works were known to the jurors. I will preempt your question. Anonymity is a comfort for judging, because it is harder to be impartial when you know the authors of the works. But it is not anonymity, but the honesty of the jurors that protects the participants from a biased verdict.

AG: How much, then, does the success of the competition depend on the competition judges? What should be the optimal composition of the jury?

JSz-Dz: The composition of the jury should guarantee a fair and honest evaluation of the works. When the ordering party does not trust the competence of jurors independent of it, it seeks to ensure that its representatives in court have the upper hand. Without taking anything away from them, it is fair to say that this is not conducive to maintaining a professional level of judging. Moreover, these judges are often controlled from outside the jury. Today, it is easy for a "decision-maker" to hand over illustrations of works so that they can instruct "their own" on their own preferences. Sometimes the mayor or president "invades" the courtroom to look at the works and, of course, without suggesting anything, give his opinion about them.

AG: Do you know of any such cases?

JSz-Dz: Yes. It happened to me a few or maybe a decade ago in a certain city in northern Poland. I don't want to mention the name. It is not relevant. It's about a general phenomenon. It was not the only case, by the way. To be fair, it should also be said that we architects are not saints either. It happens, unfortunately, that architects' judges prefer any of the participants for non-material reasons. Secrecy is a fiction today. But the fiction cannot be the professionalism, independence and integrity of the jury, because if it is, the competition becomes a sham.

AG: The result depends on the courage of the judges?

JSz-Dz: Instructed by a superior, judges are in a difficult position, especially when the instructions are openly at odds with the substantive evaluation. Even those employees of the "decision-maker" who are not professionals see this and feel bad. Besides, everyone then feels bad out of embarrassment. Judges must be both honest and courageous, otherwise they are not judges. In all this, one thing must be recognized - the evaluation of the ethical attitude of judges and their professionalism is an important consideration in deciding whether to participate in the competition. A good and honest court promotes the success of the competition, offering a correct outcome and as much participation as possible. And the "more serious" the architectural firm, the more importance it places on this, although, of course, this is not the only important factor....

AG: And other factors?

JSz-Dz: There is, for example, the question of the reality of construction costs and the architect's fees. These are notoriously underestimated. I once did a comparison between the construction costs predicted in the competition and the final costs. The initial cost is underestimated on average by about double, sometimes by half. A conscious architect knows when the cost is drastically underestimated. He knows that participation in the competition means acceptance of this cost and responsibility for the conformity of the realization valuation with it. And this conscious architect resigns from participation when he is aware that such a low cost is unattainable. He fears for his company and his name.

There is also the widespread practice of stipulating in the competition regulations the requirement to draw up a design at an undervalued price, inconsistent with the relevant regulation, which specifies for the design a percentage of the construction cost. Thoughtless pseudo-saving understates this percentage calculated on the already understated cost of construction. Again, the conscious architect sees no point in participating, not only because of the low or no earnings, but knowing that for such a price he cannot reliably perform the task.

comparison of construction costs predicted in the competition with final costs

© Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski

AG: And the schedule of the competition, the time for the court to review the works?

JSz-Dz: Both the participants and the court need time. To do their work and to reflect. All architects, I think, know how reflection is needed when designing - to look from a distance at what is being done. Judges need this time. Not only to get acquainted with the works, also to gain distance from them. For understanding each other among the judges. This is not only deliberation time, but also break time. Usually we have little of this time, but it's not what I would count among the greatest ills of the competition institution.

AG: On the judging side, they are substantive preparation, fairness and impartiality, which you mentioned. And, for example, don't two-stage competitions have the potential for better judging, gaining time for distance and reflection?

JSz-Dz: A two-stage competition is a good thing. We don't know how to do it well yet. The few Polish examples show an inability to separate the stages: to determine what is an idea and what is its realization. If the court does not know how to evaluate the idea itself, presented in the first stage of the work, in terms of its potential realization in the second stage, then it must demand its illustration. As a result, the scopes of the two stages tend to overlap excessively. Everything is then lost - both the time saved and the reduced workload. Such a competition requires better intellectual preparation of the jury, something we have trouble with in single-stage competitions. In both cases, the thing boils down to clarity and ordering of the judging criteria.

AG: What do you mean by that?

JSz-Dz: That's my con. The criteria are supposed to be clear, but they can't be precise. It is imprudent to write criteria into the regulations of competitions, which on top of that are assigned a so-called weight in percentages. This is absurd. There is no way to separate any criterion from the whole, which is a project. And the percentages are precise. The belief that one can separate, for example, originality from functional qualities flows from a complete misunderstanding of the essence of architecture. For the essence is that utility, aesthetic value, originality (if it is a value at all) meet in one integral work and are inseparable. How do you separate originality from the form and utility of Starck's lemon squeezer? What percentage should be attributed to utility and what to beauty in evaluating St. Mary's Church? The trouble with criteria is that since we can't separate them, the whole selection process, if it were to be based on them, is a sham. Assigning weight to them is a fraud, and claiming that we make our selection according to that weight is a lie. And all of this together perniciously reinforces non-professionals' belief that architecture can be defined as a collection of components that, when added together, create something we expect. That way, you can't even bake bread. You have to be able to do a little more than add flour, water and yeast together.

This is true of architecture and any competition for architecture. And a two-stage competition is like a competition to promise the taste of bread in the first stage and the recipe for baking it in the second. And it takes an experienced baker to suss out the chances of good baked goods from the promise alone. Architecture is something more complex than baking bread. So clarity and order in the criteria are important. And a good jury.

AG: And aren't these criteria changing? For example, in view of the dramatic situation of our planet, should the judges change the criteria - instead of icon buildings, promote facilities that contribute in a systemic way to solving or at least alleviating problems?

JSz-Dz:There is no such thing as fixed criteria. Each competition, depending on its specifics, has its own. Times also matter. For example, before functionalism, a different yardstick was applied to function, and its advent was accompanied by a turn to social issues. Currents in architecture have always been a reflection of some problems. So in this sense, we should obviously take our situation into account. And the need to create icon buildings I have never understood.

AG: What should be changed? Should the current sarp competition procedures be improved, replaced by others? For example, competitions organized by the city?

JSz-Dz: The procedure is a secondary thing. Important, but secondary as long as the primary issues are not taken care of. We have already told ourselves about some of them.

The object of the competition should be clearly described. The necessary information organized and provided to the participants. Criteria clear. Formal requirements reduced to a minimum. The court competent and fair. Investment costs realistic. Architect's fees fair. None of these things depends on the procedure. They are all the result of the degree of understanding of the competition and its purpose. If we suffer from their shortcomings, I want to believe that as a result of various "pressures of reality," which is not an excuse. But if not from this, then from recklessness, lack of preparation, ill-will and stupidity.

interviewed: Alicja GZOWSKA

The September issue of A&B was dedicated to architectural competitions in Poland. You can find the freee-issue here.

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