Thursday, 13 May 2010

An International Design Competition?

A letter to Scottish Enterprise from the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland:

12th May 2010

Dear Ms McGinlay,

Proposed Union Terrace Gardens Competition

I am writing further to a worrying telephone call from one of your colleagues, Nicola Moore, which was taken by the RIAS Depute Secretary, Sharon McCord, late in the day on 29th April. The call concerned a proposed competition for Union Terrace Gardens to effectively fill the existing valley and create a new public square on its roof, on a level with the surrounding streetscape.

Our concerns arise not because this proposal is relatively prosaic and therefore would offer very limited opportunities for architectural inventiveness. Rather we are concerned at a number of specifics of the call and in what we view as an inadequate consultative and feasibility process, prior to the launch of a major and costly competition. We are profoundly concerned that a premature or inappropriate competition would simply abuse participants who inevitably will put significantly greater resources into any competitive process than would be covered by any competition fee on offer.

Your officer suggested that you had been advised to approach a London based consultancy to manage the competition. That is a concern. She further suggested that there was a shared desire that the competition should be won by an “international” architect. On being pressed on this latter issue and advised that this seemed an inappropriate aspiration for a government funded Scottish organisation, she made it clear that what was being sought was a winner, certainly from out-with Scotland, with a known name.

Sharon made the point that such an aspiration runs quite counter to European procurement legislation as well as being offensive to indigenous talent. Your officer was assured that there are many practices in Scotland more than capable of undertaking very substantial architectural projects and that these should be given an opportunity equal to that of any potential international entrant.

A further significant concern is the much publicised budget for this proposal. You will be well aware that the highest profile architectural competition in Scotland in recent years was that for the Scottish Parliament and the lengthy and difficult process which ensued from the risible budget initially set for that endeavour. Considering that, in recent years, buildings of comparable scale in Aberdeen and elsewhere in Scotland on straightforward urban sites have cost easily twice the quoted budget figure for this particularly problematic and challenging site we would be very concerned about launching a competition based upon such a questionable budget.

Our final concern is that the public consultation for this proposal failed to take into account alternative proposals for the site and therefore did not give the people of Aberdeen the opportunity to comment on a breadth of proposals as would normally be the case in such a process. Our local Chapter, the Aberdeen Society of Architects, has written to the leader of the Council and others, indicating their significant concerns on the matter. At the RIAS Council meeting of 17th March 2010, it was agreed that our President would put in writing to the leader of the Council, the Incorporation’s extreme reservations about the efficacy and fairness of this process.

It is our view that pursuing a competition against a background of such significant doubt and unease, particularly a competition with the objectives stated by your colleague, would be counter to best procurement practice. This seems a thoroughly premature endeavour with so many questions remaining unanswered.

Yours sincerely,

Neil Baxter
Secretary & Treasurer