Envy and The Musical Chairs

Envy and The Musical Chairs

“Lobbies, alliances, doing the rounds, playing the game, niche finding, networking: even the language is different. The notion of a good project is on its way out…”

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix 

As a child, I used to think that musical chairs, “stoleleg” in Danish, was a fun game but also quite harassing: there was an element of bullying built into it. The circle of chairs became then a saving boat that couldn´t hold all the castaways, a theatre of cruelty.

Lately, whenever a new architectural invited tender (prækvalifkation) comes up in Denmark, I always remember the game. The slightly hysterical motions, the phone calls: this engineer, that landscape architect. “We certainly need a urban anthropologist, don’t we? “Do we know an expert on coleoptera?”. ”Arup is taken”. “And so is Steen Høyer!”.
A thrilling activity for a child, but for an adult, an architect, I find it … unbecoming. It might be argued that this is a matter of taste, that such is the state of any business today and that, anyway, masochism is fairly extended in our profession.

Nevertheless, I sense a feeling of dejection and impotence sieving through the conversations with colleagues. There was a time when architectural competitions were a dignified, if not healthy, affair.
You would sweat, miss your sleep, and end up worn out. But you also shaped up and improved. It had some of the exhilarating effect of preadolescent quarrels: they were character defining. It was about beating your competitors with a better project. The jury would be made of architects with uncontested weight and authority. From this effort I think both the profession and society benefited.
Some times you won, most times you didn´t, but as a rule you didn´t hate the winner: you would carefully study the winning project and the jury´s motivations and then got ready for the next competition. You learned. In that sense, open competitions were a source of experimentation, discussion and architectural knowledge.
Obviously for me, the anonymous, open competition is the only competition worth its salt, the one that, provided a good independent jury, will produce the best projects. But this is perhaps a subject for future posts. Today I wanted to write about anxiety, which is an illness, and about envy, which is a sin.

“The green eyed monster”

Aristotle made a distinction between jealousy, that could be constructive, and envy, that was always destructive. The first could be a motor for action, the latter a dead end of impotence and destruction.
I´m under the impressions that the latest changes in the competition game have brought up envy, among other collateral damage, to the Danish architectural scene. The pre-qualification parody is not anymore a competition between projects; it is very much the diplomatic and courtesan abilities that count. Lobbies, alliances, doing the rounds, playing the game, niche finding, networking: even the language is different. The notion of a good project is on its way out, at the end of the list. In the not so long run there will be, I fear, a price to pay in terms of architecture’s quality.

The very few chosen teams, more or less the same ones over and over, combine certain doses of meritocracy, economic security and perhaps other branding factors such as youth, nationality… etc. These irresistible cocktails are prepared often even before the “competition“ is made public.
Going back to Aristotle, in a real competition, jealousy might make you want to “outdo” you competitors. In a pre-qualification, the only thing left for the rejected could be the nasty wish to “undo” the opponent. That is envy. Because as an architect, it has become more and more elusive, opaque really, to find out why the holly finger has again pointed in the same direction.

“Oh Transparency, where art thou?”

And precisely that is what I find more problematic. With the magical formula of private or semiprivate economic funds financing everything (or half of everything) that is built in Denmark, finding out who chooses who builds what, and the reasons for their choice, has become a challenge.
What is not complicated is to guess who are the beneficiaries of the pre-qualifications, or the so-called “campaigns”: the results are increasingly predictable. At my studio, when the list of pre-qualified teams comes out, we sometimes make bets. We often get three out of four names right, and many times we are able to shout the complete bingo line. A bitter pastime, I know.
Some five or six offices of architects and landscape architects have, since this phenomenon started, multiplied by ten their size and income. Some can hardly cope with the volume of work, no matter how many new employees they get. This causes amazement in the beneficiaries … and envy, the Shakespearean “green eyed monster”, in the rest.
Meanwhile, our Danish Architects Association addresses the issue by offering a course (6.000 kr. for members), in which you learn to get good at pre-qualifications. A pragmatic approach indeed.

And what I find more pernicious, destructive, is that after a period of ill digested envy, comes a period of boredom and detachment. Experiments show that the same frustrating or stressing experience, endlessly repeated, produces apathy in the subject of study: the rat gives up and dies.
From “they didn´t like my project” we have gone to “they didn’t like my friends and me … but which of my friends didn´t they like (for future teams) ... or was it me?”. And most importantly, who are “they”?
Downright playground neurosis!

Even winning will not feel the same, which is the definitive corruption. When did it happen that we stopped discussing projects and we started talking about “darlings” being pimped by “sugar daddies”?
But we architects are like optimist and energetic hamsters on a treadmill, we will keep keeping on.

The chairs are set: let the music begin.

Nathan Romero Muelas


Jesper Kock

Kære Nathan
Der er ingen tvivl om, at det er alt for svært for et mindre arkitektfirma at være med i ræset om at blive prækvalificeret til de indbudte konkurrencer. Jeg har helt den samme opfattelse. Men at det hele tiden skulle være de samme få firmaer der deltager, er for mig at se en overdrivelse. Rent faktisk medvirker der yngre arkitektfirmaer på konkurrenceholdene i en del af de konkurrencer, som Konkurrenceafdelingen og andre faciliterer. Samtidig anbefaler vi som del af vores rådgivning bygherrerne at afholde åbne konkurrencer, hvor det kan komme på tale. Du skriver, at Arkitektforeningen har antaget en pragmatisk tilgang til problemet med de nystartede arkitektfirmaers adgang til de indbudte konkurrencer ved at tilbyde et kursus, men det er ikke det eneste vi har gjort. Og det omtalte kursus, der blandt andet handler om at blive bedre til at søge om prækvalifikation, er et initiativ der er blevet temmelig godt modtaget. Samtidig er vi i Arkitektforeningen i gang med en relancering af Wild Card-ordningen, vi tilbyder gratis mentorordning til medlemmerne, vi argumenterer over for politikere og embedsfolk for at skabe bedre vilkår for vækstlaget i arkitektbranchen, og i løbet af foråret er syv unge arkitektvirksomheder som følge af Dreyers Fonds legat til nye arkitektvirksomheder i gang med et forløb i Arkitektforeningen, der veksler mellem fælles workshops og individuel rådgivning og sparring med en mentor. Forløbet er udviklet i samarbejde med Arkitektforeningen. Vi kan uden tvivl gøre mere, og konkrete ideer til konkrete initiativer modtages meget gerne.

Mange hilsener
leder af Arkitektforeningens Konkurrenceafd.

Nathan Romero Muelas

Dear Jesper,

Thank you for your comment on my post. I was willing to admit to some degree of exaggeration (it runs in my family), but then I went to the competition section at the Architects Association webpage and checked the last prequalified teams, just from a year back or so until now: it is much worse than I thought!
It would be a useful task for AA to undertake this matter statistically; there certainly is a “pattern”. The way I put it, “more or less the same teams” seems mild.
But I agree that AA does much more than offering a course in prequalifications. Fair point. And I´m sure this course is interesting and useful and a success. I´m precisely questioning the conditions that have made this course necessary.
How do we then ensure talent and fairness?: with anonymous, open competitions. They are good for architecture. I believe prequalifications should be the exception and not the rule.
As second best, (but again, exceptionally), there could be a system in which, having won prizes in open competitions would let you automatically in a prequalification. Perhaps using a point system: one point for a mention, two points a purchase, three points a third prize, and so on. I experienced something like this in Spain … back in the days when Spain built.

Best regards,

Charles Bessard

Thank you for raising this interesting debate

Yes, it is a fact. 

The success, the quality and the competence of an architecture office is often measured first in turnover and number of employees (for example in the European tenders). Greatness is equated with bigness. A sort of self fullfilling prophecy which indeed leaves a marginal place to what is in fact the biggest part of our profession: small and mid size offices. This is a real paradox of the practice of architecture today. 

One can question today why the size of offices remains so important witnessing the current explosion of "Total enterprise" assignement where the architect is occupying an increasignly marginal position both in terms of size of contracts (rarely exceeding 10% of the total contract) in terms of leadership (the architect often ending up being the sub-contractor of the entrepreneur whom has for all legitimate reasons different interests than the "bygherre") as well as in terms of scope of responsabilities?

Why small ends up being labelled "Wild"? Why smallness needs to be excused by being young? Why the growth of an office should be necessarily measured in size? Why can't growth be measured in terms of quality?

Best regards


Nathan Romero Muelas

Dear Charles,
Thanks for joining this debate/conversation. I think that this obsession with turnover and size has to do with the time honoured “querelle” between architects and engineers. Often the selection of teams is managed by engineers (which I find interesting, by the way), and these, size and income, are parameters they are able to measure. And of course “fame” or “name”, which anyone can measure.
But even if the selection process was only in the hands of good architects, it would still remain an “hortus conclusus”, subject to clientelism and blind to novelty. I don´t think a wild card order is a solution because, apart from laying, like you say, the emphasis on age and not in merit, it would only move the “musical chairs” into the wild card selection. If architectonic quality is what we are after, as it should be, then lets bring back the power to the project of architecture, through anonymity and openness.

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