21 June 2008

RIBA bridge design competitions

The big controversy in New Civil Engineer magazine, the weekly magazine for members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, has been a row over bridge design competitions run by RIBA. Although the row might seem on the face of it to be just down to a single person (Expedition Engineering's Chris Wise), this is only the latest instalment in a longer-running battle which shows no signs of nearing a conclusion. The crux of the most recent dispute is RIBA's insistence in its competition rules for a bridge over the River Douglas that entrants must not only include an architect in their team, but that the architect must be the lead designer. Although RIBA have since changed this rule, it came a little late, what with only a week or two to go until the competition deadline.

The underlying problem is that many clients looking for a new bridge see it not as an opportunity to solve a transport problem, but an opportunity to create an architectural landmark, and hence either attract funding (for regeneration), or simply publicity (as a prelude to funding). They see RIBA's competitions office as the right way to achieve this - it takes away the hassle of actually running the thing, and it offers an simple way to gain attention (some recent RIBA bridge competitions have attracted over 80 international entrants, even for comparatively minor structures with a budget under £0.5m). It doesn't just secure a design - it can secure an architect, and everybody knows you can't design a bridge without an architect these days. Wasn't it Norman Foster who designed that bridge over a river in London somewhere? So what if it wobbled - think of the publicity!

It's not clear whether RIBA genuinely believe that the presence of an architect is essential to a great bridge design (while there's little doubt they can make a tremendous contribution, they're equally clearly inessential), or are just protecting their members' commercial interests by insisting on their presence. I supect the latter, as they're joined by their Irish counterparts, the RIAI, who have included a similar requirement for the presence of an architect in two recent bridge design competitions, at River Liffey and Ballsbridge-Dodder. The latter case is particularly egregious, as not only is an architect required, but only architects can enter. To be precise, only Irish architects. To the RIAI's credit, their prizemoney is at least meaningful (50,000 euros for Ballsbridge-Dodder compared to £8,000 for the RIBA's River Douglas), and in the case of the River Liffey competition they've piled on the paperwork at prequalification stage in an attempt to narrow the field and rule out the chancers and no-hopers, thus hopefully avoiding the massive waste of expensive professional effort that RIBA deliberately encourage.

Complaints about RIBA's undesirable dominance of this field are nothing new - they were a key theme of IABSE's 2007 Henderson Colloquium, which debated how to improve the way that bridge design competitions are organised. All that the engineers have so far achieved is the ICE's and IStructE's agreement to field a token bridge engineering expert as one of the judges on RIBA's bridge competition panels. It does seem that more recent RIBA competitions have managed to avoid the fiasco of the 2005 River Wear crossing competition, where a winner was declared, but the "structurally challenging" winning design has never since been publicly revealed.

However, the fact that RIBA still needs to be publicly rebuked before dropping their insistence on the presence of architects for a bridge design competition (and that RIAI still sing exactly the same tune), suggests that they retain a thoroughgoing ignorance of what might actually help achieve a successful design, hence a successful project and ultimately a satisfied client. You would think that a greater focus on the engineer's role in ensuring buildability and maintainability would go some way to assisting in that goal. Given the number of clients complaining that they can't afford to build winning designs, or maintain them once built, it seems we're still a long way from a competition regime that can reliably deliver bridges that lead to satisfied clients. And insisting that bridge engineers play second fiddle (or as with the RIAI, can't take part at all) isn't helping matters.


cathal c said...

There are many fair points in this piece. What I read from it is the professional bodies representing architects continuing to project a tired elitist persona, an extremely dangerous and isolating practice.

I think of a time when there was no distinction between professions, a time when people just did things and tried to do them better.
I long for a greater mutual respect to occur between the two practices engineering and architecture.

I do not think that the riba and riai's policy's on this matter facilitate possible mutual respect.
Also I do not think that the misunderstanding of what an architect does, in this article, fosters mutual respect either.

I read many references to starhitects and marking land or land mark structures.
I feel frustrated in this as i have dedicated my life to a built environment that enhances the experience of day to day life.
I therefore cannot except that a bridge is just a piece of infrastructure bringing the weight of a person or a train or a car from point a to point b.

A person does'nt just have mass.
He also has feelings. Feelings that dictate his actions, decide economy's, etc. He is not just a scientific calculation.

Both Macdonald's and St Paul's Cathedral provide shelter. One even provides kilojoules for the body to burn.

But i would like to ask the author
in which one he would like to sit down and ask his own personal important questions.

I wish that an engineer could design for the kiss that would occur on the 'essential infrastructure' of his design. Though I'm not sure where he would place the number assigned to the experience.

The fact it is not possible in most cases to know all of these things, and this is why I would suggest a more collaborative relationship based on mutual respect for each others 'essential' skills.

Or does the author think that an architect is really just a symbol maker like the modern SUV designer
producing unnecessary status symbols under the guise of utility?

In welcome of further discussion on this issue,
Cathal Curtin B.Arch

The Happy Pontist said...

I think the basic problem is that the architectural institutions focus too much on protecting the opportunities for their members. Clients go along with it because engineers are so poor at self-publicity that every man and his dog thinks an architect is needed to design a bridge.

You shouldn't mistake that for the idea that architects aren't key contributors to bridge design. Most of the best recent designs would never have succeeded without excellent architects involved. I've personally met and worked with architects who have great sympathy for bridge design and bring a lot to it that I could never achieve as an engineer.

You're quite wrong to assume I misunderstand what architects do. I very much appreciate their role; it's the clients who I think often see them wrongly, as either the visionary who will deliver spectacle, or as the big name who will help deliver funding.

I think you're perhaps more guilty of mis-characterising engineers. Numbers are a very minor part of my business. The idea that only an architect can consider the human factors in a design and an engineer can't is just nonsense. In my current project, I've been pretty much the lone voice supporting the need for a superior human experience on one very key design issue.

What's important is not which badge we wear, but whether we can design good bridges. And the complaint of my original post is that many clients, prompted by the RIAI and RIBA, put the badge first and ability second.