05 September 2016

Upper Orwell Crossing bridge competition criticised by architects

I recently discussed this bridge design competition at length, describing it as "one of the worst bridge design competitions to be organised in the UK for quite some time."

Now my sentiments have been echoed in the Architect's Journal, with a number of prominent architects speaking out against the manner in which the contest has been organised.

Cezary Bednarski states that "rather than promoting and facilitating collaborative effort – the only way in which outstanding bridges can be designed – it sets architects against engineers." He comments on the fact that the appointed project engineer does not work with the competing architects at competition stage.

A similar point is made by Chris Medland: "‘A pure design response to creating a crossing fundamentally requires an architect to collaborate with a structural engineer at the outset."

The best suggestion comes from Ian Ritchie, with the idea that the contest would be better run directly by the project's engineer to allow them to choose an appropriate project partner.

Well-known bridge architect, and member of RIBA's Competitions Task Group, Martin Knight, is the only interviewee to defend the competition. He argues that it's an opportunity opened to architects which would not otherwise have been available through the client's consultancy framework.

This is not a reasonable defence: there was nothing stopping the engineer from working directly with any subconsultant architect they felt would be appropriate for the scheme, or from tendering the architectural role directly, as Ritchie suggests. This would have allowed for a sensible creative partnership to work on the scheme, rather than an arranged marriage as is currently planned.

Knight's view assumes that having an architect on the job was not a 'given'. However, that's pretty fanciful in today's climate, where it seems clear to most clients that only architects can design decent bridges (a disappointing, but understandable notion). Indeed, the entire structure of the competition is the problem, as by holding engineer and architect at arm's length and allowing only the architects to demonstrate creativity in securing their appointment, it makes clear that the engineer is only there to make the bridge stand up, not to provide fundamental design direction.

The deadline for prequalification submissions has now passed, so the complaints raised in the AJ will fall on deaf ears. It will be interesting to see how many of the shortlisted architects have managed to persuade engineers to assist their teams, and what kind of bridge concepts are then submitted to the competition.

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