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In defence of architectural competitions

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

I’ve just been listening to Carly Simon talking about the writing of 'You're so Vain'. It's a brilliant pop song - in August 2014, the UK's Official Charts Company crowned it the ultimate song of the 1970s. Like most creations it feels as though it came together easily and perfectly.

But the truth (according to the writer) is that the song had been written for several months and was left unfinished because the lyrics weren’t coming together.

The song was entitled 'Bless You, Ben' about her son from her first marriage with James Taylor. Simon put the song to one side for several months until she attended a party one night where a famous guest appeared and the event and the comments of guests prompted her to rewrite the lyrics.

This seems to happen frequently in many creative arts where ideas are revisited and re-used for books, plays, songs, adverts. It has been the case with fine art since, and probably before, the Renaissance where sketches and ideas for paintings are used in later commissions.

It doesn’t work as easily in Architecture because buildings are (or should be) site specific and bespoke. But some ideas are interchangeable and are often worth revisiting. This is one reason why Weston Williamson is so enthusiastic about architectural competitions. We’ve won some and ‘lost’ many but have honed our ideas, along with our design and presentation skills. Michael Jordan said “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game's winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Carly Simon could have given up on 'Bless You Ben' but revisiting the song turned it into a classic. Near the beginning of Weston Williamson in 1989, we lost a competition for a transport interchange in Venice but it succeeded in getting us on the shortlist for the Jubilee Line Station at London Bridge. Last week we saw our scheme for a ferry terminal, which had not won a competition, top the World Architecture News Awards for its innovative design. It’s a well known statistic that JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was turned down over 20 times before someone at Bloomsbury thought it might be worth publishing. Rowling might have given up after 15 rejections but it should be remembered that it can happen in reverse. There’s a story in either 'The Art of Thinking Clearly' or 'Thinking Fast and Slow' where one of the authors writes a novel and at the first attempt the publisher is impressed and is keen to publish. To test the market he sends the book to several other publishers and every one turns him down.

Whenever we enter an architectural competition we’re convinced it will win. There’s no point in entering otherwise. But I’ve entered (and judged) enough competitions to know that no matter how brilliant the design, it might not be quite what the client is looking for. In my mind that doesn’t make the design any better or worse. Many architects have brilliant designs that have never been built. But we can learn from the process and take those lessons to the next challenge. "Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” ― Vince Lombardi.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Projects

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.