4ARK 4, 2009

May 2009, Sweden

Earning to Compete, Competing to Earn.
Interview to Beatriz Ramo (STAR strategies +architecture) by Martin Nordhal.
April 2009
Picture: Christiaan Krouwels

MN: How does competing affect your work processes?
BR: We have to come up with good ideas in a short period of time. It requires a high level of commitment and effort but it makes you sharper and more efficient, also in terms of expenses.
To work in competitions means to have complete freedom in choosing our projects, in our work rhythm, in decision making; we can experiment as much as we need.
The rhythm is intense. We do a lot of brainstorming and we seek out a lot of reactions to our proposals from people we know. I spend quite some time at the office…we need to enjoy what we do.

MN: What does it mean for a business to be based on competitions?
BR: To base the business on public competitions means there is no fixed income in the office. The only things we can control are the expenses. So, we try to minimize the fixed expenses but without letting that affect the quality of our work. However, I think architects are lucky in that they can start their own business quite cheap. The initial investment can be very low, unless you decide to furnish your office with designed furniture and buy Mac computers… Our tables are made out of doors and our chairs are from Ikea. The space of the office would need a thorough renovation but the building is scheduled to be demolished within the next few years. This is quite common in the centre of Rotterdam. Therefore, the rent is not high and yet we are right in the middle of the city.
I guess if we were lawyers or doctors whose clients expect a certain “style” it would not have been possible to start out like this. Imagine going to the doctor’s and arriving in a space with no floor and sitting down in a plastic €5.- Ikea chair! Our clients and visitors even like the “atelier look” of our office….
The choice of where to spend the money is crucial to a company start-up. I prefer to invest as much as I can in a bigger team. With a bigger team we can do more competitions. We are lucky here in Rotterdam because there are a lot of architects coming to the city to work in architecture offices like ours.

MN: Is it a risky business?
BR: Yes, it is risky…however it is exciting too. So far, we could live on the competitions.. It is a paradoxical situation; we are completely free to decide the kind of projects we work on, how we do them, and the rhythm we take, but on the other hand our success depends 100% on the decision of a jury. We can choose everything we do, but we cannot choose whether we win or not…It is a mix of total freedom and complete uncertainty. We work hard and I believe strongly in what we do, but open competitions are a bit like a lottery… So the more you play the higher the chance to win.

MN: Do you recommend this (participating in competitions) to students?
BR: Doing competitions requires a lot of energy in a sort period of time, so it is a very intense way of working. Normally, students and recent graduates are enthusiastic and have ambition, energy, and curiosity… And this is crucial in this way of working.
Competitions force you to take decisions, to try out a lot. I think for students and recent graduates it is a very necessary training that makes them sharper team players and more competitive.

MN: Do you do a calculation of risks at the beginning of each year? (For example, we have to win two out of five competitions).
BR: I do not do such a thing. I don’t think it would be possible… We are a small team of five to six people, so it is easy to change plans and jump in a competition that seems attractive. Also, we will not stop doing competitions in the middle of the year if we have won “enough” because, how do you define “enough”? We cannot say what “enough” means. We will keep on going…
Recently, we won two prizes out of three competitions but there were – and there will be – times when we have to do many in order to get one prize.

MN: Do you participate in both open and invitation-only competitions?
BR: STAR has not been invited for a competition so far, so we have only participated in open competitions. So far, in open competitions we normally had to compete against 100 teams. These days, the competitions receive many more entries because the crisis has left a lot of architects unemployed and they now also try competitions. To this we have to add the many large bureaus, which usually did not take part in open competitions, but now have to do so in order to generate some work for their staff. So the number of participants per competition has doubled or even tripled over the last few months. Now there are never fewer than 200 entries. One of the last competitions we did – the House of Arts and Culture in Beirut – received 800 registrations and almost 400 entries. At the moment we are waiting for the results of another competition in which 1000 teams were registered.

MN: Does competing achieve better results?
BR: It should. Public and relevant buildings should always be open for competition. When the process of a competition works well, it is a win-win situation, both for the city/client and for the architect. Even in the invitation-only competitions, in which the ‘dream-team architects’ participate, they still are forced to be convincing and to present a (hopefully) strong project.
Nevertheless, I think cities should be less provincial and be freer from the Bilbao effect. Cities do not dare that much to open up competitions and they prefer to be on what they think is the safe side and restrict it to the invited famous architects.
There are talents in the next generation that would put in three times more effort than an established office because for a smaller office a competition really represents a lot. The big offices have been invited so many times that they are re-using their earlier designs as it is impossible to give so many good answers to so many demands…
The disappointing part of competitions is to see how mediocrity wins first prizes too. Sometimes the criteria seem wrong. Or juries decide to give the first prize to a safe and conventional project rather than to an innovative one, which normally gets the second prize.
Good projects always have a strong idea behind them. It looks like juries react with either love or hate to strong ideas. This causes intense debates and disagreements in the jury process that very often results in a compromise. Then they decide to give the first prize to the design that nobody hates…but nobody really loves either… Those compromises are not good for architecture.

MN: Don’t architects charge enough for their ideas? Advertising companies seem to get paid better for their ideas.
BR: You can make money in all business. When architects charge for all the work they do, they can make a lot of money too. I have many friends in Spain who were very interested in earning money during the years of the construction boom and they made a lot …But of course they did not have too much time to think. They just produced one project after another.
I guess all talented people from creative businesses such as cinema, art, architecture, …etc, would tell you that they all started out pretty poor… and they even went bankrupt a couple of times afterwards…as they cared more about quality than about money.
The thing is that when you want to try out a lot of ideas because you are not satisfied easily – because you want to get at all the potential of a project – you need a lot more time than clients are willing to pay for… This is something we do for ourselves, because we need to be convinced of what we do.
Some critics say that entering open competitions is like giving away your best ideas for free. How do you see that?
That might be so… However there is nothing so bad about it. If you are not invited for a competition, where the organizer pays for your participation, you don’t have any alternative than taking part in open competitions. It doesn’t make sense for me to do a competition that I don’t have a hope of winning…and for that, we give it our best. If we win, we get the chance to develop a good project.
Imagine winning with something you don’t like… it would be a nightmare for me to develop such a project for the years following…
We developed in 2007 the Manzana 5, a 60.000 m2 mix-use building after just one year of opening the office. This was just because we won that competition. There would have been absolutely no client that had given a €45 Mill project to an office with our experience. The process was very successful and the client and we worked together perfectly.

Earning to Compete, Competing to Earn – Interview with Beatriz Ramo
-May, 2009
-Publisher: Chalmers Arkitektur
-Göteborg, Sweden
-ISBN 978-91-976913-3-8
-Pages: 58 – 59