Those judging architectural competitions need to be wise, ethical and very well informed. That’s why the tittle-tattle of public opinion should be ignored

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in some well-publicised competitions as a loser, a winner, and a judge. I don’t want to carp, crow, or rejoice respectively about my role in each of them, but I have been reflecting on the great art of the “Competition”, the significance of the “Prize”, and the merits of the “Jury” process. Take the competition classics: Paxton’s blotting paper sketches and Utzon’s scribbles. Both have legendary status as the conceptual precursors to great buildings. But perhaps more extraordinary than the buildings themselves is how they ever got beyond the competition stage. How was it that those who judged these scrappy papers against their peers saw enough to save them from an early trip to the waste paper basket? Or was there something else in the mix that was the clincher, something not on the paperwork (heaven forbid)? Whatever happened, there would have been no Crystal Palace, no Sydney Opera House, as we know them, without the insight of the long-forgotten men and women of those juries.

An architectural jury’s job is a complex one. Their work is highly subjective because objectivity is rare; architecture cannot simply be measured. When the architectural jury delivers its verdict, it all hinges on the judgment skills of the jury (most often unpaid for reasons of impartiality, let’s say). Usually compliments flow from the winners about the jury’s wisdom. This has even happened to me…along the lines of: “You must be good … because you chose our scheme.” The fallout from those who disagree is usually swift, opinionated and soon evaporates. But the buildings themselves last for a bit longer, so these decisions are rather important. Choosing the jury itself is a critical task, for who is fit to judge the judges?

Two of my recent competition/prize experiences also had some sort of “public” vote, yet in neither case did the jury agree with the choice of the public. In fact, in both cases the eventual winner performed poorly in the public poll, and maybe rightly. It stands to reason (mine, at least) that for a person to make a sound judgment on any scheme in the ignorance of almost all the relevant knowledge would be a complete coincidence. Trial by public opinion is not allowed in a court of law and it doesn’t have a place in serious architectural design. Nonetheless it does seem to be a key feature of politics and money markets and some architectural competitions placing it among life’s great mysteries.

There are often grumbles that the jury has “ignored” the public vote. After Stirling and the Olympic velodrome (bother, I promised myself I wasn’t going to mention it), a friend of mine wrote in consolingly from Venice to say that we may have lost the jury vote, but we had the support of the public. But I think despite his kindness, he was wrong: the jury should take no account of tittle-tattle, Paddy Power betting odds, or a public vote designed simply to add glitz to a newspaper. They should simply judge the project.

Of course, a really well informed view is worth listening to and weaving into the deliberations, but given the individual subtlety of architectural projects, telling insight from those not directly involved can be very rare. As has been said, straw poll democracy is a great way to bring more ignorance to bear on a problem. And telling insight from those intimately involved is too often nuanced, so tricky to take at face value. So there are precious few places to turn as a juror. In my experience most want to be good, want to be ethical, and want to find and reward talent. Most of all, the jury wants to be right, but there is no absolute yardstick against which you can measure this, apart from the views of the rest of the jury inside that jury room. So you are bound to offend someone. I’ve even been involved in competitions where transparency isn’t all you would hope for. We designed a stadium for the World Cup in Japan and Korea. We were placed second. But when the team who beat us were disqualified for some sort of nefarious contractual behaviour, the jury announced that the team originally placed third had now won, and we were still second. Ah-so.

Over the years we’ve won a lot of competitions - and lost a lot too - yet I still cannot tell if the jury are wise heads (if we win) or fools (if we don’t), or the exact opposite.

Beyond the moment, who actually cares about the prizes? Good and bad, buildings last rather a lot longer than a bit of publicity, and it is buildings, not prizes, that affect people deeply. They, the users of our projects, are our real jury.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering