Fresh from the Labour conference, Amanda Levete muses on the pointlessness of second place, the deviousness of committees and the role of a great leader in making great buildings
Manchester 2010 was my first party political conference - a high-octane mix of drama, intrigue and pathos. It would not be an understatement to say that I momentarily lived a piece of history. Initially I felt as though I were in the thick of a football crowd - that same passionate, unquestioning, deeply tribal, forgiving and loyal collective that fills the stands at Arsenal and other stadiums around the country. And then it all went badly wrong.
That the wrong leader was chosen is broadly accepted, but we are where we are and it’s time to move on. However, there are lessons to be learned from the Byzantine voting system that resulted in the second choice getting past the post first.
When you think about it, it’s a bizarre concept that you give any value at all to a second choice. There are some areas in life - love, football, politics - where second choice is just not an option. It’s like asking the kind of question young children ask: if you weren’t married to dad, who would you marry? Or, which football team would you support if you didn’t support Arsenal?
Or, if you can’t have your first choice of political leader, who would you choose?
It’s no different in architecture - it happens time and time again in competitions. In an attempt to elicit views from the broadest constituency, equally Byzantine scoring systems are invented that supposedly give equal weight to the views of all. The systems are generally put together by project managers - who might well have their own agenda. Without wanting to be cynical, a project manager might guess the second-choice candidate would give them an easier ride to manage.
I simply don’t understand how second choice can be positive for anyone. I was once on a judging panel where some of us felt we had been set up by a scoring and weighting system that was so opaque you just knew it would be manipulated to someone else’s agenda. As architects we are used to breaking rules and challenging the status quo so we cooked up a clever plan. We were given a number of points to award against criteria, as was a second technical panel that was doing its judging independently (this was the somewhat dodgy bit).
It did not take long to figure out the maths. Unless we could ensure our preferred choice was awarded a minimum of 50% overall, there was no knowing what would result. In other words, unless we manipulated the system, our recommendation was most likely going to be an irrelevance. So we awarded nul points to the schemes we felt had little worth and 100% of the points to the scheme that, in our collective opinion, was a lifetime ahead of the others. We successfully made our point.
There is a broader issue here. It’s not just about the value of a first-choice candidate, but the value inherent in clear, decisive, visionary and sometimes risky choices. Sometimes it’s about having the strength and courage to relinquish a decision to an individual in whom you have the utmost faith. If you think historically about the buildings we all know are great, there was invariably an individual at the head: a client invested with power and judgment who had a vision and then, alongside the architect, drove the project through despite setbacks. Judgments by committee are rarely as successful in their outcomes.
We recently had a directors’ and associates’ awayday and one of the less serious questions we asked of ourselves was, what is the dream job? There was a remarkable coincidence of views. It was a project of scale, cultural or infrastructure, probably public but with a great individual as client - a client who would envision, challenge and support, who would cut through bureaucracy, a client who would understand the value of proposals that go beyond the bounds of the site and a client who would participate in the whole glorious and frustrating process of design. Is it not possible to graft this individual on to a major public initiative?
Of course there is a place and a need for collective endorsement. There are some decisions so complex, and where the consequences are so grave, that strident debate with the best minds within a wider group is imperative, and the checks and balances that arise from that debate are a prerequisite to reaching a conclusion. It is easy to score cheap political points by looking back in hindsight and questioning the veracity of such a conclusion. But unless you made a principled protest at the time, it is important to remember the need for retrospective responsibility, however difficult the outcome.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects