The winner of the competition to masterplan the European Parliament Quarter admits having friends on the jury – and says this is normal. In fact, it seems cronyism is endemic in European competitions.

Two years ago, the Brussels regional authority held a masterplanning competition for the European Parliament Quarter. An international field of 125 practices entered.

The judging panel, made up of bureaucrats and architects, placed Belgian firms first, second and third. The winner had friends on the panel.

As did the second-placed firm. Welcome to the murky world of European architectural competitions, where cronyism is rampant and rarely challenged.

The Brussels competition is only unusual because somebody bothered to complain. Following a protest from the third-placed architect, the European Commission has launched an investigation and has asked Belgium to respond to allegations that anonymity rules and evaluation criteria were not respected, that rejected bidders were notified too late and that one of the jury had had past business dealings with the winner, Art & Build.

In fact, two of the 15-strong jury – a Belgian architect and an Italian architect working for the European Commission – had worked with Art & Build on previous projects in Brussels. The jury’s president, another Belgian architect, is working with second-placed practice Atelier d’Architecture de Genval on several projects.

Art & Build partner Isidore Zielonke admits to having connections on the jury but says: “This is normal. Everybody knows everybody. How do you organise a competition where the architects on the board don’t know the architects competing?”

But commission rules state that juries must be independent. Jonathan Todd, a commission spokesman, says the juror’s link with Art & Build would make it “difficult to consider that member of the jury as completely independent”.

Cronyism is so widespread that it is taken for granted. One British architect says of a recent competition in Scandinavia: “The person who won was the head of the architecture school, was very good friends with the chairman of the jury and the head of the planning department, and his scheme didn’t answer the brief.”

The person who won was the head of the architecture school, was very good friends with the chairman of the jury and the head of the planning department, and his scheme didn’t answer the brief

UK architect on a project in Scandinavia

Another architect relates a similar experience in Scandinavia. He says: “Their [the winner’s] office is across the street from the site. It happens all the time. They host a worldwide competition and a local practice tends to win.”

In June this year, no less a figure than Lord Rogers was so incensed by the outcome of a competition in Lille that he threatened to boycott all French competitions. The trouble was over a £56m government office, for which Lord Rogers and Lille architect Luc Delemazure were declared joint winners in 1999. Then, earlier this year, the president of the Nord-Pas de Calais region intervened and handed decision-making powers to the regional commission, which named Delemazure sole winner.

Lord Rogers declined to speak about the incident, but wrote an angry letter to French newspaper Le Figaro. “I was greatly saddened to find myself involved in a competition compromised by political bias and local government intervention,” he wrote. “This is no way to encourage international competition in projected French enterprises.”

Delemazure defended the outcome. “I’ve heard that Richard Rogers, like the other participants in the competition, are very disappointed, which I quite understand because I myself feel great disappointment when I don’t win competitions. Nevertheless, I am astonished that anyone can cast doubt on the credibility and seriousness of the judging process in this competition.”

Nord-Pas de Calais is already being investigated by the commission for breaching procurement rules when it awarded school construction contracts worth £140m to local firms without putting them out to Europe-wide competition.

Under European Union law, publicly funded projects worth more than 5m euros (£3.13m) have to be advertised in the EU’s Official Journal, which is now on-line. But, according to Linda Roberts of the RIBA’s competitions office, OJ tendering is often a charade.

“A lot of organisations overseas go through the OJ process just to fulfil an obligation,” she says. The RIBA itself has been approached by clients looking to get round the rules. Roberts says: “We’ve had conversations where it’s become clear they want us to be involved to make it look like it’s being run correctly.”

The practice is endemic, according to the director of a PR company representing several high-profile British architects. She says: “I’ve had architects who’ve said they’ve got a job, but have to wait four months while the client puts it through OJ. But it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Everybody knows everybody. How do you organise a competition where the architects on the board don’t know the architects competing?

Isidore Zielonke, Art & Build, winner of European Parliament Quarter competition

She adds: “Having a stitch-up is a waste of so much professional time. It isn’t just architects – it goes right across the board. People are incredibly frustrated when they realise they’ve just been put on the shortlist to make up the numbers.”

Former RIBA president David Rock says many clients avoid the competition process altogether by announcing a “negotiated procedure”. This route allows them to deal exclusively with one architect or team. The contract still has to be announced in the OJ and there must be solid legal, technical or aesthetic reasons why no other firm could do the job, but negotiated procedures are often used as a way of giving work directly to a favoured (usually local) company. “There’s a great sense among many architects that the local boy will always win,” says Rock.

Anyone aggrieved over a competition can complain to the commission, which will investigate. Yet architects are reluctant to speak out. The commission’s Todd says: “We depend on receiving complaints, but often companies that have been victimised do not want to complain for fear of it being held against them.” Todd admits that the problem is “huge”, adding that Germany, France and Italy are the worst offenders. He says: “We get complaints all the time. It’s very difficult to say what proportion of competitions are decided by the rules.”

He advises architects to seek an injunction or damages from a court in the member state concerned. “If they get the impression that they’re not getting anywhere,” he continues, “complain to the commission.”

Although the commission takes complaints seriously, it is an ineffective watchdog. Member states often withhold information and ignore deadlines for compliance with regulations. The investigation of Nord-Pas de Calais has already taken four years. A 1994 investigation into Belgium, which awarded the contract for the new Flemish parliament to a local firm without advertising the tender, took two years, by which time the project was well under way.

The commission’s ultimate sanction is to take states to the European Court of Justice, but this takes a further two years and, if wrongdoing is proved, the court is powerless to punish the perpetrator. Instead, the member states are expected to put matters right. The only sanction open to the court is to fine states that fail to end infringements, but this requires a second hearing, which can take another two years.

Even when infringements are uncovered, the cases are rarely publicised. Details of hundreds of public procurement investigations and court cases are posted on one obscure web site.

So why do architects bother with competitions? Young London architect Paul Karakusevic says his fledgeling practice enters two or three contests each year, spending between £2500 and £5500 – and vast amounts of time – on each one.

“It’s better to enter competitions than not,” he says. “As long as the entry is of good quality, you have a chance, if not of winning, then of getting shortlisted and starting to build a portfolio.”

European Procurement Rules Ignored

One of the most high-profile – but least publicised – breaches of competition rules involved the Stade de France football stadium in Paris. In April 1998, France admitted numerous violations of European Union public procurement rules when awarding contracts for it. The admission was forced after a rare complaint by an aggrieved architect led to a two-year investigation by the European Commission, culminating in threats to take France to the European Court of Justice. Leading French architect Jean Nouvel lodged a complaint in 1996, after losing the competition to design the stadium to an all-French consortium including contractor Bouygues and architects Michel Macary and Aymeric Zublena. During the competition, the French authorities ignored their own procedures and allowed Bouygues to amend its bid. The final contract was completely different from that announced at the start of the competition and effectively granted Bouygues subsidies to build the stadium, which contravened the rules of the competition. The winner was also handed sizeable construction contracts that should have been tendered separately, and it illegally awarded a percentage of related contracts to local firms. The latter point alone breached three EU laws. The French government responded to the commission’s investigation by refusing to supply information and by attempting to block Nouvel’s complaint. It then passed a new law to validate the competition and the contract retrospectively. The case prompted single market commissioner Mario Monte to say: “The contracting authority’s attitude contradicts the fundamental principle of equal treatment on which the EU’s public procurement rules are based.”