The National Portrait Gallery – “a tender dressed up as a competition”

15 February, 2018

Architects are increasingly being asked “to work for nothing” by museums and galleries because of a worrying trend by public institutions to blur the distinction between tenders and competitions.

Malcolm Reading, whose consultancy Malcolm Reading Consultants (MRC) is the leading private organiser of architecture competitions said: “Basically public institutional clients are dressing up tenders as competitions so everything becomes a competition. There’s a realisation that by tendering you can get people to do things for nothing”.

Reading points out that the rules are different for tenders and competitions. “If you enter a competition and don’t win, the convention is you have your name on a shortlist and the schemes are published”. As well, the shortlist would also be paid an honorarium.

The National Portrait Gallery, which recently chose Jamie Forbert as the architect for its £35.5 million expansion plan, argues it didn’t have to pay an honorarium to the six-strong shortlist on the grounds that “the invitation to tender did not ask for design responses”.

The Gallery also refused to release the shortlist, claiming “it is not a mandatory requirement of an OJEU tender process” – even though it knows that being on such a prestigious list is an accepted way to help architects secure other commissions and helps generate positive PR.

Stage 2 of the NPG competition asked the six shortlisted architects (David Adjaye, Caruso St John, Jamie Forbert, 6a, OMA, Haworth Tompkins and FMA ) to “present their design approach in terms of the whole building” followed at a later stage by a 90-minute interview.

As one of the shortlisted architects pointed, it would be odd to walk into an interview to discuss your ideas without having done a design first. But in a later statement, the NPG seemed to suggest that the tender process from which Forbert emerged victorious was simply a bit of window dressing as it already had a “design approach” from Haworth Tompkins.

It says: “Prior to the tender process, a feasibility study had been completed to inform the design process. This had been accepted as the basis of any future design work. As a result, the decision was taken that a design competition was not necessary, as the design process would not be starting from scratch’’.

This is despite asking the shortlist for its views on the gallery’s retail spaces, circulation, visitor experience, commercial opportunities, access and “presentation across all the galleries”.

The amount of work architects are expected to do as part of the tender process was highlighted this month by Peter Inglis, an architect from Cullinan Studio, who sent an open letter to the V&A pointing out why his practice would not be competing for the V&A East storage facility.

Inglis calculated that had the practice been selected to go through to the second stage, it would cost it £50,000, such was the amount of work demanded. But with only a 20% chance of winning and an honorarium of just £5,000  Inglis says it was not worth the risk.

The V&A and NPG aren’t isolated cases. Reading says UK public institutions are simply running fewer competitions, a change that he says is not simply down to the country’s tough economic climate but because bodies like NPG have adopted “the sharp practice of the private sector” where architects are often expected to work for free at the selection stage.

But there is a huge difference in the fees paid by public institutions.  Reading says practices are able to work for no fees when it’s a commercial project because “commercial fees are in double digit numbers”. However, if you’re working for museums”, the margin on the fee is very small… and public institutions are not offering repeat work”.

Malcolm Reading and others will be discussing procurement at the next Fundamentals lecture series held at CSM. Details here