Envy and the musical chairs

by Nathan Romero Muelas

As a child, I used to think that musical chairs, “stoleleg” in Danish, was a fun game but also quite harassing: there was an element of bullying built into it. The circle of chairs became then a saving boat that couldn´t hold all the castaways, a theatre of cruelty.

Lately, whenever a new architectural invited tender (prækvalifkation) comes up in Denmark, I always remember the game. The slightly hysterical motions, the phone calls: this engineer, that landscape architect. “We certainly need a urban anthropologist, don’t we? “Do we know an expert on coleoptera?”. ”Arup is taken”. “And so is Steen Høyer!”.
A thrilling activity for a child, but for an adult, an architect, I find it … unbecoming. It might be argued that this is a matter of taste, that such is the state of any business today and that, anyway, masochism is fairly extended in our profession.

Nevertheless, I sense a feeling of dejection and impotence sieving through the conversations with colleagues. There was a time when architectural competitions were a dignified, if not healthy, affair.
You would sweat, miss your sleep, and end up worn out. But you also shaped up and improved. It had some of the exhilarating effect of preadolescent quarrels: they were character defining. It was about beating your competitors with a better project. The jury would be made of architects with uncontested weight and authority. From this effort I think both the profession and society benefited.
Some times you won, most times you didn´t, but as a rule you didn´t hate the winner: you would carefully study the winning project and the jury´s motivations and then got ready for the next competition. You learned. In that sense, open competitions were a source of experimentation, discussion and architectural knowledge.
Obviously for me, the anonymous, open competition is the only competition worth its salt, the one that, provided a good independent jury, will produce the best projects. But this is perhaps a subject for future posts. Today I wanted to write about anxiety, which is an illness, and about envy, which is a sin.

“The green eyed monster”

Aristotle made a distinction between jealousy, that could be constructive, and envy, that was always destructive. The first could be a motor for action, the latter a dead end of impotence and destruction.
I´m under the impressions that the latest changes in the competition game have brought up envy, among other collateral damage, to the Danish architectural scene. The pre-qualification parody is not anymore a competition between projects; it is very much the diplomatic and courtesan abilities that count. Lobbies, alliances, doing the rounds, playing the game, niche finding, networking: even the language is different. The notion of a good project is on its way out, at the end of the list. In the not so long run there will be, I fear, a price to pay in terms of architecture’s quality.

The very few chosen teams, more or less the same ones over and over, combine certain doses of meritocracy, economic security and perhaps other branding factors such as youth, nationality… etc. These irresistible cocktails are prepared often even before the “competition“ is made public.
Going back to Aristotle, in a real competition, jealousy might make you want to “outdo” you competitors. In a pre-qualification, the only thing left for the rejected could be the nasty wish to “undo” the opponent. That is envy. Because as an architect, it has become more and more elusive, opaque really, to find out why the holly finger has again pointed in the same direction.

“Oh Transparency, where art thou?”

And precisely that is what I find more problematic. With the magical formula of private or semiprivate economic funds financing everything (or half of everything) that is built in Denmark, finding out who chooses who buildswhat, and the reasons for their choice, has become a challenge.
What is not complicated is to guess who are the beneficiaries of the pre-qualifications, or the so-called “campaigns”: the results are increasingly predictable. At my studio, when the list of pre-qualified teams comes out, we sometimes make bets. We often get three out of four names right, and many times we are able to shout the complete bingo line. A bitter pastime, I know.
Some five or six offices of architects and landscape architects have, since this phenomenon started, multiplied by ten their size and income. Some can hardly cope with the volume of work, no matter how many new employees they get. This causes amazement in the beneficiaries … and envy, the Shakespearean “green eyed monster”, in the rest.
Meanwhile, our Danish Architects Association addresses the issue by offering a course (6.000 kr. for members), in which you learn to get good at pre-qualifications. A pragmatic approach indeed.

And what I find more pernicious, destructive, is that after a period of ill digested envy, comes a period of boredom and detachment. Experiments show that the same frustrating or stressing experience, endlessly repeated, produces apathy in the subject of study: the rat gives up and dies.
From “they didn´t like my project” we have gone to “they didn’t like my friends and me … but which of my friends didn´t they like (for future teams) ... or was it me?”. And most importantly, who are “they”?
Downright playground neurosis!

Even winning will not feel the same, which is the definitive corruption. When did it happen that we stopped discussing projects and we started talking about “darlings” being pimped by “sugar daddies”?
But we architects are like optimist and energetic hamsters on a treadmill, we will keep keeping on.

The chairs are set: let the music begin.

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix. 

Originally published on The Danish Architectural Press.