The eye of the brainstorm

Hugh Pearman doubts he will win the design competition he just entered, but it’s not about the winning, it’s the time, thought and effort required to take part

I wave goodbye to the architects and the engineer, shut the front door and glance at the kitchen table. It is littered with half-drunk cups of coffee, assorted chewed pastries from the baker on the corner and scraps of scribbled-on paper. This can mean only two things: I am planning a house extension or I am getting involved in a design competition. This time it’s the latter. Oh no.

It has been a long time since I last did this. Why do I bother? Why does anybody? Competitions and design pitches come with only one certainty: that a lot of time will be wasted by everyone involved including, quite often, the winner. The number of competitions where the victorious scheme quietly fades away, never achieved, is almost as off-putting as the odds against winning at all.

And with this one, the odds against are almost ridiculously high. It is an anonymous open ideas contest for all disciplines and none, with a brief that is best described as vague. That means that hundreds of people will enter, from world-class professionals with crack teams and big budgets, to have-a-go students and nutty craftspeople with no budget at all. As a way to bring some money in, it’s about as dead-cert as going out and buying a Lottery ticket. Only with much more work involved.

My part in this is, as ever, on the fringes. What I’ve agreed to do, as a favour to a friend, is to be briefed on the design concept and put the sometimes slightly incoherent thoughts of the team into presentable written form. And yes, there is a real team. The architect and the engineer are good, even moderately well known. The other disciplines involved are experts in their field. All in all, there will be around half a dozen experienced people giving up their time for this, and all are on the upward curve in their professions: you know they haven’t peaked yet, so you know the ideas will be fresh. They are also busy, and far from wealthy. Never mind why I’m doing this: why on earth are they doing it?

As far as these people are concerned, it’s a real job. They discuss not only the broad concept, but points of practical detail: how will this work, how will that look, exactly how are people going to get from Point A to Point B, how long will they spend doing X and Y? There are little sketches and computer cutaways showing in minute detail that someone has thought long and hard about a problem, and come up with a solution. It’s pointless – a rough pencil concept sketch of the whole thing, plus something like an extract from a Basil Bunting poem, would probably be enough. The winner is as likely to be someone who has spent half an hour on it, as someone who has clocked up several weeks.

At no point does anyone mention the little matter of the odds stacked against us. We do our bit of due diligence, of course. We consider the people on the judging panel – do we know any of them? Who might they know among the other likely competitors? How relevant are their respective professional positions and geographical locations? Would it be a good or a bad thing if they thought they recognised our anonymous entry? As always, we conclude that there is no point trying to second-guess the judges. We’ve all been design judges ourselves, anyway. We know it’s sudden death – a matter of instinct, not logic. And if it isn’t, it should be.

By the time they leave and I look at the detritus on the table, something has shifted in my head. Of course they are not going to win. And even if they do, it won’t get built. They are going to waste their time and mine. They are going to feel gutted; I am going to feel sorry for them. But I am curiously upbeat. It happens to be a good, strong, clever scheme. If I was judging this, I’d certainly pause over it. And I find myself thinking that – although it’s embarrassingly rare – I have been on a winning team before. Hmmm… despite myself, despite the fact that I’m on the periphery here, I find I have been infected again by the competition bug.

I suppose it comes down only to this: the sitting round the table, everybody chipping in, having a good time. Real clients fade into the background. The phone goes unanswered for a couple of hours. Maybe this group of people will come together again on a likelier project with shorter odds. Perhaps something might emerge from this process years down the line in a completely different context. Or perhaps not. Maybe it’s just one of those mind-sharpening games that everyone needs to play once in a while. And maybe that’s enough.

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