The image has nothing to do with Moshe Safdie but it’s a glorious ‘SimCity’ view of Manhattan via Microsoft’s Bing mapping tool

It took some trouble but I finally got an answer from Monash University to my question concerning how it went about appointing internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie to design the new building for the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music.

My speculation last time (Who needs a ‘starchitect’?) that the university would most likely have sought capability statements from a short list of suitably qualified Australian architects was wrong. It turns out Safdie Architects was “invited” to undertake the project.

In other words, the firm was appointed directly without any opportunity for other potential architects, whether local or overseas, to pitch their wares. The invitation was issued on the strength of Safdie Architect’s international reputation and the Safdie name.

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This is highly unusual for a university. I canvassed two veteran project managers in the sector who said they’d only ever heard of one other direct appointment of an architect.

Monash’s explanation is essentially that firms of Sashdie Architect’s stature don’t tender. They get offers and, if they like them, they might choose to say yes.

That sounds right. ‘Starchitects’ who’re in hot demand around the world aren’t likely to appreciate competitive processes that consume time and effort and, in the end, could mean they don’t get the commission anyway.

So what, if anything, is wrong with a direct appointment? There are a couple of issues. The most obvious is that universities are public institutions. Even where a project has significant funding from donors, much of it (usually most) will still come from taxpayers.

It’s possible inviting a single supplier might attract suspicion of nepotism and special favours. I’m not suggesting anything like that happened in this instance, but it’s not a good look for a public organisation.

There are also more instrumental concerns. One is that unless the university canvasses the field, it can’t know if it’s got the best designer for the job.

It would’ve known Safdie Architects had designed auditoria before, but it probably wouldn’t have known how similar they were to the subject commission. It’s unlikely it would’ve known if there are other firms who are better qualified and experienced for this kind of project.

Another concern is direct and singular invitations may swing the balance of power away from the university to the supplier. The latter is immediately in a more powerful position over issues like fees, budget limits and timing.

The myriad compromises in design and construction that have to be worked out cooperatively as a project proceeds can be harder if there’s an imbalance of power. It’s plausible this might be harder where the architect’s reputation is closely associated with “iconic” designs.

And of course the decision to issue a direct invite ruled out local architects from the get-go. Although local firm Fender Katsalidis has a role in this project, it’s in a support capacity.

On the other hand, as I noted last time, some universities are using design as a means of differentiating themselves in a competitive market. If the key objective is to have the name and reputation of an internationally famous design architect associated with the building, there wouldn’t be much point in inviting capability statements. After all, the ‘starchitects’ club is pretty small.

I’m not persuaded though that it’s necessary to put so much weight on the identity of the architect. What universities are really looking for is an iconic and visually arresting design. They’re looking for a landmark building.

They don’t need a ‘starchitect’ for that and I doubt many outside the architecture industry have ever heard of Moshe Safdie anyway. No one had heard of Jørn Utzon when he was commissioned to design the Sydney Opera House – it was the design that impressed.

They don’t grow on trees, but there are enough superior designers out there (including in Australia) who, given the opportunity, can produce outstanding – and yes “iconic” – work.

I think it’s a myth that there are only a bare handful of designers in the world who can produce the very best work. What’s really happened is there’s only a bare handful who’ve gotten the opportunity.

I expect Monash University will get a fine building as a result of this process. Yet it seems the new fashion for starchitects puts the name ahead of the design and consequently puts local firms out of the running – they can compete on superior design but they can’t compete on “name”.

And when it comes to public funds, it’s always a good principle to have an open, competitive and transparent process for selecting suppliers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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