Mente et Malleo – Developing a feel for Competition Culture in Poland – Indira van ’t Klooster (NL) – Photos: Michal Poziemski, Mateusz Omanski, Grzegorz Kremien

Mente et Malleo is the motto of the Geological Institute of the University of Warsaw. It means ‘With common sense and a hammer’. One can imagine how geologists need both profound knowledge and proper tools to excavate the riddles of the earth. Few would have predicted that the very same motto, present on the lectern behind which every speaker presented, would fit the 2nd International Conference on Competition Culture in Europe in such an appropriate manner.

The Mente, common sense, was represented by Cilly Jansen (Architectuur Lokaal), Thomas Vonier (International Union of Architects), the well-respected architect Jerzy Szczepanik-Dzikowski (JEMS), and Jakub Heciak (SARP). Based on solid experience and research, they all stressed the importance of cultivating a fruitful competition culture, which is not so much about regulations and laws, but more about creating a culture of transparency, mutual trust, and respect. This can be accomplished by writing clear briefs, appointing a professional jury, offering protection for the architects, and focusing on the creative process.

The Malleo, the hammer, materialized in various ways. The hammer as a weapon was taken up by Patrycja Okuljar, who delivered an emotional plea for a more transparent and more accessible competition culture in Poland, but also by Karol Wawrzyniak (toprojekt), who argued that it was time to reverse the hours and money spent on process and procedures (80%) with the hours and money spent on the design (20%). The hammer as a practical tool was delivered by project developer Karina Kreja, who defined various ways for architects to win competitions and tenders. The event was lavishly illustrated by projects from Polish architects and international experiences, which proved that Poland is a ‘competition country’ indeed.

But are these competitions ‘good’? From all of the examples in Poland, international practices, and heated debates (some until four in the morning) it became clear that Poland is well underway, but also has to improve. The briefs may be impeccable, but the legal positions of architects are not always respected (anonymity, the right to protest, proper fees, and reasonable deadlines, for example). The processes are not always transparent. What happens behind the scenes? How are winners and runners-up being treated during the negotiation phase? How are juries appointed and locations defined? How is the general public involved? Celebrated projects like the Shakespeare Theatre in Gdansk and the European Centre for Geological Studies itself have clearly been successful architecturally, but also raised questions concerning the issues above.

Alarming realities as described by Saimir Kristo (Albania) and Zaira Magliozzi (Italy) will not be found in Poland, but there are concerns, according to the thoughts and observations from various actors on and off the stage. According to Thomas Vonier, ‘I am amazed at the level of activity in Poland. This is both remarkable and admirable. I learned here that architects want to win competitions, obviously, but most of all they want to be ensured of the integrity of the process.’ Cilly Jansen added, ‘The problem is never legislation, but always how people deal with it.’ Karol Wawrzyniak then asked, ‘Why is there so much mutual distrust? It is such a waste of time and energy. I would plea for one single point of departure towards a process that we all trust and support.’ Piotr Bujas from TRACE also noticed the different approaches. ‘During the debates it became clear that we have different opinions on crucial things. In my opinion there is a huge gap between the brief and the process, which results in non-transparent processes. A unity in approach and mutual trust are vital for a healthy competition culture in Poland.’

Yet it was Maciej Kowalczyk (SARP, ACE) who finally offered the proverbial olive branch that represents both mente and malleo. ‘Of course, we have things to improve, but all competitions and processes are out in the open, if not during the competition phase, then surely afterwards. And we are willing to learn.’ It was indeed the openness and honesty in which failures, weaknesses, successes, and doubts have been discussed that made this conference such a remarkable event. And that alone is proof of a healthy competition culture in the making, with solid perspectives for the future.

* The European Centre for Geological Education in Chęciny (PL) was the venue for a three-day conference on Competition Culture in Europe. After the opening session in Amsterdam in 2017, Hubert Trammer (A10, Lublin University of Technology), the Kielce Branch of the  Association of Polish Architects (SARP), Architectuur Lokaal, Polish National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, Kielce University of Technology, and the National Chamber of Polish Architects* took up the challenge to define Polish competition culture in a European context. It turned out to be a very fruitful rendezvous between common sense and proper instruments: between regulations and process, between traditionalists and revolutionaries.
* Please find the full list underneath: