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Why architecture is best built on a two-way street

An angry phone call reminded me how central feedback is to the profession, says Christine Murray

Every week we send an issue from AJ towers through the ether, via the printing house, to our subscribers, where it is subjected to a silent crit by our architect readers. It is the most exhilarating day of the week, once the AJ is out, and we wait in anticipation for your phone calls and letters. Feedback, good or bad, is like food and water to us. There is nothing worse than initiating a conversation to which there is no reply.

So we’d love to hear what you think of these two bumper issues of Small Projects 1 and 2 (all projects online here, alongside the ‘best of the rest’), sponsored by Marley Eternit, featuring 24 projects built for a contract value of £250,000 or less.

This week I received a phone call from an architect that didn’t make the Small Projects shortlist. He had just received an email confirming that his submission was unsuccessful, and objected to the absence of specific feedback as to why.

His tone was surprisingly confrontational, but his request for a critique was fair. The shortlisting jury, which included deputy editor Rory Olcayto, technical editor Felix Mara and me, drafted a detailed explanation as to why his project wasn’t selected, and sent it via email with a promise that we’d make ourselves available to any other unsuccessful practices seeking feedback too; a promise I am keeping in this column, by inviting other unsuccessful Small Projects applicants to get in touch if they want an honest assessment of what we thought of their work, good or bad.

All this is to say, that the AJ team is not afraid of having our editorial decisions challenged by the profession. Indeed, we relish the opportunity to engage in a conversation with our subscribers about what the AJ stands for. We agree with the aforementioned architect, who described the AJ as ‘a two-way street’.

Which brings us back to Small Projects, and the criteria for the selection of the final 24. Judging is always a subjective enterprise, and is especially difficult when the jury is comparing apples and oranges. The submissions were varied, from nursery schools to treehouses, bridges to house extensions. But even with the diversity of use, there were often similarities between projects in the use of materials, or construction techniques.

This year, a number of submissions used raw, recycled or reclaimed materials. There were also a remarkable number of architect-designed playgrounds and art projects, and for the first time, a significant number of retrofitted homes. For the shortlist, we tried to choose the most interesting project from each typology, with a preference for those that represented exceptional value, or addressed a particular problem with aplomb.

The winning Small Projects and the first-ever Small Projects sustainability prize will be selected from our shortlist on 9 February by our judging panel, which includes architect Will Alsop, John Boxall, partner at quantity surveyor Jackson Coles, and Paul Reed, director at Marley Eternit. The £2,500 prize fund will be shared at the judges’ discretion. The shortlisted projects will be on show at New London Architecture next month.

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