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AJ Writing Prize: Alan Berman on what makes good architectural writing

AJ Writing Prize judge Alan Berman has explained what he believes are the vital ingredients to outstanding architectural writing

[Winners will be announced in late September] [UPDATE: SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED HERE] Berman of Berman Guedes Stretton Architects will judge entries to the competition along with AJ editor Christine Murray, architecture critic Joseph Rykwert and writer and editor Mary Banham.

The guiding words come as the contest’s 30 June deadline rapidly approaches. The AJ Writing Prize is open to anyone under the age of 35 and has a top prize of £1,000.

To enter the competition email james.pallister@emap.com

 

Berman writes:

Alan Berman

Alan Berman

Writing developed initially for the simple purposes of recording transactions and later, to communicate facts, instructions,  ideas, and feelings.  Recently however it has come to serve another purpose:  academics gain preferment according to the amount they publish, and how their papers are received by their peers.   As the field of un-examined subjects shrank and the academic constituency grew, a new field of endeavour came into being:  nit-picking analysis of predecessors work. Like medieval scholasticism, commentary builds on commentary.

Historians today don’t do history, but historiography. Each aims to better the last in range of content and extremes of references, in language increasingly esoteric and dense: a babble of self referential writing that addresses only others in the lodge. Architectural writing, prone to fashion like all else in the design professions, has followed.

Time was when good architects taught the next generation, now it is taught largely by academic theorists: ask most students and they will complain that they find the theorising if not incomprehensible certainly unhelpful in learning the craft of architecture. Only if you are able to express your ideas in the impenetrable language of late 20th century social, cultural or philosophical theory will your design for a garden shed feature in the ‘mags’.

Architectural writing should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.

Lethaby, Scott, Banham, St John Wilson, Frampton and, towering above all, John Summerson, expressed complex ideas  economically, clearly and elegantly. They are a pleasure to read – their extensive and deep learning used for reference rather than display. It may be unfair to hold up an aphorism as an example of good writing, but nothing carries more meaning both as a general truth that conveys a philosophy and also specific architectural action than Mies’s statement: ‘less is more’.

The AJ Writing Prize

The brief

Entrants must review a building completed in the last 10 years, analysing in lucid, jargon-free language its relationship to the history of architectural ideas and its context. The piece should inspire, delight and inform AJ readers as well as those who have no design training to appreciate good contemporary architecture.

The prize

£1,000 will be shared among the winning writer(s). The winning piece will be published in full in the AJ and the writer will be commissioned to write a building study which will feature in the AJ.

The Jury
Christine Murray, Editor The Architects’ Journal
Alan Berman, Berman Gueddes Stretton
Joseph Rykwert, Critic
Mary Banham, Writer and editor

Terms and conditions

Entries should not exceed 1,500 words and must be emailed to james.pallister@emap.com no later than 30 June 2011. Where relevant, supporting visual material may be supplied, though the emphasis is on the quality of the text. Authors should be aged 35 or under. Pieces should be wholly the work of the person submitting them. The winner will be announced and published in August 2011. The decision of the judges is final.

 

For more information email james.pallister@emap.com

 

Readers' comments (8)


  • I agree with a number of the points made in paragraphs 4 and 5 of this piece but not with many in the first 3. As a historian writing about Vincent Harris I am uncovering new material about the man and his architecture and therefore hope to present a historical and helpful monograph which sets this architect in his time and provides readers with information which they can use.
    I also feel that this writer forgets the quality of some of the architectural studies which appear in the AJ. Rory Olcayto's building studies are always worth reading because they lead you clearly through a building uncovering its many layers. Peter Blundell Jones's study of a new school recently employed descriptions which make one smile in understanding e.g. the 'giant embrace of the double hall'.
    There is some good writing around!

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  • I agree with this last comment. Some writers have this enviable way of employing expressions and conjouring images through words; but at times this is done at the expense of a genuinely edifying piece of writing. Those that can strike a balance are to be envied.

    Also, writing is a way of expressing things that others can't see, such as buildings that you will probably never visit, therefore that ability to conjure imagery that makes you feel that you are there is very important I feel.

    Witht he exception of Scott and Banham, I've read all the guys mentioned, and was taught be Blundell-Jones. Frampton is a great scholar with unparalleled insights, but my word is he a heavy read!

    You've left out my favourite. Ruskin, then there's Wolflinn , but now we're getting into art. I think the same rules apply though.

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  • Oh dear. What a range of inaccurate statements, unsubstantiated generalisations and plain cliches, trotted out in a manner that completely undermines any semblance of an argument.
    1. Academics are not judged by quantity but by quality. The various research assessment exercises make this quite clear. This means that the internalised discourse that Berman accuses academics of is largely redundant, because we are judged against the criteria of originality, significance and rigour. One cannot be original simply through critique of others.
    2. Who exactly is he referring to when he says historians do not do history? If I look around the UK at the leading historians (at random: Peter Blundell Jones, Neil Jackson, Adrian Forty, Miles Glendinning, Murray Fraser) they are not doing internalised historiography but writing about stuff. And in all cases doing it lucidly.
    3. I agree with the previous comment that critical writing from people outside of the academy is going though a very strong phase in the UK, and is far from impenetrable. Again, at random: Keiran Long, Rowan Moore, Hugh Pearman, Charles Holland, Will Wiles - all these and many more are highly intelligent and highly accessible, as well as not pandering to either architectural egos or arcane theory.
    4. Finally, I would point Berman towards some of the student writing emerging from the Schools. I may be prejudiced being at the School that has won the RIBA Dissertation Prize five times running, but these pieces of work are quite brilliant, and certainly not pandering to fashion; which suggests that their tutors are not either.
    So if this otherwise worthy prize is being set up in opposition to a perceived malaise, I feel you are setting up a pyrrhic victory.

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  • Interesting to hear about a monograph on Vincent Harris - was the top storey of the MOD inspired by Wilton House? I am sorry that Alan Berman has not read any good architectural history and analysis recently. To add to Jeremy Till's list, he might consider Downes and Girouard, Saint and Powers, Curtis and Stevenson, Cooper and Guillery, as well as a number of Westminster RIBA prizewinners: O'Callaghan, Rapp, Severs, Gregory and Richards. No jargon; not historiographical; just good, well written and inspiring history about architecture, design, society and us; persuasive and pertinent: pyrrhic victory or straw man?

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  • I think that Berman is trying to focus on writing that enhances architectural production rather than that which may open up new avenues of scholastic inquiry. I think all practitioners feel that if we are writing beautifully but building badly, then we've achieved nothing. In the end, it's all about the buildings. I think that's the contention and I find it hard to disagree.

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  • Can't believe I forgot W J R Curtis. Probably my favourite living writer. 'Modern Architecture Since 1900' a classic, and his writing on the contemporary situation is always illuminating.

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  • Alan Berman's comments are unhelpful, but I would rather applaud the AJ in setting up this new competition. Given the required subject matter/word length/publication format, what you seems to be aiming for are examples of writing that bridge between academic and journalistic modes. It is an undoubtedly fertile area, and one in which Reyner Banham was the acknowledged master. But let's not pretend that it constitutes the whole field or purpose of architectural writing, and anyone who has read Banham extensively knows that he never made that mistake.

    As Jeremy Till and John Bold point out, there are already important annual competitions that are encouraging truly excellent work from young architectural writers. These are the RIBA Dissertation Medal, whose winners are then published in The Journal of Architecture, and the RIBA President's Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis. If the new AJ competition can promote another area of writing, then so much the better; let's make a thousand flowers bloom.

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  • As an outsider (engineer) I have to agree with Alan Berman about the use of language of some architects. I have tutored on architectural courses and have had projects described to me in a way that has left me none the wiser about any aspect of their function or how design decisions were made. It seems to be a form of intellectual bravado and one-upmanship that I luckily don’t have to get involved in. I think we should all aim to improve our vocabulary and try to use 1 word instead of 10 to describe an issue, but we (engineers included) must remain accessible. I was told at school, and believe this holds true now, that if you can’t describe something simply and succinctly then you don’t really know what you are talking about.

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