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 email@example.com
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
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.
£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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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