Think you can write? You could win £1,000
Enter the AJ Writing Prize for the best young architecture critic for under 35s, deadline 1 October
Entrants must write an essay that discusses the question ‘Do architects have a duty beyond satisfying the demands of the client?’ Specific references should be made to existing, unbuilt or historic projects. The piece should be written in lucid, jargon-free language. It should inspire, delight and inform AJ readers as well as those who have no design training. Images can be included in the entry, but the emphasis will be on the text.
£1,000 will be awarded to the winning writer. The winning piece will be published in full in the AJ and the writer of the piece will be commissioned to write a building study which will feature in the AJ. At the judges’ discretion, a Highly Commended award may be given. In the case of a highly commended writer, extracts of their original entry will be published in the AJ, and they will also be commissioned to write a building study.
Alan Berman, Berman Guedes Stretton
David Partridge, joint CEO, Argent
Joseph Rykwert, architecture critic
Christine Murray, editor, The Architects’ Journal
Terms and conditions
Entries should not exceed 1,500 words and must be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 1 October 2012. 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 on 1 October 2012. The competition is intended for those engaged in practice or students of architectural practice. The competition is not open to professional writers or students of architectural history, theory or writing. Pieces should be wholly the work of the person submitting them. The decision of the judges will be final.
Alan Berman on the AJ Writing Prize 2012
Jury member Alan Berman sets the tone in this introduction, which reveals new perspectives on the challenges facing architects in practice today
Clamped to the monitor, rushing to get drawings out, project manager on your back, no time to lose. No time for questions, no time for why. Practice exerts so much pressure that every fast route to a solution is welcomed: don’t ask questions, adopt the standard detail, find it on the web, don’t try anything new – just get it out. The opportunity to think from first principles, to ask not only how but why, is now all but lost.
One consequence of embedding so much of practice in standard solutions that save time and avoid risk is the absence of dialogue between members of the team, between those in the office with experience and those who are learning. Questioning gives the opportunity to explore and discuss why something may or may not be appropriate. Apart from the creative value, this is one of the joys of shared practice. CAD jockeys attached limpet-like to screens can’t do that: there’s scant encouragement to pause and to think about what is being done and why. Pause for thought? No fee, no time to lose.
Architects’ unique skills are too seldom directed where they should be – the making of quality buildings and places that give pleasure and comfort; the handrail, the door step, the eaves, the shaft of light, or the magical surprise of a cleverly positioned window. To get such things right takes many hours. But we fall too easily in line with the mission of those now in control – project managers and bean-counters focused on what they can measure: speed, efficiency, risk avoidance, cost. So there is an overpowering tendency to ‘do it like it’s been done before’ Don’t ask what’s right in the circumstances, do it safe. It’s an unusual client that approves something that’s unfamiliar, so the hegemony of ill considered precedents, of the ordinary, increases exponentially, littering our environments with the banal and the joyless. About which, surprise surprise! – even the bean-counters complain.
This is absolutely not to say that every building must be wildly different in order to avoid the banal. We need to be more sensitive to what makes quality built environments: we need, in the main, well designed unostentatious but satisfying buildings which create a context for communal life. And also a few distinctive buildings, inspiring and expressive, which shine and stand out as the loci for communal values, whether religious, cultural, educational, sport, and even - sadly in accordance with our times - corporate greed and power.
We should have learned from vernacular traditions, and from Georgian and Victorian towns: in order to create good urban contexts that are pleasant to be in, environmentally sound and economic, the mass of buildings should aspire to modesty and the unostentatious: sensibly constructed and beautifully crafted to make comfortable worlds within, and disposed to make quiet backgrounds for public life.
But the current mindset of the profession is directed against the modest and the decorous: instead there is an obsession with buildings designed to be noticed in a culture of ‘look at me’ buildings. Architects, too often seeking headlines and self-gratification, seem to delight in the wildly extravagant formal and structural gymnastics made possible by powerful CAD programmes: raking columns crashing through spaces at absurd angles, jutting cantilevers, holes through buildings, jutting pointed prows too narrow to occupy, cubes balanced on one corner. And if wild forms can’t be afforded, there’s the frantic chaos of coloured glass or steel facades, each one a public architectural tantrum shouting in the street. Expensive, difficult to build, costly to maintain, almost always environmentally unsound, yet with few if any tangible benefits. To what end, and why?
Young architects at the computer face should question these extravagant and hollow gestures. For whom are such design statements intended? For building users, for the wider public or for future generations? For clients? Or for recognition by other architects in the pursuit of celebrity status?
Architectural practice raises many ethical and philosophical questions. The more obvious are how we treat our colleagues, especially students; whether we should work for paymasters of dubious repute; how to minimise environmental damage; the morality of false decoration, and the many arcane themes that preoccupy academic theorists. But one of the most urgent, not at all academic, that should be brought to bear on daily practice, is the need to avoid being anaesthetised by aesthetics, to stop designing with an eye to the gallery, and to ask why we design something to be like it is, and at root, to ask for whose ultimate benefit do we do what we do?
- Alan Berman is a consultant at Berman Guedes Stretton