Everyone's a critic
The AJ Writing Prize is our contribution to the fight against architectural ‘churnalism’, writes Christine Murray
Reading the 91 entries to the AJ Writing Prize was an education in the crisis facing architectural criticism – more than a few read like press releases, evidence of the shortage of good old-fashioned journalism out there. Architecture students who eschew print media for free blogs beware: all that effusive, empty-headed coverage is hazardous to your critical faculties. Email me with your student ID number and I’ll get you a discounted subscription to the AJ and the Architectural Review.
When our young writers weren’t being enthusiastic, they were often harsh and dismissive. There were pieces that seethed with rancour but offered little educative value. This X Factor-style polarisation was to be expected, as balanced criticism is the hardest to write. It’s easy to praise or to damn a building, but very difficult to say why some bits work, and others don’t. Knee-jerk reaction is not the kind of architectural criticism we want to encourage.
There were also a number of considered, if dry, academic essays submitted, but in the end the judges decided to shortlist the writers with the most engaging voices, on the understanding that while certain balanced approaches to criticism could be taught, writing, like architecture, was a talent not easily nurtured.
Idiosyncrasies of the entries aside, it was a pleasure to dedicate this issue to the young architectural critics of the future, and I hope it compels far more to pick up their pen. Criticism is ultimately an altruistic endeavour. At the AJ, we publish exemplar or interesting buildings so that our readers can learn from them. We tour every building we feature, usually with the project architect, who is interviewed during the visit. (This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many writers don’t visit the building, basing their criticism on the copy in press releases – something we call ‘churnalism’.)
We see the AJ’s role in critiquing buildings as two-fold – the writing offers a take on the building or the experience of visiting it, while the accompanying photography, plans, sections and details allow readers to study the effectiveness of the architects’ approach for themselves.
It is not easy to give an honest account of the failures of a building when you have met the architect and know they will be reading it, but it would compromise our professional responsibility if we did not. From your letters and phone calls, I know you struggle with criticism too – you want us to give you an independent and frank appraisal of someone else’s building, but would prefer we just say something nice about yours.
Criticism is only of value when it is independent, and negative or positive, we always endeavour to be fair. Ultimately, we believe we are performing a useful service to the profession in visiting and critiquing your buildings. Do take our criticism in the spirit in which it is intended, and offer your buildings up as exemplars to each other. And critics, keep writing!