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AJ Writing Prize: How we picked a winner

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Alan Berman of Berman Guedes Stretton explains how the judges awarded the AJ Writing Prize, in association with Guedes Stretton Architects

As the jurors for the AJ Writing Prize, Mary Banham, Joseph Rykwert, Christine Murray and I, were debating our criteria for selecting the winners, an unexpected letter to the editor arrived and helped us along. The architect complained of a critical review published a week earlier in the journal, suggesting the AJ should seek to celebrate buildings, more than criticise them.

The letter cemented our view that, if well-founded and not wilful, criticism is an essential and constructive act. Eulogies, of which there were quite a few among the 91 entries to the prize, were out. What we were looking for was a balanced, warts and all assessment, demonstrating critical faculties sufficient to get under the skin of a building and assess its successes and failures of its setting, spatial organisation, materials and construction, as well as the wider social issues of its use and context.

With these criteria, it was easy to agree a longlist of 14 submissions. Selecting the winner was more difficult, not only because the standard was high, but also because there was a difference of emphasis among the jurors. As a practising architect, I valued discussion of materials and details of construction, while others gave weight to a distinctiveness of voice that would make for good journalism. We also valued submissions which raised larger, more philosophical questions, such as the role of the architect in society and the current obsession with superstar architects.

The final selection reflects this spread of views. John Clark’s review of the Wit Hotel, Chicago, by Koo and Associates (2010) stood out for its distinctive voice, which made up for a certain lack of detailed architectural analysis. With irony, it takes to task the banality of a very ordinary skyscraper alleviated by the singular gesture of a figurative yellow bolt of lighting. ‘The zigzag, hopelessly relegated to only one flat facade. A cliché representation of dynamism, speed and energy that is in reality just a cheap feat of curtain wall gymnastics.’

The critic voices a conundrum for the architect and unabashedly confronts the building: ‘a clumsy graphic project that seems to satisfy the simple dream to be at the cutting edge, though lacking the sharpness to really cut anything.’

Mike Hawkins’ review of Panter Hudspith’s The Collection in Lincoln (2005) is almost the opposite. It contains clear, comprehensive detail, but in a more sober, perhaps overly dry, style. The analysis is excellent and moves coherently from the setting, to the spatial arrangement, to the use of materials and construction and how all of these work on the viewer’s perception. This is an excellent elaboration of how architecture can work as an experience, and while the piece offers a close view of the detail, it also manages broad strokes, linking the architect’s conception to the ‘idiosyncratic playfulness of Alvo Aalto, Hans Scharoun or Hugo Haering; part of Colin St John Wilson’s “other tradition”.’

The option to review a new addition to a mid-20th century icon is a gift that Dale Suttle exploits in his discussion, identifying the strengths of Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Yale Art and Architecture building in comparison with the weaknesses of Charles Gwathmey’s 2008 renovation. Here is a lesson for practitioners and opinion makers: it elucidates how features perceived as strengths today were once considered weaknesses, which over 40-years lead to the incremental alterations of Rudolph’s original, which Gwathmey reversed. An interesting angle, but as almost the whole review discusses the historiography of the original building, relating who said what about it, this prevents significant analysis of the building as a piece of architecture in all its many meanings, which is what distinguished the winning and commended entries.

The review of Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy by Malcolm Birks was refreshingly straightforward and clear-eyed about the merits and shortcomings of this iconic building. It discusses the brief, the physical and social context and details of construction, while also comparing it with Le Corbusier’s use of the processional route through buildings and the race track at Lingotto, both illuminating as architectural precedents. He also finds space to question the larger ambition behind the hype: ‘As a gestures go, the 100m sprint track is very powerful as an act of great force. But is it just a one-liner, a clever juxtaposition and
no more?’ And finally, a key question: ‘Can extreme architectural form contribute significantly to the solving of deep-seated social and educational problems?’

Runner-up Hana Loftus revisits The Idea Stores by David Adjaye and addresses similar queries. Details of the building are evoked in a clear and interesting voice, with a description that gives an excellent sense of the qualities of the building, as in ‘a jutting cliff of coloured glass hangs over the market stalls’. Loftus also looks at the wider urban realm. The building is ‘a blend of culture, commerce and coffee in a sleek architectural wrap [that] epitomises the urban renaissance strategies of the time’.

Loftus also looks at how the building responds to the brief set by the client, the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Her examination of how the buildings have adapted to changes, and the admission that in some cases the design no longer succeeds, is a refreshingly unique element of the review. Nevertheless, the piece ends on an upbeat note: ‘The visual language of public buildings is an important statement of the value that the state places on a community. The Idea Store should be celebrated for their bold contribution to the public realm.’

Finally, the winning piece by Alan Miller reviews the Westfield Sydney Shopping Centre in Sydney. It displays all the qualities we sought in a particularly distinctive, readable and trenchant style. With the opposite of portentousness, it starts by asking perhaps the biggest question of all: ‘What is architecture?’ before grappling with the gap between architectural ambition and its public reception, a fundamental disconnect in the background noise against which we work. The writing is bold and uncompromising: ‘The ugliest buildings – the cheapo apartment blocks, the McMansions, the strip malls are not architecture, merely the residual detritus of a busy society.’

Its critique of the transformation of the lower floors of Sydney Towers into a shopping mall, says it ‘has been maxed-out, its podium crammed with a six-level retail extravaganza which has much to tell us about they way buildings are expected to meet
the ground in our cities today’. The review exhibits a clear understanding of the nature of commercial buildings and what architects are called upon to do, as well as an understanding of the problems facing city centres, and the difficulties these pose for the designer. ‘The building acts out the conflict of trying to wedge that anti-urban model into an urban context… like a suburban mall, it is a deeply internal experience with nothing to say about, or to, the culture and climate of Sydney.’

Miller unfavourably compares aspects of Westfield’s architectural expression and detailing with the way materials by were used by masters of architecture Louis Kahn and Carlos Scarpa. This review is comprehensive at the level of context, detail, the large and the small scale, and understands how materials and design affect people. ‘Natural light is absent. The floors, clad in a garishly veined marble imported from somewhere far away, slope subtly, gradually wedging the visitor under ceilings of domestic height. Combined with the drunken proliferation of shiny surfaces, the result, if you pay attention to the space rather than the shopping, is almost physically damaging.’

In addition, Miller raises some of the more serious questions in architecture today. The piece recognises that while the project ‘seems to have been successful in large measure because it re-affirms shopping culture through its glitziness’, Miller sets
a higher ambition for city architecture, articulating the conundrum of the architect as the servant of commerce. ‘Architecture ought to dignify a city and its people. In a city so content to let the market decide what it wants to build, what do we do when the market decides that good architecture is optional?’

This piece, as well as those on the shortlist, demonstrates that critique and analysis is alive and well, and valuable, because critical analysis is essential in the creation of better buildings.

Alan Berman is co-director of Berman Guedes Stretton and the author of several books on design and sustainability.

The judges’ view

I was pleasantly surprised by the fluency and stylishness of many of the competitors, so my own final choice was not easily determined. It was easy to eliminate entries that read like press handouts; it is discrimination and criticism, however appreciative, that I looked for. The critic has to hold a mirror up to the practitioner, in which, though he may believe himself fair, he will also take note of their faults and blemishes. Joseph Rykwert

The quality of entries was generally high. The writers were clearly aware of the need to assess the buildings instead of simply describing them. Architectural criticism is currently in need of greater depth. The number of entries we received implies that both writers and readers know this, and feel, as I do, that this competition is a timely event. Mary Banham

As a magazine editor, I was looking for a writer with a compelling voice and something to say. After a lively debate, I believe we found both. Christine Murray

  to write a building study, and £250 to the runner-up

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