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AJ Writing Prize: Call for Entries


This week the AJ begins the search for fresh writing talent in our annual Writing Prize, sponsored again this year by Berman Guedes Stretton

This week the AJ begins the search for fresh writing talent in our annual Writing Prize, sponsored again this year by Berman Guedes Stretton. There is £1,000 in prize money up for grabs and the opportunity to have your written work judged by RIBA Gold Medallist and architectural historian Joseph Rykwert.

Below jurist Alan Berman also sets the tone in his introduction, calling on architecture critics to focus on the skill of architects to manipulate materials and form.


Describe in no more that 1,000 words how a space you inhabited recently made you feel, appraising any materials the architect used to achieve that experience.

We are looking for pieces that explore the fundamental craft of architecture, the skilful arrangement of materials and sensations that create comfortable and inspiring places for everyday use.

The prize

A prize of £1,000 will be awarded to the winning writer. The victorious piece will be published in full in the AJ. At the judges’ discretion, a Highly Commended award may also be given. Extracts from Highly Commended entries will be published in the AJ.

Terms and conditions

Writing Prize Competition entries should not exceed 1,000 words and must be emailed to ajwritingprize@emap.com no later than 11 August 2014. There is no age limit for entrants.

The competition is intended for those engaged in practice or students of architectural practice. It is not open to those who have a substantial body of published written work. Pieces should be wholly the work of the person submitting them. The decision of the judges will be final.

The jury

  • Joseph Rykwert, architectural historian and critic
  • Alan Berman, consultant, Berman Guedes Stretton
  • Rory Olcayto, AJ acting editor

More jury members will be announced over the coming weeks  

The Crafting Of Architecture

Alan Berman, consultant, Berman Guedes Stretton

Architecture is drowning under a tide of theory, yet it is, and has always been, a practical art. Contemporary architectural discourse is preoccupied with cultural and linguistic theory, ontology, hermeneutics and a host of philosophical fields; all of which treat the making of shelter for body and soul as if it is something that exists almost exclusively between the ears.

Esoteric theorising is the name of the game and, if you don’t have Heidegger, Derrida or Irigaray in your back pocket, you don’t cut it. But extreme intellectual discourse does not explain how to build places that are rooted in human sensory experience and create inspiring, comfortable and practical spaces in which ordinary men and women can dwell happily.

Oddly, in a world which has become so mechanistic and materialist, we seem to have turned to the conceptual rather than the senses, which are so fundamental in satisfying both basic necessities and emotional needs.

There is, however, one exception: our society privileges the visual sense to an extreme degree. Almost to the exclusion of our other senses, the visual works to keep this over-bright, overly lit and brash world turning.

The machine of industrial-commercial consumption, needing to create insatiable appetites for almost everything, seduces people by means of visual imagery and has developed visual and graphic skills to extraordinary levels of influence.

Two-dimensional imagery underwent a step change in sophistication, influence and power with the advent of computer graphics, which in turn has had an enormous and revolutionary effect on design. Architecture has become so much a graphic art: buildings are composed on screen as surface imagery, facades conceived as 2D compositions, as patterns with stripes, circles and colours.

Even the complex 3D buildings of ‘starchitects’ are often little more than warped planes and bent surfaces – exciting as they may appear on page and screen, such buildings can be devoid of meaningful material and spatial content, and can be devoid of a fundamental foundation of architecture –tectonic quality. 

The architectural media often follows behind: it deals in pictures. This obsession with imagery leaves the practical art and crafting of architecture out in the cold. There is scant discussion of the skills required to manipulate materials and forms, and of how these elicit human sensory responses. 

The raw materials at an architect’s disposal are, self-evidently, those out of which buildings are made and the way materials enclose space. But more than that, fundamental to the craft of architecture is the deployment of physical matter so as to induce sensory and psychological responses: to light and dark, to texture, temperature and sound, as well as those crucial but ineffable characteristics which hover between the physical and the psychological – shelter and exposure, balance, order, movement, chaos, weight, lightness, depth.

These are qualities that exist in the physical world, whether actually ‘felt’ or sensed, they are the substance of architectural craft – the equivalent of the potter’s clay, the painter’s paints, the writer’s words; it is the skilful crafting of all of these components which make buildings that have human value beyond contemporary trends. 

Craft skill is rooted in an understanding of the nature of the materials being used, and in being sensitive to the feedback that their manipulation elicits in users and observers.

This knowledge and skill are the ‘rules of the trade’, methods that are learned through analysing the work of architects from all ages who have mastered the craft. Their methods need to be articulated, discussed, debated and written about to appreciate how they produce buildings that satisfy deep human need.

This is hardly learned from the esoteric theorising and clever ratiocination that characterises today’s discourse. Surprisingly few critics address this approach: Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Experiencing Architecture(1959) still pretty well says it all: others include the writing of Joseph Rykwert, John Dewey’s Art as Experience(1934); Grant Hildebrand’s Origins of Architectural Pleasure (1999) and David Pye’s The Nature of Design (1968).

It is worth noting that many of the architects whose work exemplifies the finest crafting of architecture  – among whom I would include Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Jørn Utzon, Sverre Fehn, O’Donnell + Tuomey, Caruso St John Architects and Peter Zumthor – have felt the need to articulate their approach in writing: Fehn is particularly lucid. Their buildings and writings demonstrate that architecture is infinitely more than image-making: what matters is that buildings are conceived tectonically. When practiced with skill as a thoughtful, builderly craft, architecture can provide a supportive and inspiring framework for everyday life.



Readers' comments (3)

  • Celebrating good writing is a wonderful way to highlight the most important aspects of the profession. What a shame then that the brief for this exellent idea focuses merely on aesthetic experience and is bereft of the purpose of great architecture - to be adapted to place and time, to be fit for purpose. The challenge of our era - to adapt to climate change and to restore the planet's natural systems on which we rely for life - is at least as great as the one the Victorians faced of sanitation, clean water and transportation. This gave rise to an unprecedented civic movement, along with a pride in the architecture and the architects it produced. After the second world war, the nationwide programme of reconstruction led to the creation of an architecture of its time, attempting to produce good quality housing and civic services at an affordable cost. If architects - and the institutions and media that surround them - continue to ignore the serious issues of our time and the challenges and opportunities presented by them from architecture, then they will not deserve to be called 'modern', and the conversations - and briefs - set by the surrounding industries will continue to be conspicuously out of date. We will continue to celebrate buildings that in fact contribute to the urban heat island effect, increase energy demand and air and water pollution, and reduce resilience. I wish all entrants well and look forward to reading the results - but judging by the brief, I doubt I will find much that relates to the adaptation of our cities or the long term future purpose of the architect.

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  • The brief is more about the sensual experience of being in a building - how the spaces that architects create make us feel - we wanted to get away from critiques of buildings from a purely aesthetic point of view.

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  • Hi,

    What is "a substantial body of published written work"?
    Can teachers of architecture with "non-susbstantial published work" apply?

    Thank you,

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