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Winners of AJ Writing Prize 2014 revealed

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James Hogan and Sophia Bannert have been announced as joint winners of this year’s AJ Writing Prize

Hogan’s ‘deliberately clever essay’, entitled For the Birds studied Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool at London Zoo.

The judges said the essay was ‘an erudite and rather cerebral discussion of Lubetkin and Tecton’s penguin pool which showed considerable insight and analysis’.

The jury was also wowed by Bannert’s Dark-itecture, which focused on our reliance on sight in how we engage in architecture, describing it as ‘compelling’ and an ‘unashamed address of architecture’s significant shortcomings’.

The winning essays saw off competition from more than 80 other entries, and each will take home a £500 prize.

Now in its fourth year, the prize sponsored by architects Berman Guedes Stretton, called for short essays that explored architectural craft and the effect carefully composed man-made spaces can have upon our senses.

The jury included 2014 RIBA Gold Medallist Joseph Rykwert, architect Alan Berman, architecture critic Jay Merrick, and AJ acting editor Rory Olcayto.

Judges’ comments

Joseph Rykwert

‘Looking through the essays the important move at first is to disentangle one’s sympathy for the choice of building from an independent ‘literary’ estimate of the essay. Fortunately they coincided for me in the appreciation of the London Zoo penguin pool. But I was almost equally taken with an account of the ‘pretty how town’, though the sense of ‘the envelope and background’, the absence of a ‘monument’ made it almost unique among the submissions. The two churches formed an interesting opposition: the overwhelming Grundtvig’s church, and the quietly insidious Marco de Canaveses church are equal – but how differently impressive!’

Jay Merrick

Five Million into One
‘The value of Nick Green’s commentary lies in the way it moves from descriptions of the architectural characteristics of the church to something more complex: the qualities of bricks and light, and the significance of a single brick among five million others; bricks as both the compacted servants of a formally expressed liturgy, and as metaphors for a democratic gathering of ordinary individuals’.

For the Birds
‘A deliberately clever essay, and the temptation is to admire the intellectual four-wheel drive qualities of the writing as it passes smoothly over the terrain of ideas. But the true commodity of the piece lies in the quirky range of James Hogan’s responses to Lubetkin’s Unité des Pingouins – the poetics, the Monsieur Hulot-like comedy of people and penguins, and the bittersweet paradox of flightless birds who ought to be allowed to make sentimental day-release visits.’

Sensible Signification
‘Simon Gill’s piece is bolted to a simple structure. He gives us a sensual, being-there description of Siza’s Santa Maria at Marco de Canaveses, then switches to a series of extrapolations of the experience. His claim that certain kinds of architectural minimalism actually produce the opposite effect is challenging, as is his claim that it is the architect’s job to create poetic conditions using implicitly non-poetic materials.’

Crafting Architecture
‘Toby Lewis’ essay quotes too many sources, but is excellent in the way it homes in so effectively on the generally marginalised architectural issues of craft, colour, foreground and background, and imperfections. He is essentially talking about the way most contemporary buildings fail to convey any sense that human hands, eyes, and thoughts were involved in their design and construction.’      

‘Sophia Bannert’s essay celebrates sensual subtlety in a world drowning in grande bouffe data overloads. Her central idea – that sensual underload triggers a differently enriched state of being – is rather compelling. Her remark that the genius loci is easier to feel than to see broaches an architectural potential that I suspect few designers think about thoroughly, and it also reminds us of something not unlike Louis Kahn’s ‘treasury of the shadows’.’

Alan Berman

For the Birds
‘An erudite and rather cerebral discussion of Lubtekin and Tecton’s penguin pool showed considerable insight and analysis, eloquently expressed with a touch of humour.’

‘Unashamedly addresses one of contemporary architecture’s significant shortcomings: the extent to which the visual is privileged at the expense of other senses. It contains pithy and memorable statements which prompt thought – whether one agrees with them or not – in particular: ‘The genius-loci or spirit of place is easier to feel than see.’ For those designers who take the power of sight for granted this is a challenge indeed.’


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