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Architectural writing: five of the best pieces ever written

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These are a few of my favourite things, says Rory Olcayto

Elsewhere in this week’s edition of AJ, you’ll find all the winning essays in this year’s AJ Writing Prize, whereas here, you’ll find a few hundred words on the five best pieces of architectural writing ever written. In the world. Well not really; but they’re all rather brilliant and worth a look. Just read them, even if you have before.

Owen Hatherley nails stuff down. And with a big wordy hammer that never misses a blow. The best thing I think he’s done is chapter seven of his 2010 breakthrough book from Verso, The New Ruins of Great Britain. The chapter is titled Glasgow: Looking for the Future in All the Wrong Places and it’s absolutely bang on. Glasgow, says Hatherley, is both transatlantic and Eastern bloc. The Victorian core is delirious, like New York, the outer reaches, the Glasgow Bloc, bracing and freezing cold. Glasgow is where the future worlds of Jules Verne and Fritz Lang collide head-on. Hatherley is so damn right you’d think he’d spent his whole life in the Gorbals, instead of Southampton.

Next is Reyner Banham’s Grass Above, Glass Around, a New Society critique of Foster’s Willis Faber and Dumas HQ in Ipswich from 1977. I can remember when I first read this. Let us go back in time … It’s August 2008. I’ve just joined AJ as features editor and editor Kieran Long has handed me the four-page essay which he’s photocopied from the office edition of A Critic Writes - Essays by Reyner Banham. ‘This is supergood,’ he says. ‘We should be writing like this.’ By the way he hands it to me, I know he actually means: ‘You should be writing like this.’


But why is it so … supergood? Because it opens brilliantly: ‘The Willis Faber Dumas headquarters (pictured) in Ipswich has taken just over two years to go from nine days’ wonder to architectural respectability (RIBA Eastern Region award). But it remains almost as inscrutable as ever.’

And the farcical ending is pretty special too: ‘Perhaps they should put turf on their heads and see if that looks any better.’ Better still is Banham’s argument in between. Pompous. Arrogant. Worth it.

I’m always going on about Koolhaas in this column. Annoying isn’t it. Patrick Lynch must hate me. He wrote a column once about why Rem should just lighten up - and very good it was too (in fact, all of Paddy’s columns for AJ were very good, supergood even, and I urge you track them down. Proof, if needed, that architects can write). But Paddy’s protestations (which I have imagined for the sake of this sentence) are not reason enough to keep my love of the Dutchman’s 2001 essay Junkspace under wraps. Google it. Read it. Then ask yourself again if architects can’t write.

Or consult Will Self. He says Junkspace uses ‘a few thousand words of dithyrambic prose-poetry to nail-gun contemporary corporate architecture to death’. I think that means he likes it too.

Then there is Ian Martin, who writes the back page of AJ every week. It’s always funny, even when it’s not (which is never). But writing funny stuff about architecture isn’t quite as easy as Martin makes it look (and as I am proving right now). Some PRs are good at it though. Boom. Boom. My favourite recent Martin column is ‘Thinking beyond pop-uption to metarchitecture, and then beyond that…’ Here’s a sample. ‘TUESDAY. Redesign autumn, giving it a Game of Thrones trailer vibe.’

OK. That’s your lot. Go read them all and start writing and enter the AJ Writing Prize next year. Wait, did I say the five best pieces? I meant four.

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