The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Introduction
It’s year four of the AJ Writing Prize, a celebration of new architectural criticism, brought to you in association with Berman Guedes Stretton. This year we called for short essays that explored architectural craft, and the effect carefully composed man‑made spaces can have upon our senses.
Here’s a reminder of the brief:
Describe in no more than 1,000 words how a space you inhabited recently made you feel, appraising any materials the architect used to achieve that experience.
We looked for pieces that explored the fundamental craft of architecture, the skilful arrangement of materials and sensations that create comfortable and inspiring places for everyday use.
The response as ever was impressive, with 80 entries. And this year, for the first time, we have two clear winners: James Hogan’s ‘For the Birds’ and Sophia Bannert’s ‘Dark-itecture’.
Our jury, comprising 2014 RIBA Gold Medallist Joseph Rykwert, architect and author Alan Berman, and RIBA honorary fellow and architecture critic for the Independent Jay Merrick (and me, acting editor of the AJ) were unable to prise them apart.
We felt they both had equal merit, in that they each explore the brief with skill, wit and verve, while simultaneously engaging with bigger, more provocative ideas.
Hogan’s entry, perhaps unwittingly, or maybe very deliberately, puts Modernism itself in the dock in his study of Bertold Lubetkin’s penguin pool. Regardless of whether that was the intention, ‘For the Birds’ has a pleasingly geometric rhythm and form, much like the subject itself, and stands as an exemplar of old-school, meditative criticism.
Bannert’s ‘Dark-itecture’, on the other hand, feels new - and necessary. It has elements of fiction and reportage, and a pleasing cadence which charmed the jury. Perhaps most importantly, it confronts head-on our reliance on sight in how we engage with the built environment. We speculated that it could well be a critique of the glut of image‑led architecture websites that mesmerise the profession today. Even if it’s not, it’s just damn good writing, and a worthy winner, alongside ‘For the Birds.’
The commended essays, were a cut below these two outstanding pieces, but clearly a cut above the rest, and deserving of publication in the AJ.
However, every entry can be read online here.
It’s words mostly, and pictures are few. We’re making no apologies for that.
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!
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.
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.
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’.
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.