The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”
Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman.
Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:
Architectural writing should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.
This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
There is nothing wrong with writing as an “aid” to architecture, but writing about architecture needs to be conceived as something much greater than a mere facilitator of architectural practice and outcomes. Writing mediates architecture the way it mediates life. Let us posit that there should be no architectural writing, but merely writing that happens to be about architecture.
What is good architectural writing, anyway? I think there is really just good writing. As W.H. Auden once wrote:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Now, I won’t go too much into that “mouth” business, but the gist here, as I see it, is that poetry, or writing, makes things happen. It coaxes meaning out of things and situates them within deeper contexts.
Architecture is a form of poïesis, or “making”. From poïesis we derive “poetry”—the word used to be a verb: to make. Martin Heidegger uses it as “bringing forth” or what he called a “threshold occasion, or a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another.”
This is what good writing about architecture—or anything—can do. So why put limits on so-called architectural writing? It would be interesting to see what would happen if AJ opened the parameters beyond these limits and invited writing that moves architecture, or that makes it happen on new levels.
If writing about architecture is to serve the profession on some level, wouldn’t it be best if it reached out to the popular imagination, beyond the confines of institutionalized insularity where architects and “architectural writers” merely talk amongst themselves?
Writing ecstatically and madly about architecture demands an authentic response to architecture, or even a provocation directed against it. It cannot be posited by a formula. Writing goes beyond “clarity and precision of expression.” It ain’t about “lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.” This would be beneath the architecture the writing is trying to explain or capture.
To meet architecture head-on with writing is an ecstatic act. It is neither timid nor technical. It is an authentic “mouth.” So let’s see what the AJ contestants bring. Hopefully they don’t take writing advice seriously.
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring "The Indicator", he is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.