HTS WRITING PRIZES 2015: The essay as a design project Review
by Sylvie Taher AADipl2011, HTS Course Tutor and Organiser of the HTS Writing Prizes 2015
19 May 2015
Rear Second Presentation Space, 36 Bedford Square
This year’s writing prize was an excellent success. We had over 50 essays nominated from across the school, first year through to fifth year, including six theses. Over the past five years, the number of years that I have been involved in the writing prize, I have seen a marked change in the way both students and tutors approach writing at the AA. There was a time when all students used to have to write theses; apparently this was a canonical failure. Many students graduated without ever finishing their thesis, Zaha Hadid, is reputed to be one such student. And one would suppose that the failure of the thesis system is why shorter essays, in the form of history and theory as part of “complementary studies” were introduced.
The irony is that now, while students are no longer obliged to write a thesis, they now opt to, as a matter of choice. Even within the Intermediate School, where the structure of the programme does not allow for a thesis type contribution, students at times link their separate papers, and return to them over their Easter holiday to end with one comprehensive work of 6,000 words – not the 10,000 words of a thesis, but not far off. It is not the word count that renders these works remarkable, but rather the intention amongst students to see the written part of their study as a potential project to be explored and developed. Even within the confines of the standard essay submission, the 3,000-word essays, students are taking on a new attitude. Long gone are the days when papers were written in a last minute bid to get to the word count. The notion of editing and revising, even terms such as collaging and cut and paste, notions typically attached to ‘design practice’ have found their way into the realm of writing.
The one short fall of the writing prizes, is that still today, after five years of these awards being instituted, it is still the ‘essays’ above all else which it is awarding. Mark Cousins, head of the History and Theory programme, has long held that the writing prize will truly come into its own once it is awarding not only academic writing, but personal writing as well. The students at the AA are among the most ambitious and determined students studying today, and it is not uncommon to find their writing outside the traditional realms associated with essay writing. Our task, if anything, is to encourage this trend, to move students towards developing their understanding of writing as a potential ‘project’, which is as much of a design statement, as the more commonly acknowledged model or drawing.
Amongst this year’s winners there was Zeina Al-Derry with her remarkable thesis The Melancholic City of Mirages, written under the guidance of Mark Campbell, who won the Dennis Sharp Award for Excellence in Writing. In her thesis Zeina reconstructs a historical account of Baghdad, which lyrically weaves together personal anecdote and historical fact in order to paint the portrait of a city. At intermittent points through the essay, the reader is confronted with how captivating a portrait she paints, and is forced to wonder where this sits in our more stereotypical view of Baghdad. Aside from Zeina, this year the panel chose to give two commendations for the Sharp award. Mahsa Ramezanpour with Incarcerating Gender in Captive Spaces and Lara Yegenoglu, with Vernacular Politics, The Gecekondu as an Institutional Apparatus in Istanbul. Mahsa, in her essay on gender and the veil, written under the supervision of Mark Cousins, tells the story of the veil as only one of a series of ‘architectural’ devices used to contain female sexuality. In her sensitive account of the ‘problem of female sexuality,’ Mahsa allows herself to delve into the stories of prostitutes and homemakers alike. Lara, in her thesis Vernacular Politics written under the supervision of Mark Campbell, traces the history of the Gecekondu in Istanbul. Her account of these minorities lives takes on a remarkable journalistic quality in which their lives gain a palpable reality and the reader can truly engage with their plight.
In the Intermediate School each of the years was awarded one prize. In the Third Year Jane Wong won with The Burning House. Jane’s writing, both poetic and expansive, begs the question, perhaps unintentionally, ‘what is it that we expect from the academic paper?’ In defending her paper to the jury, Jane said, “I write for myself, to answer my own question; I was emotionally effected by the image of the burning house, and I wanted to explore it”. This statement, coupled with this personal and inquisitive work begs the question of if more of us should not write simply to console our own curiosities. Second Year Olukoye Akinkugbe won with The Inescapable Bias of Representation. Olukoye, or Lucas as we came to know him by the end of the event, wrote a compelling and very ambitious essay on representation, in which he intuitively used photography and narrative to capture the complexities of representation. In First Year Simonpietro Salini won with Novitatem meam Contemnvnt, Ego Illorvm Ignaviam: They Despise my Novelty, I their Timidity. Simonpietro’s letter written in the first person by a re-invented Giovanni Battista Piranesi to Andrea Palladio, sheds light on the frustrations that architects face both then and now. His essay is both imaginative and captivating in its ability to involve the reader in his adaptation of the voice of Piranesi.