HTS WRITING PRIZES 2017: What is excellence in writing? Review

by Silvana Taher AADipl2011, HTS Tutor and Organiser of the HTS Writing Prizes 2017

11 July 2017
Architectural Association, London

 

Every year, as the History and Theory staff come together to discuss the nominated essays of the Writing Prize, we inevitably find ourselves asking the same question: what is it that makes for excellence in writing? Invariably, despite all the answers given, in the end it always comes down to one thing: the students themselves. Although we, as tutors and lecturers, set annual agendas, construct syllabuses and guide discussions – we are in the end faced with a group of students who have their own agenda. Each year comes part and parcel with its own questions, its own ambitions, and its own themes. Far from ‘handing down’ a body of learning, we find ourselves responding to student driven questions. If we have learned anything in the 5+ years of these prizes’ existence it should be this: the question has to be reframed; it is no longer the definitive ‘what is excellence in writing?’, nor is it the subjective ‘what do we think excellence in writing is?’ – but rather the more inquisitive and certainly more exciting – ‘what do the students propose to be excellence in writing?’ On this question, the students of the AA, whether in First Year, the Intermediate School or the Diploma School, always surprise and delight us.

 

In First Year, Leo Sun won with his highly inquisitive and critical essay ‘Ledoux is dead, vive Ledoux’. In his essay, Leo explores how the social and political circumstances of an architect’s life can affect and in fact even define the nature of the work produced. While the essay itself was steeped in historical study, the premise of what he argued is undoubtedly as relevant today as it was in the 18th Century. In Second Year, Amalia Anastasia won with her very creative and unique piece ‘Consensus Ireale: On reality and construction’. Structured as a screenplay, this piece places two characters in opposition; the idealist and the cynic who, when confronted by each other’s thoughts and ideas, ultimately succumb to the charm of the third and final character introduced, the nomad. While the essay-play itself is well written and theoretically provocative, what is most exceptional about this piece is the sense that one gets while reading it; namely that the author is not only exploring the boundaries of her discipline, but also of her very own thoughts and ideas. Finally, in Third Year Jacopo Colarossi won with his essay ‘The Indulgence and its Façade’. Both critical and highly narrative, the essay impressed the jury panel with its ability to weave highbrow theory with personal interests, resulting in a piece, which was in equal measures amusing and intelligent. At a time when the value of incorporating narrative into architecture becomes increasingly questioned – this essay reminds us of what can happen when it is done well.

In the Diploma School, the structure is somewhat different. Rather then give one prize per year, we give one prize over the whole of the Diploma School. At times this poses somewhat of a problem, how can we narrow down and compare so many different entries, from students who additionally are at different stages in their education? The answer is that while we strive to identify one clear winner, we have introduced the commendation – for those who simply merit a second round of applause. This system of award giving was very much needed this year; as we were presented with a wide variety of excellent writing across the Diploma School.

 

The jurors deliberate over the Dennis Sharp Prize For Outstanding Writing by Diploma Students. Image credit: Valerie Bennett

The jurors deliberate over the Dennis Sharp Prize For Outstanding Writing by Diploma Students.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

Three commendations were given this year. Sandra Kolacz received a commendation for her essay ‘The Fourth Republic: Fabricating Success in the Planned City of Nowa Huta’. In her essay, both heartfelt and grounded, Sandra explores the stresses and strains of urban planning in post-war Poland. The result is a nuanced and unique enquiry into a long-standing topic of research. Jacek Rewinski received a commendation for his piece ‘Slice of Life’ – an essay which is equal parts poetry and socio-political critique, as the regeneration of the Haggerston Estate is reviewed through new and perhaps more perceptive eyes. The third student to receive a commendation was Rory Sherlock with ‘Multimedia Oblivion – Palmyra: Violence, erasure and the corporeal architectural body’. Taking on the destruction of Palmyra, Rory starts by defining the terms of study; namely, that his thesis is not a finished piece of work – it is the beginning of a much larger and presumably longer project; either way – whether fragment or entirety, his research is both grounded and thought provoking, and well worth the read. As for the actual award – that went to Nicholas Zembashi for this essay: ‘The Telescape: Footage as Form, Screen as Format’ – timely, well written, contemporary and intelligent. It wouldn’t do justice to this essay to summarise it in any way – it simply has to be read.

So where does that leave us – What does make excellence in writing? Is it a thorough survey of the past, a personal self study, a true and genuine understanding of our current standing in the world? If it is one or all of these, what then makes for an excellent structure; playful and free, academic, theoretical, non of the above? This year, as every year, the answer came from the students themselves; forever surprising and inventive they continue to redefine the rules of excellence in writing.

An exhibition of submissions from Sylvie's HTS course on The Construction of the Portfolio. Image credit: Valerie Bennett.

An exhibition of submissions from Sylvie’s HTS course on The Construction of the Portfolio.
Image credit: Valerie Bennett.

For more information:

AA Writing Microsite

Leon Sun’s First Year Writing Prize Winning Essay

Amalia Anastasia’s Second Year Writing Prize Winning Essay

Jacopo Colarossi’s Third Year Writing Prize Winning Essay

Nicholas Zembashi’s Dennis Sharp Writing Prize Winning Essay

Sandra Kolacz’s Commended Essay

Jacek Rewinski’s Commended Essay

Rory Sherlock’s Commended Essay

HTS Writing Prizes 2016 by Sylvie Taher

HTS Writing Prizes 2015 by Sylvie Taher

HTS Writing Prizes 2014 by Zainab Dena Ziari

HTS Writing Prizes 2013 by Sylvie Taher