HTS WRITING PRIZES: Where to begin? Review

by Sylvie Taher (AADipl 2011), HTS Writing Tutor
07 May 2013 Rear Second Presentation Space, Architectural Association   Where to begin? was the question I found myself asking on the 23rd of April at 10am, as I sat down to a table covered with 86 of the best essays from across the AA. Over the following 72 hours, those essays were slowly whittled down to 19, and finally on the 1st of May, the 19, were taken down to the final 4. The winners; 1st year Sandra Kolacz, 2nd year Radu Macovei, 3rd year Lili Carr, and Chris Bisset of the Diploma School for the Dennis Sharp award.   As I sit down again now, trying to summarize the full event into 600 words, I find myself asking the same question…   “Where to begin?”   In an odd way, writing is one of the few places in which architectural students are still confronted with the tyranny of the blank slate. Yes, every essay is invariably linked to a lecture series. But more often then not, there is no pre-given context, no structural restraint, no brief, no methodology, no pin up, there is no interim panel. It is just the writer, a blank page, and infinite possibility. By this account where to begin is perhaps not just my question, but the question of every architectural writer.   With Lili Carr, winner of the 3rd year prize, it was frustration, or perhaps fear, fear that architecture might somehow be fundamentally handicapped by its ‘physicality’; its brick and mortar resolution. In her essay she told the eloquent story of an encounter with a building, which may have come close to convincing her otherwise.   Radu Macovei, winner of the 2nd year prize, was told when he first came to London that the BT Tower was a ‘secret building’. Confounded by how such a visible building could be secret he undertook an almost detective-like investigation, tracing the building’s history through OS maps and cinematic meetings with Kitten Kong.
Rory Sherlock, nominated for the 2nd year prize, started with vanity, or more precisely his abhorrence of it. But as the discussion unraveled, as we watched his prepared movie clip from American Psycho, the panel tipped into a somewhat uncomfortable place, were we still talking about vanity as a generic notion or were we perhaps talking about our own?   What became apparent, with these essays, and many of the other essays being presented, was that more often then not, it was ‘doubt’ which prompted that first move. Doubt about the potential of architecture, doubt about the ‘dangers’ of fully embracing the profession, doubt of eventually discovering that one has accidentally become ‘vain’ in the process of embracing it! Or even doubt that one has entirely misread it.   That, perhaps more then anywhere else, is where the event really came to life. When the architectural student is allowed to plant the first the seed, when he or she is allowed to embark on a fully self-indulgent inquiry, an odd commonality seems to emerge. We find in the stories of others, questions we have often asked ourselves. Except that we never asked them in quite that way, with quite that structure or quite that voice. Almost as if we are listening to someone else ask what sometimes feels like ‘our question’.   And a precious balance emerges. The act of writing enables the architectural student to take an idiosyncratic journey. It enables them to stand alone, and ask their own question. But it is in the act of coming together, and sharing one’s own question with others, that the singular again gains more weight.   Where to begin might in fact be a difficult question, but if we can take anything from this year’s writing prize, it would be to simply say, begin. Write your own story, and undoubtedly, one day when you tell that story to others, its full value will emerge.  
[caption id="attachment_1169" align="alignnone" width="360"] The third year shortlisted candidates presenting their essays to the panel
Image credit: Valerie Bennett[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1165" align="alignnone" width="360"] The four second years nominated for the prize in discussion with the panel about their essays
Image credit: Manijeh Verghese[/caption]   For more information: Writing Prize Event Listing The Winning Essays The Shortlisted Essays First Year Winner: Sandra Kolacz – "Perpetual Proportion" Second Year Winner: Radu R. Macovei – "Between Surge and Paralysis: A Story of Two Towers" Second Year Honourable Mention: Rory Sherlock – "The Phidian Fallacy: Dispelling Vanity in the Architect’s Self- Portrait" Third Year Winner: Lili Carr – "Zumthor’s Door" Dennis Sharp Prize Winner: Chris C. Bisset – "Otsuka Museum of Art and the Tradition of Copying in Japan" Dennis Sharp Prize Honorable Mention: Hessa Albader – "Stone Faces and Transparent Veils"