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2015 writing awards: overview

Cover of 10 stories: writing about architecture, a compilation of the best stories from the 2015 writing awards

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Architectural publishing in New Zealand is in a better state now than a decade ago, so far as books are concerned, and in particular books about houses. But, still, there aren’t many people writing about architecture in a critical way, or even in a meaningful descriptive way.

There isn’t much of a tradition in this country of specialist architectural journalism, and more than ever newspapers treat architectural happenings as real-estate stories. Architecture, especially residential architecture, is regarded as a commodity and, unsurprisingly in these neo-liberal times, it’s the financial dimension of architectural projects that arouses the media. That, and a good controversy about proposed development in a luent suburbia.

The paucity of informed architectural comment might be a legacy issue for the New Zealand media, but it is also suggestive of current media priorities. Serious consideration of anything is now a challenge. A focus on celebrity and trivia is aided and abetted by the merging of print, broadcast and online newsrooms: so much space to fill, so little time to think about what’s filling it. However, even allowing for the absence of critical precedent and the increasing prevalence of tabloid values, it is surprising that the media by and large ignores architectural subjects, because the public seems to have an increasing appetite for them.

How do we know? One indication is that politicians talk a lot these days about the quality of the built environment and about ways to improve it. Politicians don’t discuss issues if no one cares.

The New Zealand Institute of Architects, the professional body that represents most of the country’s registered architects as well as hundreds of architecture graduates and students naturally has an interest in commentary about architects’ work.

That is, the Institute would like there to be some commentary. Recognising it’s not much use just bemoaning a situation, the Institute decided to do something to get people writing about architecture.

With the support of the Warren Architects' Education Charitable Trust (‘The Warren Trust’) the Institute in 2015 launched an architectural essay-writing competition, soliciting entries from the public – including architects, academics, and tertiary students (the Open category) – and from high-school students. The set word lengths were 1500 and 1000 respectively. This may seem a lot of words in the age of Twitter, and that’s also the point of the competition: it encourages writing that takes some time to tell a story, set a mood, and develop an argument. In short (well, in long), the competition seeks to promote the craft of writing, as well as the art of architecture.

Writers were asked to address the topic: ‘Select a building or urban space you have enjoyed being in. What do you like about the building or place, for example, its design or layout, the way it relates to its setting, and the materials it is made from? Why do you think the building or space works so well?’ Intentionally, the topic invited a personal response (which any of us can make), rather than a technical appreciation (which not all of us are equipped to provide). More than eighty essays were considered by the competition judges: architect Pip Cheshire, President of the New Zealand Institute of Architects; Julia Gatley, senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture; Jeremy Hansen, editor of Home NZ magazine; and John Walsh, Communications Manager of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Ten of the essays, including the Award winners in both the Open and Secondary School categories, are published in this book. Some are stories about buildings the writers know intimately, some deal with places the writers enjoyed at a particular time in their lives, and a couple record visits to sites that left a strong impression. As befits an elastic genre, the writing approaches and styles of these essays are all different, but what they all exhibit is a readiness to get to grips with the not-so- easy business of writing something that’s not just meaningful for the writer but also enjoyable for the reader. ‘Essay’ is also a verb, meaning to try or attempt, and the writers of these pieces, and all the entrants in the Warren Trust Awards competition, showed a commendable willingness to test themselves. We hope they’ll have another go at architectural writing next year, and that other writers will, too.

John Walsh
New Zealand Institute of Architects

 

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