November 19, 2011

AJ Writing Prize

I recently came runner-up for the Architect's Journal's inaugural AJ Writing Prize for my piece on David Adjaye's Idea Stores (download a pdf version here). I am delighted to have been selected by the judging panel, but when the piece was written, the August riots which involved the Whitechapel Idea Store being targeted, were months away. Having the essay published since the riots has been been uncomfortable and introduced further complexity into any discussion of the buildings. The riots raise further questions about one of the points I was trying to make in my piece, regarding the closeness between the architecture Adjaye developed, and the corporate/commercial architectural language - and if I was writing the piece now, it might have had a tougher slant.

The riots primarily targeted high street chain stores, and the Idea Store was the exception to this. What was it that the rioters thought - on any subliminal level - that made them feel that this building could be a target too? (I don't want to get into the discussion about whether the rioters were 'thinking' or not. There was a pattern to the riots and this means there was a logic, whether it was from conscious reasoning or at the level of an instinctive response.) Something about the building was impersonal enough - not visibly enough 'owned' by the local community, however well-used it may actually be - to make it equivalent to a branch of JD Sports.

In retrospect, therefore, I am forced to reappraise the critique I offered of the Idea Stores. I still stand by the central premise - that they are good buildings, in a difficult context - a level of quality that stands out. But their deliberate closeness to the corporate realm - which was written into the brief, and which Adjaye embraced - was a loss of confidence in the idea that civic architecture should be a foil, not a cousin, to the privatised, corporate domain. This language has been adopted fullscale in other forms of 'public' architecture - academy schools as an example - with very little evaluation of how this architecture may be interpreted by those who feel disenfranchised by the dominant corporate culture.

The brief for the prize was to write for a general, not specialist, audience, and to discuss contemporary architecture that was actually good. It was incredibly difficult to choose a subject for the piece that I felt was both good architecture, and also said something of relevance to the wider discussion about the issues I feel are important. (I also had to cut the piece down by nearly half to meet the word limit.) As a practice, we feel that the issue of civic architecture is critical. It goes to the heart of what kind of communal, political identity we wish to express on a local and national level. As architects, we have the chance to affect a tiny proportion of our built environment and we want to dedicate our energies to projects that say something about their social and physical context, and have a generosity towards the public realm. We have a lot to learn from the failings, as well as the successes, of projects like the Idea Stores.


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