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02.29.2012
Q+A> Architecture Criticism Today
Architecture + Media series launches with a discussion of the state of criticism.
Left to right: James Russell, Cathleen McGuigan, Paul Goldberger, Justin Davidson, and moderator Julie V. Iovine take questions from the audience.
Tom Stoelker / AN

On February 27, AN, Oculus, and AIANY’s Marketing and PR committee organized a panel discussion on “Architectural Criticism Today,” the first in a series on architecture and the media hosted by the Center for Architecture. Moderated by AN’s Julie V. Iovine, the panel included architecture critics Justin Davidson of New York magazine and Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker; Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record; and James Russell, the architecture columnist at Bloomberg.

Here are some edited highlights from the two-hour conversation.

Who are you writing for and how informed do you assume your readers are about architecture?

James Russell: At Bloomberg, the audience is very broad and international. I imagine a 28-year old guy on a trading floor someplace in the world, dreaming of Ferrari’s and penthouses.

Cathleen McGuigan: At Newsweek I wrote for a general reader whom I assumed was not terribly knowledgeable about architecture but whom I thought should be. I really viewed the job as one of educating the reader.

Paul Goldberger: At The New Yorker, we like to presume a certain degree of sophistication and knowledge; someone who is reasonably intelligent. If Jim is writing for the 28-year-old trader dreaming about Ferrari’s and penthouses, I am writing for the 48-year-old reader who already owns them.

Justin Davidson: New York magazine is a publication that was founded to tell the story of New York in all its facets, and architecture and urbanism are big parts that. And I assume they are people who look around; who may not know any names or technical things but are sensitive or interested in knowing about the places where they work and live. Part of the brief is celebrity and consumer products; that side of it is easy.

As architecture moves away from a focus on object building, will you follow? Or will your editors pressure you to still cover celebrity architects?

JR: I think the readership has lost interest in the celebrity architect. They see that the glamorous buildings by “glamorous architects” are not really part of their economic reality. They might be thinking, why are architects doing these glam buildings instead of public housing? What a lot of people don’t understand is that someone has to hire the architects to do that work, and if no one is hiring them, they can’t do that kind of work.

CM: I think people are a little more sophisticated about the public realm than we give them credit for. I think it’s a change that happened with the outpouring of response and interest in New York after 9/11. I went to some of those Imagine New York meetings at the Municipal Art Society and it was powerful to see people coming out on weekends to sit there for hours. It said something about the public at large and their caring about these issues.

PG: You’re right, although it took 9/11 to bring that to the fore. And since then we have seen it fade. For about two years afterwards, I was told I could write as much and as long as I wanted about architecture. But before and since that period, it’s been the usual fight for space with all the other competing cultural areas.

JD: I just want to get back to the subject of celebrity and how those things are changing. It’s not all that New York magazine does. We did a big piece about Frank Gehry and it was the right thing to do. But if I went back and said, “Gee, it’s time to do another piece about Gehry,” the editors would say, “We did that already.” So there’s a lot of Gehry that I can ignore now. More to the point, whether it is something by a celebrity architect or not, my role is to address what it is, why it’s there and why it works, as well as what’s going on, whether it’s a bike lane or a new building or a bench. It’s easy to sell a good idea, impossible to sell a bad one.

PG: To go back to the subject of the object building. I think readers very much want more than that. They are in fact profoundly interested in how the city works and how it affects their lives.

Do you feel a responsibility to represent the architect’s intentions?

PG: My responsibility is to the general public, not to the architect. Critics are not there to be boosters of the profession; they are not water carriers.

JD: When an architect gets to the end of a complex collaborative work, where all these people have been passionately involved, it’s easy to forget that it’s coming before a public that has no advanced investment at all. If I can I act as an intermediary between these two groups. But separating our immediate reactions from your reflective ones is something that a critic is in a unique position to do.

Often the nature of competitions forces you all to write about buildings that have barely opened and well before the intended users have taken full possession. What are the chances of your waiting and reviewing a building a year or so later?

CM: Zero.

What’s your criterion for choosing what to write about? How do you choose your stories?

JR: Sometimes you go to your editors thinking the significance of a building is X then you actually go there and spend time with it—and it turns out there’s a completely different story.

JD: It’s tricky because I have to be able to translate, like Jim says, what you think your response is going to be into an actual response. And then on top of that, you have to create something entirely new and separate, a piece of writing. That’s what I do. I am not doing a gloss on the architecture—the building will be fine without whatever I write. What I write has to have its own freestanding value as something you want to read. My criterion for deciding what to write about is looking for that which is going to provide me with material for writing something interesting about the city or about architecture. It’s not “this is an important building, or this is a famous architect, therefore I must write about it.”

PG: You are always searching for one overriding idea for a piece. And it may or may not come from the building itself. Any piece also has to stand on its own as an essay.

If there’s a sea change in architecture, as there seems to be now, do you feel an interest or responsibility to write about it, and show it?

CM: Absolutely, and that goes to the point about the object building. I think what I am trying to do at Architectural Record is also introduce along with the glamour shots, also pictures that show the street and the people. We get most of our images from architects or architectural photographers, and you guys [architects] never want people in your pictures. We’re trying to get away from that because of the growing interest in context and in the city.

PG: The truth is that most of us as critics never were totally in thrall to the object building or starchitects anyway. While we wrote about many of them because they were part of important moments in the culture, I don’t feel as if I was ever constrained by that. Maybe we are exaggerating the extent to which criticism fell for that. Similarly, the pendulum hasn’t swung all the way in the other direction either. Certainly there is a higher degree of broader urbanistic consciousness today, and I am much more interested today in writing about some of the stuff, say, that Janette Sadik- Khan is doing in the city than I might have been a few years ago. Still it’s wrong to imply that this consciousness did not exist a few years ago. There’s a slight shift in emphasis now but I don’t think it’s more than that.

Can architecture critics make things happen?

JR: We all hope in becoming critics that we’ll have an effect on the conversation. And the truth seems to be that the more critics there are the more it seems possible.

PG: Ultimately, we have the impact of creating a broader, more literate constituency for architecture. In fact the very celebrity architecture culture we are complaining about, in a certain way, came into being in part because of the success of architecture criticism. The audience for architecture really has broadened considerably over the past decade.

JD: Writing about the city can affect conversations about good architecture and the critic can arouse people to be interested in what's going on. I like to see that energy and engagement backed up with reporting almost regardless of where that criticism ends up going. Keeps us on our toes.

PG: Advocacy is fine but information is the key part in writing. When I look at certain pieces that Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, it was not only the position she took, but just the fact that she was getting something out there that otherwise would not have gotten any attention. If there was a new zoning initiative or a major new urban development plan, she would tell you about it, and make it part of the civic dialog. Then that went away for a long time. Many of the initiatives of the Lindsay years were being covered in far more detail and with far more reportorial attention than most of what's been done in Bloomberg years.

JD: It’s important to keep in mind, especially on large-scale architectural proposals, that there is always a moral component. And I think that if we are not going to face that as architecture critics, nobody else is going to. Ultimately, it’s our material. On these projects there are always people talking past each other—I can make money doing this; No, you are blocking my view.  As critics, you can get behind that to whether or not this particular project is serving something beyond the immediate property line. There are concentric circles of responsibility and building always has an effect beyond the immediate jurisdiction. And so there are always moral questions to be asked: Where is the money coming from and how is it being spent? Is it sustainable? What is sustainable? How is it connected, or not, to everything else? All these things become more than just technical questions; they become moral questions. There's nothing to be gained by being sanctimonious about it all, but it can become part of your writing.

PG: If you as the critic don't engage all of these social issues to some extent then you are just comparing shapes. And architecture criticism has got to be about more than that.

Next up in the Architecture + Media series: May 3 Design Reportage: The Business Press and General Interest Media with a panel to include AN's Julie Iovine, Robin Pogrebin of The New York Times, Matt Chaban of The New York Observer and others to be announced.

Julie V. Iovine