Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95
Time was, if you were interested in becoming an architecture critic, you read the work of other critics, gleaned what you could from it, then set out to develop a voice of your own, a process that generally involved both imitating and contradicting your predecessors. If you read any books that could be classified as architecture criticism they were almost surely collections of a single critic’s work that had been assembled between two covers as a hedge against the brief shelf life of newspaper and magazine articles in a pre-Internet age.
Now, you can take courses in architecture criticism, a development that probably says more about the upsurge of popular interest in architecture over the last generation than it does about any specific desire on the part of students to join this miniscule profession. But still, the demand is sufficient to keep Alexandra Lange busy teaching architecture criticism at not one but two institutions, New York University and the School of Visual Arts. (I teach an architecture criticism course myself at Parsons The New School for Design, so I suppose we could say that downtown Manhattan is architecture criticism’s educational epicenter.)
So it should not be that much of a surprise that Lange has written a different kind of architecture criticism book, not an anthology of her own or any other single critic’s writing, but what amounts to a textbook. Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities is a how-to book for a profession that has never, so far as I know, had one before. It is based roughly on Lange’s course, and it is organized around six significant pieces of writing (appearing in full) that she believes have particular value as object lessons.
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Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum.
Lange selected some of my favorite pieces of writing to use as her paradigms, including Charles Moore’s essay of 1965, “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” which might be called the beginning of the important academic discipline of Disneyland Studies, and which for me ranks as one of the seminal works of architecture criticism of the second half of the twentieth century. There is also a pair of excerpts from Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, the book that set in motion nothing short of a sea change in its field. Lange also devotes chapters to typical, but absolutely first-rate, journalism in the form of reviews by Lewis Mumford on Lever House, by Ada Louise Huxtable on the 140 Broadway skyscraper and by Michael Sorkin on Michael Graves’ ill-fated plan to expand the Whitney Museum. She focuses another chapter on Herbert Muschamp’s remarkable, intensely personal essay on Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; and one to a paper by Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” from 1870, as a way of bringing landscape architecture into a broader discussion of urban public space.
With Mumford, Huxtable, Jacobs, and Olmsted, Lange is giving us what we might call the canon of architecture criticism. I might have tossed a bit of the late-nineteenth century critic Montgomery Schuyler into the mix; though his writing wasn’t exactly breezy—he was to architecture criticism as Henry James was to the novel—Schuyler pretty much invented the notion of architecture criticism as a part of journalism. He was a key early advocate of the skyscraper, a subject Lange devotes two of her chapters to, so it’s odd to see him not even make the index. She does refer to a number of other critics in the essays sandwiched between the major texts (Full disclosure: I am one of them, and my review of Norman Foster’s Hearst Building is contrasted with other skyscraper reviews) and so the book is by no means limited to her six anointed authors. But neither will it give you a broad sample of either contemporary or historic architecture criticism.
Writing About Architecture is what it says it is: a how-to book. Lange analyzes her key texts with great care and perceptiveness, and happily she is wide ranging in her taste. She seems as comfortable explaining Muschamp’s intensely idiosyncratic criticism as Sorkin’s indignant yet elegant and erudite rants, and she discusses them both with sympathy and intelligence. At the end of the day her heart clearly belongs to Ada Louise Huxtable, but then again, what architecture critic’s doesn’t?
If there is a problem with this book, it emerges out of the limits of the textbook genre, which seems inevitably to encourage authors to classify and categorize. Lange declares Sorkin an activist critic and Muschamp an “experiential” one. She says that Huxtable and Mumford are focused primarily on “the form of the artifact,” and that yours truly organizes reviews “the man, not the building.” That may be a fair enough conclusion to reach from the pieces she cites, but none of the critics Lange discusses in detail can, or should, be pigeonholed. Huxtable is an activist critic and an experiential critic; she is also a critic who uses history, and a critic who writes with an awareness of social, political, physical, cultural and personal context. Sorkin is more than an activist critic, Muschamp was more than an essayist about private architectural experience. And so on.
Lange is too smart not to know this. And she’s too good a writer to truly believe that other good writers can be put into simple categories. (The study questions that follow each chapter are also well meaning but cause her clear essays to conclude with a thud, as if they weren’t lively commentaries but lead-ins to homework assignments.)
Lange understands that the purpose of writing about architecture is to build a constituency for better design, to help people see, to help them feel some agency over the built environment—and to help them take joy in architecture’s great moments. She’s good at doing that herself, and this book will help others do it, too.