New Architecture Writers (NAW), a London-based program for emerging journalists and curators, was established last year to produce new critical voices within the industry. Dedicated to enhancing the skills of black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers and diversifying the field of design journalism, it’s helped educate its inaugural members through a year-long series of free evening workshops, talks, assignments, and one-on-one mentoring. As NAW reaches the end of its first year in October, The Architect’s Newspaper spoke with founder Phineas Harper on the lessons the members have learned so far, what’s next for the program, and why there’s a newfound sense of urgency to build a more equitable profession within architecture writing. The Architect's Newspaper: Can you reflect on a few key learnings NAW members have been exposed to? Phineas Harper: The program has packed a lot into a fairly small time. It’s been a crash course in various forms of architectural writing from straight-up journalism to interview technique and writing opinion columns. There is no single way to write, but through testing out some basic principles and practice we’re hoping to build up the skills of all the NAW members. What have you personally learned from creating this program? A key lesson that I’ve learned through the project is that the industry of architectural writing is far from a meritocracy. It’s a cliche but it’s true—in this world, who you know counts for more than what you know. When we’re talking about widening access to architecture or design journalism, we need to frankly acknowledge the reality that personal networks count for a lot, and work within that reality rather than pretending we are capable of being truly meritocratic. NAW, therefore, is not just about expanding the skills of our members but expanding their constellation of connections. How are you approaching the second year now that the first year is nearly complete? NAW is currently possible because of the generosity of some key partners and the incredible contribution of all our workshop leaders, lecturers, and tutors. The course is free to attend but obviously requires a great deal of time, energy, and space to run. I’m actively seeking ways to make the course self-sustaining such as grants, sponsorship, and patrons. We hope there will be future years that will build on the successes of year one and take the program to another level in year two, but to make that dream a reality we need architects and editors to step-up and help us. Why do you think it’s important to help educate minority writers in design and architecture? Design writing in the U.K. has made some awesome strides in recent decades. It is highly diverse in its mix of straight and LGBT writers and until recently almost all the editors of the major architecture magazines were women. Yet, like many professions, design writing in the U.K. remains largely white with very few critics, graphic designers, editors, publishers, or journalists from BAME backgrounds. Systemic racism in the distribution of wealth, education, and opportunities inhibits new voices from a wider variety of backgrounds breaking through and depletes architectural publishing in the process with a knock-on impact on the culture of architecture itself. Addressing this situation is not a question of just ticking boxes to hit quotas. The question of diversity is a means, rather than an end. Currently, we are cutting out a huge proportion of the population from contributing to architectural discourse and in doing so locking out critical perspectives. It is not simply about who has access to platforms, but how those platforms will fundamentally change once they are no longer controlled by a self-selecting elite. To learn more about the New Architecture Writers program, apply, volunteer as an editor or teacher, email Phineas Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posts tagged with "Architectural Criticism":
You probably know that author Tom Wolfe died last week at the age of 88. Wolfe was illustrious for his acerbic, lyrical, ever-insightful commentary, and for pioneering the so-called “New Journalism.” He penned numerous best-selling books, from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff to Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. But you may be unaware that Wolfe, also famed for his flamboyant personality and attire, was an unrepentant hater of Modernist architecture, with its pared down, detached, ever-functional ethos. His most notorious rant on the subject was From Bauhaus to Our House, published in 1981, inciting immediate backlash in the architecture establishment. In just the first few pages, the essay took mighty, sweeping swings at a movement that he dismissed as boring, unsophisticated and oh-so utilitarian. A few pithy examples of his boiling prose are below:
“Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement parts wholesale distribution warehouse.” “Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all.”
“Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors.”Architecture’s defenders immediately swung back. While critic Paul Goldberger agreed that the glut of “puritanical” glass and steel skyscrapers and “wild” and often kitschy structures replacing the city’s historic fabric needed a rethink, he did not care for Wolfe’s bombastic, indiscriminate criticisms and prescriptions. Wrote Goldberger in the New York Times Book Review: “The problem, I think - and here we get to the essence of what is wrong with this book–is that Tom Wolfe has no eye... He does not see, to take but one of so many examples, that Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building is a lush and extraordinarily beautiful object. He understands Seagram only as part of Mies van der Rohe's theorizing, which means he understands it only as a prototype for a universal architectural style, and not as a unique and even profound work of art.” In other words, Wolfe, obsessed with Modernism’s doctrines, lumps Seagram with the rest of the Modernist pile, and misses so many of its finer points. Goldberger, while acknowledging architecture’s need to be comprehensible to most, hated Wolfe's black and white view of buildings. “The obligation architecture does have, as a practical art, to embrace certain conventions, to be readable in some fashion by anyone who uses it, in no way means that it must be understood in every way, on every level, by all who come in contact with it. There is such a thing as levels of meaning, but Mr. Wolfe seems not to accept this.” Virtually all of Goldberger’s contemporaries published similarly scathing rejections, and Wolfe’s reputation in the architecture community remains poor at best, particularly after Wolfe’s more recent crusade against Brad Cloepfil’s pared-down restructuring of Edward Durell Stone’s gaudy, cheerily anti-International Style 2 Columbus Circle, AKA, the “Lollipop Building.” Goldberger is right that Wolfe had a better ear than eye, calling it "acute and finely tuned." Yes, Wolfe accurately predicted the (at least temporary) demise of the Modernist movement, which by the time he published the book had reigned almost unchallenged for decades and was in many ways, as he put it, “exhausted.” But through the benefit of hindsight it appears that not only was Wolfe’s argument lacking a great deal of architectural nuance and history, but it also failed to anticipate Modernism’s resurgence. The movement needed reinvention—through greater sensitivity to site and occupant, through a reignited embrace of imagination and technology, for example— not a wholesale tear down. It needed to soften its dogma and recommit to its abstract artistry and formal skill. Wolfe was wrong to mock Modernism as purely utilitarian, and to let its worst abuses speak for the entire genre. And it was unfair for him to blindly abhor any style that eschewed ornament. His attack on Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery as resembling an “underground parking garage,” and yet another form of “worker housing” is just one of Wolfe’s many lyrical but crude misrepresentations of the movement’s deep art and soul. Still, Wolfe’s ear should not be underestimated, especially his still-timely attacks of the profession’s often unrepentant elitism. What Wolfe got right—and it’s a criticism that still rings true today—is his skewering of what can be an insular, snotty, tone-deaf culture, from the almost religious zealotry of the early days of Modernism to now. He ceaselessly mocked the “theoryspeak of contemporary architecture,” which still renders the profession opaque to most outsiders. Equally repulsed by most of postmodernism, Wolfe especially disdained archibabble from the likes of Meier, Gwathmey, Eisenman and Graves. He singled out Graves’ talk of “the multiple meanings inherent in codes of abstraction” and “a level of participation that involves the reciprocal act of ourselves with the figure of the building.” In other words, he nailed the circular, incomprehensible beginnings of an academic speak (and echo chamber mentality) that still haunts the field today. Many of his contemporaries agreed. Reyner Banham, writing about Bauhaus to Our House in the London Review of Books, noted of Modernist architecture: “Not only is it a closed sub-culture, it is also by now a very well-entrenched academic establishment. “ Hence, he adds, the unwillingness to let it evolve. And James McCown, writing in Architecture Boston, noted a few years later that Wolfe’s writing “singles out architects as having more than a whiff of cultural superiority about them. If you doubt that, sit in on a critique at the Harvard Graduate School of Design or MIT’s School of Architecture+ Planning.” Agree or disagree with Wolfe’s architectural taste, it’s important to recognize how his keen cultural antenna—his amazing ear— can still contribute to the current debates about our profession. Wolfe’s cultural commentary, more than anything, was his greatest gift. Wouldn’t it be great if it could help us clean up shop in a culture that badly needs it?
Does it make a sense to put an architecture critic in charge of urban design? The question came to mind this March when the Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne announced he was leaving his post to become the new chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles. The position, Hawthorne explained, would be geared toward elevating “the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city—and the level of civic conversation about those subjects” overall. Currently, the city has billions of dollars allocated for a wide range of transformative civic projects, including new and improved parks ($130 million), transit expansion ($120 billion), Vision Zero reforms ($90 million), and new supportive housing ($1.2 billion). This windfall comes as the restoration of the L.A. River takes shape, the city densifies, and officials update the city plan for the first time in decades in the face of raging housing affordability and homelessness crises. Hawthorne’s new role in the coming drama centers squarely on the question of what function design should play in these transformations and how a critic can contribute constructively toward making positive changes for the average resident. Will the design he oversees look past mere aesthetics and delve into the structural issues of synergistic function, equity, and longevity? Or will Hawthorne’s tenure serve to further institutionalize the exclusionary tastes of the city’s homeowners? At a time when Los Angeles is undergoing such massive change, there is no question whether elevating the public’s engagement with civic architecture is a worthwhile pursuit. And though it is not without precedent to elevate a critic to city hall, it does stand to question, however, why Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, having a world-class roster of designers to choose from in his own backyard, did not select an architect for the role. Would a designer be better equipped for the job? I think so. For one, though critics can distill insightful, opinionated commentary from today’s cultural moments, their skillset diverges—and actually falls short—of the specific, forward-thinking ethos that is necessary to envision successful public space at the scale of a city. A designer’s work, on the other hand, combines interdisciplinary education, rigorous professional experience, and a knowledge of process and necessary prerequisites like zoning and fire code to envision open-ended plans for inhabitation and use. That is, designers use their skills and understanding as tools to look toward a future that is possible but has not yet come to pass. The process can be scaled and when done adeptly, beauty is a natural byproduct of these efforts. Secondly, L.A. is living through a time that demands leaders who have a long-range and open-ended vision for the city. But there is reason to worry, because contemporary Los Angeles—and broader America, for that matter—is driven by cultural regression. Backward-facing NIMBYism, a refusal to value vulnerable lives, and an understandable reluctance on the part of marginalized communities to accept new investments for fear of displacement reign supreme. Reflecting this regression, a dangerous “both sides”-ism has been adopted by incumbents, as evidenced by Garcetti’s unwillingness to push for multifamily housing in single-family zones and by the nearly $8 billion in transit funding going toward highway-widening across the region. A designer would be well-equipped to deliver progress in the face of ignorant nostalgia. I would hope Hawthorne understands that designs suited for the retrograde tastes of today are incompatible with future L.A. needs. It stands to question whether Hawthorne’s boss—a second-term mayor with his eye on the presidency—is prepared to make the politically courageous and culturally iconoclastic reforms necessary to not only get the job done, but to get the job done well. Distressingly, in his final column and in interviews since, Hawthorne has already adopted some of the mayor’s conciliatory language toward these groups by cautioning against “banal and oversize new apartment blocks,” and proposing to fight for an “economy” first and foremost. Instead of coming out swinging, it appears the former critic has already acquiesced to the exclusionary mediocrity that already defines so much of the city’s built fabric. Does Hawthorne have what it takes to stand up to his politically timid boss?
Earlier this week we learned that Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne would be stepping down to take on the city’s newly-created role of Chief Design Officer. The move is a bold, encouraging one that should go a long way toward, as Hawthorne put it, “raising the quality of public architecture and urban design across the city—and the level of civic conversation about those subjects,” through his employment of oversight, advocacy, competitions, forums, and more. But it’s the second part of that statement, regarding civic conversation, that, regardless of this positive development, is under siege in the architecture world. Until Hawthorne is replaced — and given the turmoil at the L.A. Times that’s no certainty— our country will have still fewer regular architectural critics at its major metropolitan news outlets. You can count them on one hand in fact: Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune, John King at the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Lamster at the Dallas Morning News, Julie Iovine at the Wall Street Journal, and Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Beyond these dailies, while New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson and Curbed’s Alexandra Lange offer regular critiques, the New York Times’ critic Michael Kimmelman is M.I.A., the New Yorker has never replaced Paul Goldberger, and at The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, The Nation, The San Jose Mercury News, and Vanity Fair, Robert Campbell, Alastair Gordon, Michael Sorkin, Alan Hess and Goldberger—all talented voices, as are all the people listed above— haven’t appeared for at least half a year. Papers like The Seattle Times, the Providence Journal, and the Washington Post never replaced their outgoing critics, USA Today has never had one, and half of the nation’s ten largest cities have no critic. It goes without saying that the L.A. Times absolutely must name a new full-time architecture critic, particularly at a time when the nation's second largest city is undergoing unprecedented transformation. Without a well-positioned critical voice, the city will lack a professional to alert them to and analyze these tumultuous built changes, or an advocate to critique decisions that, as they so often do in the developer-driven city, advance private interests over the public good. (Or, on the other end of the spectrum, marginalize design through discourse and work that most people can't relate to.) A critic can and must do much more, from awakening us to triumphs in sustainability and technology to suggesting ways to minimize sprawl or enhance public space. We don’t have to always agree with them, but he or she plays an essential role in instigating and informing a vital public discourse and to alerting us to the critical role design plays in our lives. The same goes for so many of the country’s cities, where nobody is minding the store, architecturally. The results speak for themselves: an overwhelming majority of architecture, both public and private, that’s ok, fine, serviceable. But not enough. It’s an architecture that, like most of our economy, excels for the very richest individuals, corporations and cultural institutions, but offers mediocrity to almost everyone else. Architecture should and must be for everyone, across the board, from housing to retail to schools to government buildings to civic parks. It must help propel our society, and our spirits, forward through inspiration and innovation, not just provide luxury, comfort, or status. Of course, architecture criticism isn’t limited to major commercial outlets. There are fantastic voices at many design periodicals, like this one. But critics at general interest publications still, even in this fractured media landscape, have the greatest ability to reach a wide audience, outside the bubbles of design or niche journalism, who are often preaching to the converted. While the news, sports, fashion, entertainment, and financial media promote and dissect the minutiae of their fields before millions, prompting debate, feedback, and change, the architecture and construction industry — a significant force in overall U.S. GDP—is largely on the fringe of the public conversation. (One example: If you watch March Madness this week, you’ll see more college basketball critics on one telecast than you’ll find countrywide speaking to architecture. Aline Saarinen was once NBC News’ full time architecture critic, but those days of elevated exposure are long gone.) Meanwhile, critics, as with so many players in the ailing journalism world, are increasingly being sidestepped for computerized engines like Rotten Tomatoes or for blogs that aggregate other work and churn out press releases. Or even worse, for abbreviated Facebook or Twitter posts. Algorithms and big data have their place in showing us where we are, but they can’t replace analysis, critique, understanding, common sense, and heart. Having Hawthorne— along with advocates like Deborah Weintraub at the L.A. Bureau of Engineering and Seleta Reynolds at the L.A. Department of Transportation— stationed at City Hall will be bring a keen eye and a valuable voice to the official conversation. But that conversation needs to extend to a much wider public, through experts outside the city payroll. As for his new job, Hawthorne must, as he suggests he will, make his work to improve the civic realm as public as possible, ensuring that design involves everyone, not just those in power. This is a fantastic opportunity for a gifted communicator to bring the public inside a generally opaque realm through his writing, speaking, and facility for public engagement. But he also needs a partner or two (preferably more) in the media, and as more chief design officers (hopefully) pop up around the country, so must they. Architecture is not art in a gallery. Along with landscape architecture and urban design, it is a public profession. It is for the public, not despite them. We need to empower more informed voices to keep it that way.
One of the biggest architectural head-to-head matches of 2014 has come to an amicable end. As AN reported last fall, Zaha Hadid sued New York Review of Books critic Martin Filler for defamation for comments he made about her in a review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. In his piece, Filler knocked the starchitect's record on workers' rights, writing that an "estimated one thousand laborers” had died working on the Al Wakrah Stadium (above) she designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. As it turned out, construction on that project hadn't even started yet. Filler acknowledged his error and apologized. Now, Hadid has withdrawn her lawsuit and the two parties have settled out of court. While we don’t know the amount of the settlement, we do know that Hadid and Filler are making a donation to “a charitable organization that protects and champions labor rights.”
Just after celebrating its 100th anniversary, the owner of The New Republic, the esteemed magazine of policy and criticism, announced new editors and a new editorial direction. Existing staffers and contributors resigned en masse following a dramatic meeting with owner Chris Hughes and new leadership. Editor-in-Chief Franklin Foer resigned alongside 30 year veteran literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who led the magazine's cultural coverage. The magazine's longtime architecture critic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, is also parting ways with the magazine. Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, purchased the magazine two years ago, and quickly initiated a redesign and newly aggressive online presence. Goldhagen sent the following letter of resignation to Hughes today:
Having followed the events of the last 24 hours with immense sadness, I hereby resign my position as Architecture Critic for The New Republic, which I have held since 2006. Please remove my name from the masthead immediately. In politics, society, and culture, TNR's distinguished and influential writers have changed minds and influenced American public opinion. That this institution is now gone marks a sorry moment in American intellectual life.The New Republic is one of the few magazines that runs serious architectural criticism. Goldhagen's incisive review of this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, easily one of the best pieces written on the exhibition, is an excellent example of her work for the magazine. Goldhagen added in an email to AN: "To lose this national platform for serious, long-form architectural criticism is really heartbreaking."
New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has weighed-in on 1 World Trade, New York's tallest,most superlative, open-but-not-yet-completed skyscraper. And, spoiler, he is no fan. Kimmelman's piece is so chock-full of quotable critiques, it's hard to decide where exactly to begin. But let's start with the politics. "Like the corporate campus and plaza it shares, 1 World Trade speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities," wrote Kimmelman. "It’s what happens when a commercial developer is pretty much handed the keys to the castle." He described the tower's exterior as "opaque, shellacked, monomaniacal" and the overall design as "symmetrical to a fault." The finished product is "an abbreviated obelisk." As for the antenna, well, Kimmelman said counting that as part of the building's total height is like "counting relish at a hot dog eating contest." Ultimately, he finds the building to be a frustrating failure—a bland building that could be anywhere on the globe, an office tower that gives next to nothing to the city it calls home. To Kimmelman, the failings of 1 World Trade should be a warning to New Yorkers. "The public had a big stake in making [1 World Trade] great," he wrote. "That stake wasn’t leveraged. There are other giant projects like Hudson Yards, Penn Station and Roosevelt Island that will reshape the city’s streets and skyline. Their design is everyone’s business."
Mr. Donald Trump has bestowed upon fair Chicago an ode to his own self-worth, spurring an architectural debate that’s pulled in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Jon Stewart, and plenty more. Grab a bag of popcorn and we’ll catch you up. In June, Trump International Hotel & Tower gained an array of 20-foot-6-inch-tall stainless steel letters spelling T-R-U-M-P, which Curbed called a “big, dumb sign” and Blair Kamin called “as subtle as Godzilla.” Trump didn’t like that, and bashed Kamin as “a lightweight” in the press—Trump, critic of architecture critics! Already reduced in size about 20 percent from its original plans (The Donald makes no small plans), the sign was always part of the 2008 SOM building’s design, although architect Adrian Smith apparently “had nothing to do” with it. It’s a gaudy bit of self-promotion along Chicago’s most visible strip of real estate, but it’s Trump’s name—not his sign itself—that’s really got us riled up. After all we put up with corporate intrusions on our public field of view all the time. In fact, all this public indignation over design has us hopeful: Let’s rise up and take back our public spaces! Or at least sarcastically Instagram the new sign with its ‘T’ strategically cropped out.
Since arriving in North Texas to take up the job of Dallas Morning News architecture critic, Mark Lamster has been under a trial by fire, suffering scrutiny and criticism for everything from his Yankee origin to his unsympathetic take on the city’s built environment. Well, local opinions seem to be warming a bit to the sharp-tongued scribe. In a recent piece in the Dallas Observer, Charles Schultz went so far as to praise how quickly Lamster has come to understand Big D’s development landscape and the insider track around its so-called zoning regulations. Schultz even showed a little contrition for a previous quip: “I apologize for calling him ‘Mark Lamster, New York Pinhead’ when he first showed up.”
The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has announced that New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has been awarded the 2014 Brendan Gill Prize. The award will be officially presented by MAS President Vin Cipolla and Board Chair Genie Birch on March 25th. The annual cash prize is named in honor of the late New Yorker theater and architecture critic. "Michael’s insightful candor and continuous scrutiny of New York’s architectural environment is journalism at its finest, and in solid alignment with the high standards of Brendan himself,” MAS President Vin Cipolla said in a statement. The jury was particularly impressed with Kimmelman’s calls to drastically improve Penn Station.
The every diminishing ranks of architecture critics suffered another loss, as Bloomberg News cut James Russell's column, as a part of a larger reorganization/elimination of its cultural coverage. According to a post on Russell's personal blog, Bloomberg is focusing on luxury and lifestyle coverage over arts and culture coverage. When Russell was brought on it signaled to many that digital publishing could possibly begin supporting criticism as print newspapers once had. But that was not to be. Prior to Bloomberg, Russel worked as an editor at Architectural Record for nearly 20 years. He is a registered architect and the author, most recently, of The Agile City: Building Well-Being and Wealth in the Age of Climate Change. He also teaches in the architecture program at City College.
Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a blood feud in Los Angeles. It seems that Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne doesn’t care for Thom Mayne’s work. At all. Reviewing his new Perot Museum in Dallas, he called the building, “One of the pricey, preening old breed.” Adding, “it is a thoroughly cynical piece of work, a building that uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration.” Hawthorne has used this vitriol on other Mayne buildings, like the Caltrans building and the Cahill Center at Caltech, which, he said, employs a “skin-and-stair strategy that allows the client to make the rest of the building—every interior office or gallery—conventional at best and banal at worst.” Mayne, not surprisingly, doesn’t appear happy. In a recent public tour of his new offices in Culver City, led by our friend and design journalist Alissa Walker, Mayne said he would not be allowing a local architecture critic to write about his new building for his firm’s offices—he was asking a science writer to do the story instead. “All local writers are horrible,” he said. “There are no good writers in Los Angeles.” We beg to differ!