Thinking of Todd Gannon’s Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech as simply an excellent biography of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers on architecture would be quite off base. It is simply too big and heavy (at nearly 5 pounds), too lavishly produced (by the Getty), and too all-encompassing in its scholarship to join ranks with its intellectual rivals. Banham was well known as the bearded, hard-driving scourge of the British establishment, sitting naked and guru-like in François Dallegret’s portrayal of a “standard-of-living package,” and lolling through Los Angeles’ four ecologies at the wheel of an open-topped muscle car in the '60s. Banham was a provocateur with a pedigree—he’d been Nikolaus Pevsner’s protégé and a contributing editor at the prestigious Architectural Review. “Peter,” as he was known to friends James Stirling and Richard Rogers, came into his own as the champion of a wave of architects and artists who had grown up sharing the outlook of Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne, and were eager to topple long-held architectural precepts. As such, Gannon’s book is an encyclopedic recounting of the growth of England’s architectural culture during Banham’s purview: its advocates, its internal debates, its flashes of brilliance, and its turbulent (though theoretically harnessed) explorations. If one wishes to understand the gestation of this important movement in modern architecture, there are more revelations, more “gotcha’s,” and more keen observations (with Gannon as guide) than one is likely to find in a decade-long subscription to Architectural Review. As a bonus, it’s even fun to read! Gannon has clearly mastered the art of serving up colorful prose without compromising either content or veracity, which is a welcome and indispensable attribute in this era of jargon and political introspection. In the book, Gannon highlights the conceptual bonds that united a band of rebellious architects and links their ideas to both the designs they produced and the philosophy they espoused, in order to create what may well be the definitive history of architecture in the age of Banham. Loaded with original research and structured in apt and revealing chapters, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech delivers a convincing mix of anecdotes and informative images in a graphically rewarding format. Measured and precise, with a jaunty sense of discovery (you can almost see the high fives), Gannon’s text expands into detailed descriptions of the nooks and crannies of complex spaces such as those at Stirling’s Olivetti Training School in Haslemere. He then moves into a discussion of the social forces of England in the 1960s before displaying with appealing modesty the hundreds of sources girding his work. This is a vastly entertaining project. One can feel the glee with which Gannon deconstructs morsels like the Smithsons’ Soho house at Colville, where “the project’s insistent symmetries, proportional rigor, and cheeky axial relationships appear to have been devised with a mischievous wink in the direction of those who were paying attention. The axial comedy is best observed in the basement, where the toilet, lit from above by the south-facing bench-cum-clerestory is honorifically aligned with both the bathroom door and the prominently placed drain pipe centered on the opposite wall.” The author also notes and quotes Banham’s quip that “if it isn’t modern nowadays it isn’t architecture anymore, but archaeology, cowardice, or fancy dress.” These are sentiments that seem particularly apt here in the U.S. 60 years later. Like The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s account of the Chicago World’s Fair and Louis Sullivan’s role in it, Gannon plunges the reader deep into the subculture that fed Banham’s thirst for a radical, nuts-and-bolts architecture. Thus, for Gannon, Banham seems more like an “inspiration” than a “topic.” Getting into his head—rather than tracing his long shadow and seeing things as Banham might have seen them—is a remarkable exercise in its own right. Here, we have Gannon stalking Banham, then pouncing: “There is a stream of English fiddlers-with-cars, builders-of-boats, cannibilizers and people who always seem to have another way of using a working part from the one that you expect. In recent years, the originality of the Smithsons, Cedric Price, Norman Foster, and the Rogers team seem to have had far more to do with the latter instinct.” Gannon follows this up with a signature clip from Banham’ ripest prose: “A properly set up standard of living package, breathing out warm air along the ground…radiating soft light and Dionne Warwick in heart-warming stereo, with a well-aged protein turning in an infra-red [sic] glow in the rotisserie, and the ice-maker discreetly coughing cubes into glasses on the swing-out bar.” In this way, we see Gannon, the architect, viewing Banham as a lens rather than as a subject and leading us, his readers, through the thickets of his evolution. For Gannon, the signal preoccupations of his subject can be best understood as a linked series of insights, from The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment to Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which he decodes with forensic diagrams and text. What is remarkable is that the threads of Banham’s propositions can be spliced so invisibly into an expanded narrative that embraces contemporary as well as historic issues. It is humbling to circle back to Archigram’s city-building exercises, or to relish the newfound passion for a smart city, only to discover that Banham’s pioneering work had been there—and done that—50 years ago. That is why, for this architect, and I expect many more, Gannon’s work is far more than a trip down memory lane. It offers us a chance to renew our vows.
Posts tagged with "Architecture Criticism":
The exhibition Zevi’s Architects: History and Counter-History of Italian Architecture, 1944-2000, curated by Pippo Ciorra and Jean-Louis Cohen at MAXXI in Rome, interweaves three strands of research and documentation based on the life and work of Bruno Zevi: his biography; an architectural history that brings together a selection of projects culled from Zevi’s writings; and finally Zevi’s media, which extend from books to TV broadcasting and exhibitions. It presents, on one hand, Zevi’s voice (which one can literally hear broadcast on TV) and the scope of his work as an architectural critic, theorist and public intellectual. Encountering Zevi’s voice and work is important, especially for generations of architects and historians who know Zevi as an “operative critic,” the title given to him by Manfredo Tafuri in Theories and History of Architecture, and the title that Zevi himself embraced when he founded the Institute of Operative Criticism. On the other hand, the exhibition presents a history of Italian architecture after World War II that brings together well-known projects along with lesser-known ones to narrate an understanding of architecture—one that is not only deeply rooted in society and social transformation, but also diverse. It is this history that makes a difference and gives the exhibition its taste: a fresh view of Italian architecture after WWII that begins with usual suspects, but expands to include more unfamiliar projects, singular attempts, and different trajectories. The selected projects are presented with quotes from Zevi’s writings about them. The selection starts with projects that are common to the architectural discourse in the fifties and sixties and then expands to include projects that are more idiosyncratic. It is through this selection that Zevi’s voice forms as well—initially part of common discourse and then becoming more individualized. The result is an exhibition where Zevi becomes a posthumous curator of Italian architecture in the second half of the 20th century. And by suggestion, one can conclude that today’s operative critic is a curator. Zevi’s voice carries controversies within itself. We learn, for instance, that Zevi, an Italian Jew, emigrated to England and the United States, and became a member of USIS (United States Information Service). USIS was a U.S. government agency devoted to explaining American policies and views to foreign publics during the Cold War. Broadcasting was an important activity of USIS. Zevi’s fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright and American architecture may have something to do with this, and his entire emphasis on organic architecture as the architecture of democracy may have to do with this as well. Even his emphasis on broadcasting his views on TV may have been influenced by this. There is perhaps no surprise in this congruity between thoughts and actions. Yet considering Italy had one of the strongest communist parties and traditions in Europe, this information places Zevi’s work in in a more controversial light within its context and helps to distinguish him as a distinct voice. What does one find in this voice and through the exhibition? One finds an openness to accept every example of architecture with its politics as part of a diverse cultural and social landscape. One finds determination to discuss architecture first as the work of an architect and with terms and constraints set by design, and then consider the roles design decisions play in social and cultural realms. For instance, Sergio Musmeci’s Ponte sul Basento in Potenza is an engineering feat of elegant form but also a “pedestrian walkway filled with surprises” leading toward the city from the industrial zone. In Zevi’s words, there is joy of architecture. One way to think about Zevi after the exhibition Zevi’s Architects is as the critic of difference. This is not a difference that is articulated or generated through the analysis of historical conditions. This is difference in the sense that everybody has a slightly different view of a given situation. Such a difference of views may be constructed by means of history but it is also a matter of hic et nunc. It is difference that occurs because everyone occupies a slightly different place and hence may have a different view. It is the kind of difference that constitutes a public realm according to Hannah Arendt: “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Ultimately, this is also the kind of difference that makes democracy possible. Going through Zevi’s Architects feels like reading a perfect film script. As the story of architecture in Italy after WWII unfolds, the protagonist, the architectural critic develops, takes charge and begins impacting the story. Eventually, the story and the protagonist are intrinsically linked. The exhibition, in presenting a diversified history of Italian architecture, makes visible the work of the critic. Through Zevi’s biography and the selected projects, it allows for a reflection on democracy today and how different it is than today’s populisms due to the difference that constitutes it.
As Christopher Hawthorne moves on from the Los Angeles Times and as new forms of criticism proliferate, we asked the architecture community what the role of the critic is today, and what it might be missing. What do you see as the role of the critic in architecture today? Why is it important? What aspects of architecture are not being addressed today by critics? What are the problems with criticism today? Here are the responses we received from those who felt that architecture criticism is inherently political and should be approached as such, from across the country and abroad. How can women and people of color be included in the conversation when the field has typically buried their voices? This article was originally published in our May print issue, and was preceded by a selection of answers from architecture critics themselves and those who thought that the internet has fundamentally changed the field. Nolan Boomer Arts critic and editor of Take Shape. “At the core of architectural criticism is the realization that setting is not the backdrop of humankind’s story, but actually a character that shapes its plot...some of the best criticism appears in other genres like fiction and poetry, but it often isn’t considered as such.” Alice Twemlow Head of Design Curating and Writing Masters at Design Academy Eindhoven and professor of design at The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague. “If you take architecture to be less about individual buildings, and more about the structural, political, and conceptual framing of the shifting relationship between public and private space, (which I do) then the role of the architecture critic merges with that of the social critic and, in that respect, is immensely important. When that framing is thoughtful and brilliant, she should make sure we hear about it; and when the framing is uninformed or unfair, she should also make sure we hear about it. She should remind us of the past, respond to the current situation, and anticipate or lead future moves. She should advocate for the right of every public citizen to access the aesthetic and practical benefits of the built environment whilst being protected from it failings and harmful effects. And if that sounds like hard work, and that it encroaches on the territory of urban planning, social politics, environmental science, ethics, and philosophy, that’s because it is, and it does.” Mitch McEwen Assistant professor at Princeton University School of Architecture and partner of A(n) Office. “Architecture has made so many heroic and visionary claims, and also failed so many people for so long. The architecture critic can sort through these claims and failures and new potentials, both for us and for a wider public.” Mark Foster Gage Principal of Mark Foster Gage Architects and the assistant dean of the Yale School of Architecture. “I think there is an old notion of a critic who tells you if something is good or not. This is outdated and it probably comes from [Gene] Siskel and [Roger] Ebert on television, watching movies—‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down.’ Here the critic is an arbiter of taste. It’s not helpful: it’s about judgment rather than a new opening of discussion. It’s a closure, stopping conversation cold. Once you call a movie bad, why discuss it? I believe a critic is a person that opens people’s eyes as to WHY certain things are notable in various disciplines (or outside of them). A critic should be opening conversations, prompting curiosity, and inciting interest. I also think it is the responsibility of the critic to focus on contemporary work and issues—‘the new’ is always in most need of support and discussion, especially among those who feel intimidated or uncomfortable about it. This is what the critic is supposed to do, make it possible to bring more people into the conversation about any type of work. They are stewards of curiosity and interest, not judges of success or failure.” Enrique Ramirez Writer and architectural historian based in Brooklyn. “This question presumes that criticism is important to the discipline and practice of architecture. To say so is to admit to a certain kind of hubris. Criticism is not needed, for no matter if critics decide to take on the mantle of an investigative magistrate and try to shed light on a particular issue, to watch different actors scurry about once their particular malfeasances become exposed, to say: ‘Aha, Architecture...YOU’VE BEEN CAUGHT’...this is criticizing, but is it criticism? I used to think, ‘Yes, it is.’ It’s not. An architectural critic may tell you, ‘Look at this building ...Modernism is EVIL!’ or ‘Postmodernism is TRITE!’ or ‘Everything coming out of UCLA or Michigan is MAGENTA and CORNFLOWER BLUE!’ Okay, but so what? If that is the mode of engagement that architectural critics prefer, then I want no part of it. As critics, we need to look at colleagues in other fields to see how they advocate for the cultural relevance of their object of inquiry, for this is at the heart of criticism. Architectural criticism seems stuck in a kind [of] mode that conflates ‘criticism’ with ‘criticizing,’ one that privileges the dressing down of a building over everything else. Architecture lives in the world at large, and as critics, we need to state how this is the case.” José Esparza Chong Cuy Associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “I believe that an informed public opinion of what needs to be celebrated and denounced is more important than ever. Contemporary life is shaped by so many invisible mechanisms that need to be exposed to the day-to-day eye. There are so many things at play regulated by sociopolitical, economic, and environmental factors in the spaces we inhabit that we need to have thought out critical positions to be able to act accordingly, both socially and professionally. Having a better understanding of these invisible mechanisms could potentially open new ways of operating. Moreover, I believe that all critical mediums should make an attempt to cover rural environments. It is clear that city-living is not the only option, but critics should make an effort to cover stories about rural life and the rural landscapes to connect the practice or architecture to these settings as well. We tend to forget how interconnected the rural and urban contexts are, and the critic should use its platform to inform how one setting feeds off the other and vice versa.” Bika Rebek Founding principal of Some Place, and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia GSAPP. “A master of expansive writing reaching all fringes, and perhaps my favorite critic is Karl Kraus. While architecture is just one of his wide-ranging interests, his writing is personal, angry, funny, extremely timely and unconcerned with the consequences. Contemporary architectural criticism would benefit from this fearlessness and sense of humor. With more pointed controversy, critics could attract wider audiences and become part of an age-old dialogue, spinning the web further through the lens of our time.” Jesse LeCavalier Designer, writer, and educator whose work explores the architectural and urban implications of contemporary logistics. He is the author of The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment, assistant professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the Daniel Rose Visiting Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Architecture. “Foucault’s appeal to a kind of criticism focused on curiosity, attention, stewardship, and imagination remains, for me, an appealing statement about the potential role of the critic: ‘I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination.’ While thoughtful and perceptive engagement with buildings will always be important, I feel like now more than ever we need to develop an expanded understanding the larger forces shaping the built environment, from our own consumer choices to larger policy transformations, their implications, and ways to engage them.” Kate Wagner Creator of McMansion Hell and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University researching concert hall design in transition from late- to post-modernism. “Architecture is inherently political on its own! While the city is relevant to the building, we should avoid using the city as a crutch.” Fred Scharmen Teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning. His first book, Space Settlements, will be out later this year. “I saw a joke on Twitter the other week that said: ‘Every academic discipline has another academic discipline which watches them, occasionally making sarcastic comments.’ For architecture, criticism gets even weirder, because this shadow discipline is supposed to do at least two more other things: it’s meant to be internalized, so architects should be working and self-critiquing at almost the same time; and it’s also supposed to be outward-facing, to explain what’s going on inside the discipline to an external audience. So somehow we’re all meant to be our own worst and best critics, hecklers, and narrators, all at once. This situation is messed up.” Peggy Deamer Professor of architecture at Yale University, an architect practicing in New York, and content coordinator of the Architecture Lobby. “The role of the critic is to inform both the public and the discipline about what aesthetic, economic, cultural, or social value is potentially embedded in that discipline and point out examples that are good or bad in relation to that potential. Critics aren’t identifying the connection between how we in the discipline work—with illegal, economically naive, sexist, and formally myopic protocols—and the poverty of what we are asked to work on (rich peoples second houses; the occasional private institution) and the consequent lack of respect and financial stability.” David Grahame Shane Adjunct professor in the Urban Design program at Columbia GSAPP. “Architectural criticism is not important as there is so little architecture of quality produced today by large firms or clients to consider. Look at Hudson Yards or the World Trade Center, and weep. The profession is BIM-ed and value-engineered to death. Public commissions and competitions that once gave openings to critics and young firms have disappeared along with small bookstores and magazines. Chat rooms and the academy remain as hermetic critical fortresses with their own private codes and handshakes. Sadly public intellectuals and critics are a disappearing breed, dying off in the new architectural ecology, occasionally spotlighted by museums as avant-garde and remote insights. It’s not a pretty picture, but surely in the future people will regain a sense of shared communities in the city and countryside and a new breed of architectural critics and architectural practice will re-emerge.” Michael Sorkin Architect, author, educator and founding principal of Michael Sorkin Studio. “The critic’s duty is resistance! As the country careens toward full-on fascism, its environment assailed and warfare looming, we must defend the social architectures of civility and not lose ourselves in the artistic weeds. A critic who fails to assail Trump, supports him.” Kelsey Keith Editor-in-Chief of Curbed. “Architecture as a study and as a practice has done a lot to isolate itself. I think that the built environment matters so much because it affects and influences people in the places they live. I speak not as an academic or as a critical theorist, but as someone who genuinely loves all this, wants it to be better, and believes that end is achieved in part via criticism. An architecture critic’s role in society today is to contextualize—whether the point is to educate, or entertain, or satisfy some curiosity: ‘Why are A-frames suddenly so popular again? Why is it important to preserve the work of a rare woman project lead from a midcentury architecture firm?’ Most critics are too busy broadcasting their own well-formed opinions to actually listen to the zeitgeist. Dialogue is important, but so is listening to others—as a knowledge-gathering tool or when their perspectives differ from your own.” Abdalilah Qutub (Abdul Qutub) Co-founder of Socially Condensed Fully-Built Enviromemes. “The role of the architectural critic today goes beyond the immediate issues surrounding a building, but also includes the larger ethical practices and impacts in which the participants in the architectural field might be involved. There are two main themes that are not really being fully addressed today: Workers’ rights issues and the overwhelming whiteness of the field. The dominance of white men now only further keeps alive the whiteness of the field that has been passed on by previous generations. Recent efforts within the #MeToo movement and the allegations that have recently come out against Richard Meier further reveal some of the underlying power structures in the field and how they are being abused. Criticism alone is not going to solve these problems without the provocation of direct action from the architectural and associated fields (strikes, demonstrations, and protests).” Nicholas Korody Co-founder of the experimental architecture practice Adjustments Agency, co-curator of the architecture store domesti.city, and editor-in-chief of the architecture publication Ed. “The role of the critic today is first and foremost to draw attention to the architecture of architecture—that is, the ways in which ‘architecture’ is not a given, but rather something constructed and therefore mutable. Within the discipline and profession, we take for granted that certain things, from exploitative labor practices to rampant sexism and even assault, come with the territory. They do not have to. Alongside this, we accept with little criticality the complicity of architecture with capital, with the end result that not only do we now design only for the select few, we also help fuel the conversion of our cities into playgrounds for speculative finance. This relationship is historically specific, and the role of the critic is to both point this out and to imagine alternatives. Critics today tend toward the myopic. They see a form and not what’s behind it: labor relations, environmental degradation, capital accumulation, displacement of people. Every act of construction has cascading effects far beyond the building site. Critics must contend with this. Broadly speaking, it is a conservative field. Many supposedly liberal or even leftist critics are in fact advocating for a maintenance of the status quo, which is a violent position to take. There are far too few voices demanding truly radical change within the discipline. Criticism is itself a form of practice, a way of imagining possibilities where others see none. Integral to that is looking far beyond the discipline, far beyond buildings. Most importantly, critics must take positions—albeit ones capable of change—and fight for them. Political neutrality does not exist. A good critic loves architecture so much they despise everything about it.” Ana María León Trained as an architect, León is a researcher and architecture historian at the University of Michigan. “Critics link the discipline not only to a broader audience, but also to larger concerns that often escape architecture’s purview. If good histories take a critical view of the past, good critiques are able to historicize the present. Our current political moment urgently needs more critical voices. Critics are still overwhelmingly white, male, and Western. This is not to say that white, male, Western critics are unable to look beyond their own identities, but representation matters, and a diversity of voices tends to insure a diversity of opinions and points of view. I would love it if say, The Architect’s Newspaper reached out to critics in South America, Africa, Asia, and asked them to review events and buildings there for a broader public.” Eva Franch i Gilabert Architect, educator, curator, founder of Office of Architectural Affairs (OOAA), current executive director of the Storefront for Art and Architecture and future director of the Architectural Association. “A critic is the historian of the present, or the present future, or as Reyner Banham’s intellectual biography points out, of the immediate future. To understand the power of architecture, unveil it, and transmit it to a larger audience is the most benevolent image of the critic, but the most seminal and most needed is to allow the field to find positions beyond obsessions; to position design culture in relation to the most important issues affecting contemporary culture and the built environment. Any critic needs to go beyond the cliché, the commonplace assumptions behind good design, and understand radical, powerful designs that are able to produce more equitable societies. A critic that is able to read beyond press releases, instant gratifications, three minute impressions of what should be and help us all imagine what actions, ideas, and form could be. The problems with criticism today are the same as the ones with architecture: it is extremely hard to go beyond client-oriented work, to produce designs that question the status quo and the forces at play. The making and buying of history in the PR age is an issue to be investigated thoroughly. It is extremely hard for editors, critics, and architects to keep a critical distance. While this might not be any different than in times past, at least I think there is now a more transparent understanding of sponsored articles, and the influence and power of certain lobbies. The real difficulty of being a critic is that we do not have editorial structures that support criticism in its full flesh. As in many other fields false criticism, sensationalism, scandalous headlines, ...are more in vogue than rigorous - maybe less sensationalist- forms of criticism. The problem is that bad criticism is more profitable in terms of business models; good criticism needs of idea models, less business models....”
As Christopher Hawthorne moves on from the Los Angeles Times and as new forms of criticism proliferate, we asked the architecture community what the role of the critic is today, and what it might be missing. What do you see as the role of the critic in architecture today? Why is it important? What aspects of architecture are not being addressed today by critics? What are the problems with criticism today? Here are the responses we received from those who drew attention to the role that technology has played in changing the discourse, from across the country and abroad. This article was originally published in our May print issue and was preceded by a selection of answers from architecture critics themselves. Stay tuned for further perspectives from practitioners, emerging architects, and scholars. Sam Jacob Principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and columnist for ArtReview and Dezeen. Previously he was a founding director of FAT Architecture. “I think we’ve seen the decline of the traditional kind of critic (partly because there are simply fewer professional critic jobs) and the rise of a different kind of critic. This new criticism seems to spill over from blogs, from zines, even from Twitter, and inhabits or attaches itself to bits of the internet rather than a particular title. It’s criticism you follow in sporadic streams, link by link, rather than a joined-up totality. This fractured landscape allows a more partisan, more pointed form of criticism. And more voices, each skewed to a particular kind of idea around the significance of architecture. That’s meant, I think, two things: First more direct discussion of the politics of architecture and second, more discussion around the cultural significance of architecture. Both are important, both have given us new ways to understand architecture’s role in society. It’s really a more traditional idea of criticism that has declined. Forms of criticism like the building study, for example, where the critic acts as an arbiter of quality, and as a guide to the way we can understand architecture in historical and disciplinary senses. And this is a shame. It’s a form of criticism that is more expensive to produce (you have to travel) and is less opinion-led, less thinkpiece-y, and probably less clickbait-y, too. The danger, as this kind of criticism declines, is that it just becomes all opinion, written from the desk rather than the field. In this way it mirrors the transformation that’s occurred throughout traditional media. And while the greater diversity of voices is fantastic, perhaps we are losing a way of interrogating, understanding, and communicating ideas about architecture itself, where architecture becomes simply a cipher for other ideas, instead of considering its significance as architecture itself.” Charles Holland Architect, writer, and teacher. He is the principal of Charles Holland Architects and a professor of architecture at the University of Brighton. “I think the role of the opinion-forming, influential critic is more or less dead. Everyone is a critic now. The rise of social media and sites like Dezeen where the architecture is presented without editorial comment and the critique occurs ‘below the line’ is a clear manifestation of this. The existing idea that critics define and drive artistic movements in the manner of Reyner Banham and Brutalism or Charles Jencks and postmodernism was probably overstated to start with but seems highly unlikely today. That’s not to say the there aren’t good critics around (critic Rowan Moore, for example, is great), but I think the landscape has shifted. The role of the critic today is messier and more ambiguous, blurring the roles between architect, critic, and curator with some people acting happily as all three. My social media feed is full of architectural criticism, only a small amount of which you could ascribe to a critic in the traditional sense. The ‘problem’—if indeed it is one—is that it is harder to establish a critical body of thought or momentum for any one particular position. This is a product of pluralism and a genuflection away from forms of authority, at least overtly. Criticism traditionally served the role of establishing value, of sifting through things to define what’s good, what’s bad and establish the ‘canon.’ That sifting doesn’t really take place with any clear rationale or legitimacy anymore, which is threatening and liberating in equal measure. Architectural and artistic movements are established through a kind of accumulation of works which address similar things and by events like the biennials, which aren’t criticism in the traditional manner, but which establish what is (supposedly) relevant or pressing at any one time.” David Ruy Architect, theorist, director of Ruy Klein, and Postgraduate Programs Chair at SCI-Arc “Criticism falls prey to the general degradation of institutional authority in producing and disseminating information in the contemporary situation. This is the problem posed by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and other platforms of our telematic infrastructure. Any person or group with an account on these platforms can produce and disseminate information. Any person or group with an account can produce criticism. In 1976, Simon Nora and Alain Minc were asked by France’s president, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, to issue a report on the dangers and possibilities of a computerized society. Astonishingly, given what’s happening in the world today, they predicted a coming society where anyone with access to the telematic infrastructure could manufacture and disseminate information, leading to a loss of trust in the veracity of information and to an erosion of the cultural coherence in the society. They warned that such a society might be ungovernable. This was nearly two decades before the first internet browser became available. It is sobering then to consider their recommendation for addressing this danger. They proposed a socialization of information. What this might mean in the twenty-first century remains unclear. A lot of good architectural criticism is still being written today, but it gets lost in the sea of information that is available. The dialectic of fact versus fiction has melted into a flat ontology of mere data. The cynic today would ask in boredom if it even matters that the news is fake. But this is true for all criticism today. There are only two options I see in the face of the contemporary situation. We would either have to rebuild the authority of old institutions (which seems impossible), or we would have to understand that communication and its politics will have to be hypothesized in a new way outside of the framework of criticism (because after all, how can you have criticism without authority?). As sad as I am about this, when anyone can disseminate information, when anyone can ‘like’ or ‘troll’ an idea, when anyone can invent ‘news,’ when the theater of criticism appears more important than the criticism itself (Fox News and MSNBC, for example), what role can any critic play outside of the limited audiences that consumes critique primarily for reinforcing existing opinions? It may be tempting to conceptualize some ‘post-criticism’ society, but as Nora and Minc warned, such a society might be ungovernable. Nonetheless, I continue to think about Nora and Minc’s proposal of socializing information. I consider it to be an important but enigmatic problem. If, miraculously, something can be figured out and implemented one day, I think criticism would have newfound authority. But I think it is premature to dream about the possible positive effects of such a rebirth and the roles the critic might play until we address how to construct such a structure in society. Strangely, I think every constituency thinks their opinions are not being properly addressed. I have my own complaints, but I’m pretty sure everyone has a complaint and feels underrepresented. This is true despite the irony that, no matter how marginal or preposterous, any opinion and orientation to society can be searched for online, and criticism can be found in support of it. With that said, speaking for my own values and my own small constituency, I am puzzled and dismayed by how the left end of the political spectrum seems to be abandoning architectural speculation and formal experimentation. I got into architecture out of a dissatisfaction with the world as given. How can the world be more progressive if everything remains the same or goes backward towards the historically familiar? I understand that in recent times formal extravagance was appropriated as a risk management device by large investors. But how can progressives abandon the project of imagining other possible realities? Isn’t this one of the things architecture does so well? Is demystifying power the only thing left to do? Instead of contributing to the ever-growing disenchantment in the world, can architectural criticism re-enchant some of these abandoned spaces?” Michael Young Partner at Young & Ayata and assistant professor at The Cooper Union. “One of the issues facing contemporary architectural criticism that has yet to be fully developed is how to deal with the dissemination and consumption of architectural images on social media. The primary responses thus far have been to treat it as either a wasteland or a wilderness. The wasteland response sees the image proliferation as out of control and debased, a condition to be excluded from disciplinary criticism. The wilderness response views the image accumulation as wild yet vibrant, a condition to be cultivated and curated. The problem lies in that architecture’s typical disciplinary approaches of criticality that aim to reveal underlying hierarchies, trends, and motivations cannot keep pace nor dent this image acceleration. Social media flattens access, evaluation, and debate. This is both numbing and exciting. It is where the wasteland meets the wilderness. And this requires a different paradigm for architectural criticism.” Ryan Scavnicky Visiting teaching fellow at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, administrator of the Facebook page “Dank Lloyd Wright” and on Instagram as @sssscavvvv. “I think the strength of memes isn’t just about its experimental form. It’s the same principle I apply to architecture but applied to criticism. With architecture, I’m always skeptical about what it actually has the power to do. So with criticism, we probably shouldn’t be focused on changing individual architects (have you met these people?) or critiquing specific buildings, but changing architecture culture in general. Memes focus on changing the student’s perception, loosening the bolts a bit and moving architecture culture away from toxic bravado and into a new space while regaining our singular command over the built world with a more public audience. I do this through producing and writing films as a YouTube comic-critic team with Jeffrey Kipnis via the SCI-Arc Channel and by running a meme account on Instagram. Internet memes are the strongest emerging form of cultural criticism today, thriving in the form of quick and digestible images pregnant with assertive positions. Critics must develop fresh audiences by using strange and experimental critical forms and reflecting those findings back onto the architecture discipline.” Ellie Abrons Principal of T+E+A+M and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “In the past, critics (and theorists, I’d add) drove architectural discourse and were vital participants in its culture. They had the ability to read work very closely and to interpret or understand it with focused attention and intellectual prowess and agility. Critics played a crucial role in contextualizing work, in situating it culturally and historically or finding affinities and overlaps with other fields. These days, there’s a dearth of criticism—you don’t see the same quantity and quality of writing that was coming out fifteen or twenty years ago. I see more and more architects writing about their own or their peers’ work in an attempt to play that role. But we’re not really cut out for it, so we end up with thought pieces or musings more than proper pieces of criticism or theory. I’m not prepared to say that it’s a bad thing – it’s just a new model. Contemporary intellectual, professional, and cultural life doesn’t allow the kind of patient and careful interpretation of work that we saw in the past. Our modes of attention have changed due to ever-expanding digital culture—images scroll by, while texts are limited to a caption or a few hundred words. Architecture in general (critics, but also architects, historians, and others) need to better understand how to participate in a world where ubiquitous digitality has altered the material, conceptual, and experiential context of our work.
As Christopher Hawthorne moves on from the Los Angeles Times and as new forms of criticism proliferate, we asked the architecture community what the role of the critic is today, and what it might be missing. What do you see as the role of the critic in architecture today? Why is it important? What aspects of architecture are not being addressed today by critics? What are the problems with criticism today? Here are the responses we received from critics across the country and abroad. This article was originally published in our May print issue. Stay tuned for further perspectives from practitioners, emerging architects, and scholars. Mark Lamster The architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. His biography of Philip Johnson, The Man in the Glass House, will be out this November. “I think there was a sense, in the 1990s and early aughts, that criticism had become too absorbed with signature buildings by the architectural jet-set, mainly because that was what was coming out of the New York Times under Herbert Muschamp. But over the last decade or so, the field has expanded to address a broad spectrum of urban issues, as it should if it’s going to keep the public engaged. The irony here is that the backlash to the era of ‘starchitecture’ (and I hate that term) has meant a certain vilification of and disregard for the discipline. So I think it’s important to celebrate quality architecture and to make clear how important it is to making places that can improve people’s lives every day.” Alexandra Lange The architecture critic for Curbed. Her newest book is The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Creates Independent Kids. “These questions, and this debate, make me tired. What other critics are asked to justify their existence time and again? I believe my work is valuable, and I choose to believe an ‘architecture critic’ can write about almost anything at the intersection of design and the public. The problems of criticism are the problems of journalism: lack of resources, a flocking to the popular, and lack of diversity.” Witold Rybczynski Architecture critic for Slate, WigWag, and Saturday Night. His latest book is Now I Sit Me Down. “I’ve always thought that journalistic architectural criticism was an odd bird. Compared to restaurant, book, or theater reviews, reviews of buildings have little immediate effect on the public. Once a building is built, it’s there, for better or worse, and we must learn to live with it. In any case, reviews based on press kits, guided tours, or interviews with the architect are unlikely to yield profound insights. Theoretically, reviews of as-yet-unbuilt work might be more influential. The problem is that critics generally don’t have the information, resources, or time to make considered judgments. These limitations are compounded when criticism is driven by the need to produce up-to-the-minute newsworthy copy. Having said that, writing about architecture can be valuable. Buildings last a long time, and it’s useful to reflect on their utility—what works and what doesn’t—and their meanings in our lives. Of course, this is best done in the fullness of time, decades after the building opens, when the sharp corners have been knocked off, so to speak. The result is more like cultural observation than reporting. A word about the internet, whose many architectural websites have resulted in a boom in architectural criticism. Sadly, it has also produced more hurriedly written, harshly polemical, and poorly researched prose than ever before.” Frances Anderton Writer, curator, and host of DnA: Design and Architecture, a weekly radio show broadcast on KCRW public radio station in Los Angeles. “It was easier to be a critic when you were crusading for modernism, or another -ism, from a podium at a highly-regarded publication. Whether that ultimately gave society better buildings is an open question.” Barry Bergdoll Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Architectural History at Columbia University and curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. “The role of the architecture critic has not shifted in its most vital importance since the first evidence of it as a professional activity commanding respect and authority in the public sphere with articles criticizing the urban policies of Louis XV in Paris in the mid-18th century. Namely, the architecture critic sets out to forge a bridge between the professional activity of the designing architect and the role of a citizenry by having an informed opinion about the changing environment in which they live. Of course, like an art critic, the architecture critic can contribute to the acclaim of a specific designer; but that is only the beginning of the capacity of the architecture critic to form public opinion. The role is not precisely the same for a critic writing in a publication—printed, broadcast, or on the internet—that primarily serves the profession, and the unfortunately much smaller set of architectural criticism that is aimed at the general public. The paradox nature of architecture is that it is the most omnipresent of art forms and yet the one that the non-professional audience often has the least capacity to judge. This puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the ever-rarer figure of the architecture critic with a broad mandate, namely the shockingly small handful of critics writing in the daily press of national and local record. Here the critic serves to educate at once public and public officials. It is the role of the critic to raise the issues that matter, to frame them in a way that both voters and elected officials and private sector actors in shaping the public realm can understand not only what is at stake but the vital relationship between intelligent design and enhanced environments. It is the difficulty of this task that makes so many nostalgic for a handful of legendary figures like Ada Louise Huxtable at the New York Times or Allan Temko of the San Francisco Chronicle, brilliant writers and thinkers whose texts were easy of access and whose capacity to craft public opinion inspired admiration, awe, and even fear where needed. Few critics are able to achieve the needed balance between the appreciation of the formal invention of architecture and the public issues at stake in most projects.” Oliver Wainwright Architecture and design critic of The Guardian. “The role of an architecture critic is not simply to critique architecture, providing an opinion on the quality of the latest buildings, but to unpick and expose the planning policies, funding sources, and political agendas that shape the built environment and frame projects in their wider societal contexts. Architectural publishing is facing a number of hurdles, not least in the dwindling number of advertisers paying ever less for space in magazines with shrinking circulation figures, wounded by the rise of free online content. Magazines are increasingly reliant on sponsored advertorials, lucrative awards programs, and other commercial partnerships to stay afloat, while many national newspapers have given up on covering the subject—of the eight national broadsheet papers in the UK, only three now have a regular architecture critic.” Justin Davidson Author and architecture and classical music critic for New York magazine. His latest book is Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York. “Construction always involves tradeoffs and often emerges from an adversarial process, fueled by agendas that are both overt and hidden. The reporter/critic is in a unique position to ask questions of all sides, absorb the technical detail, and pass on to the public a point of view that is backed up by clarity and explanation. My hope is that when readers don’t agree with me, at least they know why. In order to be effective, architecture critics have to look beyond architecture. I got into this business because I loved writing and I loved beautiful buildings. The deeper I dive, the more aware I am of the overlapping areas of expertise that get called into play every time the easy equipment shows up: finance, planning, zoning, activism, preservation, politics, performing arts, engineering, retail, gentrification, transit, industry, the waterfront, housing policy, climate change, social history, literature, psychology, acoustics, and more. I’m gratified to see that critics for general interest publications (as opposed to specialized ones) have a broad sense of their field. It’s rare these days to see a review that focuses on the building as aesthetic object, the exemplar of a style, or the incarnation of a theory. I also think that most critics consider themselves reporters, too, which is essential. What’s missing is numbers: every city builds, people in every city live and work in works of architecture, and yet the number of papers that cover this crucial element of local news is tiny. The perception that architecture is a specialist’s turf - and therefore of little interest to most readers - is contradicted by the passionate feelings that so many residents have (and express!) over what does and doesn’t get built in their community. The other thing that’s missing is a willingness to revisit buildings a year or two or more after they’ve opened to see how they fare in the real world. Too often, we see buildings in their pristine (or even incomplete) state, empty and theoretical. When I first visited the Whitney, for example, I missed a lot of the basic circulation and functionality problems that materialized later. I didn’t notice how maddening the coat check system was until I saw 100 people trying to check their coats at the same time.”
Zaha Hadid has sued the New York Review of Books. The complaint, filed last month in Manhattan Supreme Court, takes issue with a piece by architecture critic Martin Filler that allegedly mischaracterized her comments on the deaths of hundreds of migrant construction workers in Qatar, where she has designed a soccer stadium for the 2022 World Cup. According to Hadid’s lawyers, the article is a “personal attack disguised as a book review” of New York Observer architecture critic Rowan Moore’s Why We Build. It apparently quotes the Pritzker Prize winner as saying that architects “have nothing to do with the workers” and goes on to characterize her as being a generally uncaring and difficult person. The lawyers went on to point out that no workers have died on Hadid’s project, which, as a matter of fact, has yet to begin construction. The suit has stirred up quite a bit of activity on social media, including a tweet from Paul Goldberger, who said that the suit was unwise as it will earn Hadid a reputation as “the architect who sues critics.” The NYRB has since issued a retraction.