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.”
Posts tagged with "Barry Bergdoll":
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has announced that Martino Stierli has been appointed as the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. Mr. Stierli is currently a professor at the University of Zurich where he teaches the history of modern architecture. Previously, he has organized or co-curated exhibitions at prestigious venues around the world, taught at multiple Swiss universities, and published multiple essays on various topics relating to design. He steps into his new role in March, 2015. “[Stierli] brings an international perspective and possesses an extraordinary ability to brilliantly relate architecture and its image to its cultural context,” MoMA’s director Glenn D. Lowry said in a statement. “With his solid grounding in the history of modern architecture and art, coupled with a keen interest in contemporary practice, Martino will be an effective and energetic leader.” Stierli lavished praise on MoMA and expressed excitement about his upcoming post. “By continually expanding its comprehensive collection, the Department of Architecture and Design has been pivotal to the preservation of modernism for the future, and to making that heritage accessible to scholars and the broader public alike,” he said in a statement released by the museum. “I am excited to continue this tradition at MoMA and look forward to working with the Museum’s extraordinary team to contribute to shaping the current discourse on architecture and the city—locally, nationally, and globally.” Barry Bergdoll, who was the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design from 2007 to 2013, told AN, "I look forward greatly to Martino Stierli's leadership at MoMA Architecture and Design. Stierli is a creative, innovative, and astute historian and critic of modern and contemporary architecture, especially in its intersections with other artistic practices, notably photography and film. I am sure he will work with the collection, and grow it, in interesting ways, as well as develop timely and meaningful exhibitions, publications, and events. He brings a fresh vision to New York and to MoMA."
There is a rumor making its way around the West Coast that Thom Mayne may have more than a new building in New York. He may be headed east to become dean of Columbia University, replacing the departing Mark Wigley. But we have also heard—despite his protests that he is happy sailing to Catalina—that Greg Lynn may also be interested in the Morningside Heights position. It could be that Lynn would join his wife, Sylvia Lavin, who has long coveted an East Coast deanship. How about if Mark Wigley and MoMA’s departing Barry Bergdoll simply swap positions? There seem to be no end to the rumors of who may be filling one of the vacant deans posts at Cooper Union, Columbia, California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Cranbrook, or the University of Kentucky. We hear that Cooper Union is assembling names and has created a short list (who would want that job now?) that includes the names of several current deans as well as alumnus Daniel Libeskind and philosopher poet Peter Lynch. Then what will happen in the next two years when deanships become available at Penn Design, Yale, and Sci-Arc? Now that Aaron Betsky has left parochial Cincinnati he may be looking for a more hospitable place to work.
Barry Bergdoll is stepping down as Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, a position he has held since 2007. He will return to teaching at Columbia University and will take up an endowed chair in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. He will stay on part-time at MoMA to continue working on a major exhibition on Latin American architecture currently scheduled for 2015. He will also advise on the use and development of the Frank Lloyd Wright archive, which is jointly owned by Columbia and MoMA. While at the Modern, Bergdoll has curated a wide variety of shows, addressing topics ranging from prefabricated housing to the Bauhaus to rising sea levels. His recent exhibitions have included a widely praised show on the french architect Henri LaBrouste, and Le Courbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (co-curated with Jean-Louis Cohen), which is currently on view. Bergdoll's tenure as chair has been marked both by a deepening of the historical and scholarly quality of the exhibitions and programming as well as greater engagement with social issues, such as affordable housing and climate change. In an email to AN, Bergdoll wrote, "I look forward to...continuing to be associated not only with the world’s oldest curatorial department of architecture and design, but I think its most vibrant and finest." MoMA will begin a search for his successor at the end of August.
Tuesday evening's John Soane's Museum gala was a great evening for the assembled supporters of the London museum on Lincoln's Inn Fields. It started when Soane Board President Thomas Klingerman asked the audience "How many of you read The Architect's Newspaper?" You probably saw the Eavesdrop column on Jay Z and Beyonce visiting Cuba on a Soane architecture tour (their itinerary included landmarks by architect Miguel Coylua, among others). Things are really changing at Soane! After the irrepressible Suzanne Stephens opened the program awards, inscribed Soane Foundation medallions were given to Carole Fabian, director of Avery Architecture & Arts Library at Columbia, and Barry Bergdoll for their joint acquisition of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives. The award was presented by the architectural theorist Catherine Ingraham, who talked about her maternal grandfather Frank LLoyd Wright and his meaning to her family and architectural culture. In accepting the award, Fabian talked about the enormous organizing challenge of the huge archive and Bergdoll told the story of Wright introducing Mies van Der Rohe to a Chicago audience. In front of the crowd, Bergdoll said "I want to introduce you to Frank Lloyd Wright without whom there would be no Mies Van der Rohe!" A second award was given to Lord Norman Foster of Thames Bank by Paul Goldberger, who is finishing a book on Foster and compared his career as an architect and collector to Soane, though one with his own private airplane! Foster, for his part, woke up yesterday in London, visited the Soane Museum, then lunched with the Queen and piloted his plane to New York.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced its 2013 architecture awards recipients. The winners were chosen from a group of 32 individuals and practices nominated by Academy members. An exhibition of their work will be on display at the Audubon Terrace in New York City from May 16 to June 9, 2013. The Academy’s architecture awards program was established in conjunction with the 1955 inauguration of the annual Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture, which is presented to a leading architect from any country who has made a noteworthy contribution to architecture as an art. Alberto Campo Baeza from Madrid, Spain won the $5000 prize this year. He has practiced and taught architecture for over 35 years at prominent universities in the U.S. and abroad. He turns architecture into art through utilizing timeless forms. Campo Baeza received the 2013 Heinrich Tessenow Gold Metal. Two Arts and Letters Awards of $7500 recognizing American architects whose work holds a strong personal bearing were presented to Teddy Cruz of San Diego, California and Thomas Phifer of New York. Teddy Cruz is an architect, academic, and activist who investigates the politics and economics that compel urban conflict. Thomas Phifer, who has led his own New York City practice since 1996, blends the beauty and simplicity of Modernism with awareness of the natural environment. Barry Bergdoll and Sanford Kwinter of New York each won an Arts and Letters Award of $7500 given to Americans exploring ideas in architecture using any method of expression. Barry Bergdoll, a 19th- and 20th-century architectural history scholar, is the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Sanford Kwinter is a witer, editor, and Professor of Architectural Theory and Criticism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he co-directs the Master in Design Studies program.