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.
Posts tagged with "Chistopher Hawthorne":
Unlike Thursday night, when inclement weather forced us inside, the party raged--or, well, spoke, Tweeted, and blogged--on the roof of the Standard on Friday night, which is as it should be at the start of the weekend, even if the party was almost over. When I arrived on the roof, the sun had just about set and Matthew Coolidge, the director of the super cool LA-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, was giving a presentation on his group's work, which includes tours and exhibitions of the crazier places in the built environment. He touched briefly on a recent project about parking and another about LA waste treatment before launching into the real show, and CLUI's current work, on the "oilscape," particularly in and around Houston. "There's nothing like it anywhere," Coolidge, who's seen his fair share of the planet, said. At the behest of the University of Houston, CLUI was asked to put together an exhibition on this unique infrastructure that has both built up and slowly destroyed Houston and the nation at large. Coolidge presented pictures of such alien terrains as the massive Strategic Petroleum reserve, the polluted and ignored Houston bayou, and long-abandoned oil fields. (My colleague Aaron Seward wrote about the exhibit a few months back.) The capper was a 15-minute video the group shot of the Houston Ship Channel, a 50-mile stretch of waterway that is nothing but oil refineries and related facilities, a place with the greatest refining capacity in the world. Shot from an altitude of 1,000 feet by a helicopter traveling 70 miles per hour and equipped with an HD camera, the surreal landscape put forward--it nearly outstrips the rest of the world in refining capacity combined--is almost hard to describe, from carbon black pits to plots of storage bins as far as the eye can see. (Oh, were it only on YouTube to share with you all.) Seen from this angle, CLUI's approach becomes clear. As Coolidge puts it, "Our sort of institutional method is we look at the ground and say, 'Oh, what's that?'" If only we truly knew the answer. Appropriately enough, the next speaker explored what happens when the oil stops flowing, so to speak. LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne had recently returned from Dubai, and he had a startling report to provide, describing what recently transpired in the small emirate as "Ponzi scheme urbanism, or Bernie Madoff planning." As is well known, Dubai sprang up after its oil ran out and the state tried to diversify into finance and media fields. Hawthorne, however, counters that all the place really did was "serve as a vessel for liquidity." What's left, now, is a bunch of half-built vessels--hundreds of them, really, almost all abandoned despite the extant cranes, creating an eerily silent landscape stuck between construction and collapse. Hawthorne showed dozens of projects, including the ubiquitous (it looms in back of almost every shot) Burj Dubai, the "cruise ship-modern" Burj Al-Arab, and, his favorite, the Mall of the Emirates, which came to renown for its indoor skiing. "It's a full-on black diamond experience, but I find the outside far more interesting than the inside," he said. Hawthorne posited this as a perfect example of Dubai's penchant for copying wholesale: "What really struck me was this is a city that really learned from Las Vegas and themed environments. But unlike where no one would go to Las Vegas and believe they were in Paris--with its 2/3s buildings and replicas--in Dubai, they blow everything up to full scale, like, say, the Eiffel Tower, but then they blow it up again, and build the entire neighborhood, so you really begin to think you're there." If Dubai has been struggling of late, Fallen Fruit was only looking up. Begun nearly a decade ago by three artists, two of whom were on hand to present the group's work, it started as a one-off project to map fruit bearing trees in various LA neighborhoods--an attempt to help feed the hungry--that also attempted to redefine cartography and the landscape. But the more involved they got in mapping, the more new dimensions the project began to take on. It moved online, where people were encouraged to create and submit their own food maps. It moved to the streets, where foraging trips were set up, one of which was posted on YouTube without Fallen Fruit's knowledge. When the videos were flooded with hateful comments, it actually became another piece of art, where the video was shown with the offensive comments overlaid on the video. Examples: "Dipshit liberals./Always looking for a handout./That fruit will sustain more rats/than you left-wing nut jobs." "Are black people allowed at these events?" "Are straight people allowed at these events." "It's clear the people seeing this didn't want to be seeing it," Austin Young said of Fallen Fruit's work, which is why they have soldiered on, despite numerous court challenges. The group emphasizes only picking fruit on public property or overhanging it, and some of their latest efforts include encouraging people to plant on their property line, which has been a major success. Legally speaking, the practice is neither illegal nor legal--there are no laws governing at all, Young said. As for his partner, Matias Viengener, "When we started this all those years ago, I never imagined I'd still be picking fruit." Their latest project is Neighborhood Infusion, which take the particular fruit of a given neighborhood and infuse it with vodka so as to better understand the area's native character. They have tastings scheduled around LA for the coming weeks. Like Fallen Fruit, Ken Ehrlich is an artist and writer trying to connect LA's nascent arts community with the wider city. One major project was a competition for a proposed park near City Hall. After reading an article in the Times about a land swap with Caltrans--the state exchanged the then-HQ for a city-owned parking lot across the street, upon which a Morphosis-designed building would later rise--that would make way for a new city park, Ehrilich and some friends held a competition for the park, setting no parameters and getting proposals to match. The team presented the designs to the City Council with some success, only to later be both shocked and chagrined to hear that the new Police headquarters was being built on the plot instead of a park. "For whatever reason, we actually never saw this coming," Ehrlich joked. Another more successful project was based around the informal trash economies of Curitiba, Brazil. Ehrlich and friends built their own recycling cart from scavenged materials, which was then used to scavenge more materials that would later comprise an exhibition on the culture the objects represent, though not necessarily in their intended form. Two down, one to go.