Mark Lamster | Essays

Design Writing: Vital Field or Museum Piece?

I am by nature a historian and a pragmatist, and not generally inclined to futuristic thinking, so I will admit to being somewhat indifferent to the present "crisis" as to the future of design criticism, it being a field in continual crisis since, roughly, the Pleistocene Era. The latest brouhaha has come from across the Atlantic, via an article by Peter Kelly in Blueprint lamenting a perceived shift toward speculative writing and away from serious criticism of new work, especially on the Web. Geoff Manaugh, fingered as one of the chief culprits, responded on BLDGBLOG, reasonably arguing that he was being served up as a straw man. Of the critics Kelly endorses, Geoff writes, perhaps with undue harshness, "If they had actually known what they were doing in the first place, then people would never have lost interest in 'rigorous criticism of significant new buildings.'...if you want to see a more vigorous critique of buildings, then, by all means, go ahead and show us how it’s done. Make it popular again. Find an audience for that type of writing and cultivate it. Convincingly demonstrate the power of the genre you so openly wish to celebrate."

This narrative, that traditional architectural criticism is a thing of the past, seems also to be the point of departure for the New City Reader, a newspaper-like publication put out weekly by the New Museum as a part of its Last Newspaper exhibition. As the editors write: "Is architectural criticism (as practiced by the great newspaper critics such as Martin Pawley, Wolf von Eckhardt, or Ada Louise Huxtable) dead, and if so what critical influences shape the built landscape today? How are today's content-gathering systems — diffuse yet micro-subjectspecific — and the arrival of ultra-portable, permanently networked information platforms (such as the iPad), that make information accessible everywhere, changing the way we experience and inhabit public space?"

I'm not sure the show has developed any concrete answers. I'm not even sure I agree with the premise. But there have been four editions thus far (the image above is my contribution to the last issue, on sports) and they are all, in my admittedly biased opinion, worth reading. The editors put them together in a gallery at the museum, on display like Marina Abramovic at MoMA. (Don't worry: they, at least, are allowed bathroom breaks.)

The printed page of the newspaper is also to be the subject of an exhibition at Boston's Pinkcomma gallery. That show, "Newsstand," opens on the 19th of this month and suggests that the newspaper just might have a future as "a fast, cheap, and topical platform for architecture and design discourse." So there you have it. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Posted in: Architecture, Theory + Criticism

Comments [1]

I am very skeptical about the thesis that architectural criticism is dead. The media has just changed. “The Media is the Message,” is an apt phrase (coined by Marshal McLuhan) that applies to blogs, Facebook, email, etc. The print world is no longer based primarily on ink and paper, and as a result the previously familiar methods of critique have become outmoded. Frankly, as an architect, I am not disappointed because many of the architectural critics foisted on the public by the mega-publishers lacked relevance on so many different levels. The new media will allow more voices to be heard.
Dale Ellickson, FAIA

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