Alexandra Lange | Essays

Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?

Photo: Kieran Timberlake

It played it safe.

Not all the time, in every place, and certainly not every piece by every writer, but the American critical field became predictable, cosy, managed. There was a short list of critics widely read, mostly at major metropolitan newspapers, and most in their jobs for over ten years (Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, Blair Kamin, Robert Campbell, David Dillon). There was a short list of players, the narrower and narrower selection of architects hired for the best projects (Just look at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s expansion list, David Adjaye, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Foster + Partners, Snohetta. As a friend of mine Tweeted, “At least no Piano…”) Once you had seen one of Renzo Piano’s sensitive, light-filled additions to a major cultural institution, had you actually seen them all? There was also a short list of types most critiqued: towers, tall, green, fritted glass, or museums, boxy or blobby. Critics were forced into talking about architectural fashion, mirror glass versus low-e, titanium cladding versus terra-cotta screens. When an important new building opened anywhere in the world, all the critics dutifully went and filed their review. Back at home, some wrote about projects only important to their home city, by younger architects and newer practices, low-income or high-performance. But these pieces, the places where a critic can develop a theory of the urban environment, alter the outcome of a neighborhood, dig into politics, place and even personal taste, are not the ones that the global architectural audience read. We read about Rem and Zaha and Frank.

That was then (before 2008), this is now. Criticism today could feel like cruelty, kicking a profession when it is down in publications whose futures are themselves uncertain. Architectural Record was recently dropped as the official journal of the American Institute of Architects in favor of the much-younger Architect. The last time this contract changed hands, it spelled the end of Architecture, and many think that Record will not last. It would be just one in a long list of losses to the list of American design publications. Conde Nast shut both Domino and House & Garden. Metropolitan Home (Elle Décor’s younger, more modernist sibling) and I.D. (the venerable publication spun off from Interiors in the early 1950s) also closed. Metropolis, for which I write, has been slimmed down for the new economic reality, and is being written more and more in-house and at home. I recently wrote a cover story about the Inland Steel building in Chicago almost entirely from my apartment in Brooklyn. Architect’s Newspaper, a biweekly upstart that now has New York, California and Midwest editions, is also largely written in-house. They hire outside critics for reviews, but at prices so low that writers are essentially subsidizing the publication for access to a platform. Design Observer, one of the few online outlets for relatively lengthy design and architecture criticism — most commercial design blogs are cheerleaders rather than critics — pays its writers nothing. The critics for major publications like Newsweek and Bloomberg are freelancers. Sometimes it feels like everything is shrinking: the magazines, the word counts, the outlets, and especially the critics.

The U.S. may be doing better than some countries in Europe, where criticism is written by and for architects, and architecture is not considered a topic for broader public consumption. But if we are not careful, if critics don’t assert their authority and attract an audience, if magazines and newspapers don’t keep design and architecture in their culture sections, if new institutions aren’t created online, architecture critique could disappear back into the academy. The uncertainty of the media landscape is part of the problem. For critics to do their job, they need a certain degree of security. Financial security, in the sense of someone to pay for their travel (if the architect pays, it creates an ethical quandary) and someone to pay for their words (to make it worth their while). But they also need institutional security — to a point. Authority comes from expertise, it comes from developing a point of view over time, it comes from the audience expectations that a critic will be there to tell them what is what, but it also comes from others’ support.

I can write all the opinions I want on my blog, but unless people more famous and influential than I link, tweet, praise and otherwise disseminate my critique, I will only be talking to my friends. The internet makes it possible for anyone to be heard, but that does not make all opinions equal. (In fact, it makes it very easy to form online cliques, which are supportive, but ultimately self-involved.) The influential architecture critics of the past spoke to the largest possible audience, and they need to continue to do so. Last fall, Bruce Nussbaum told a group of aspiring design critics that, while he used to be an authority, now he was a curator of conversations: he asks a question, and then steps back to see what everyone else has to say. I think conversations are fine, but sometimes you need someone with a clear, strong voice to say yes or no. There is so much noise today, we need arbiters more than ever. But we also need someone to pay them — otherwise there is no upside to possibly alienating Rem and Zaha and Frank.

Recent experience has confirmed for me that the global architectural audience is dying for everyone to get to the point. Tell us what is at stake (and make sure something is). Be incisive (describe, critique, stop). Be emotional (if you don’t care, don’t cover it up with words). Be thrilling (Why is everyone nostalgic for Herbert Muschamp? Because his writing had feeling). And if possible, talk to each other. One architectural critique can only be so interesting, but the critical swarm, offering real differences of opinion, born from critics’ experiences of different places? That’s exciting.

I have rarely felt as energized and interested in criticism as with the recent dissection of the design for the new U.S. Embassy in London. Finally, I thought, this is why we need more critics. Major British and American critics felt the need to weigh in on the KieranTimberlake design, and a pattern of argument and counterclaim unfolded over the course a week in the papers and online. In my opinion, the power of the web for architectural critique is not that it is a platform for everyone to have an opinion (though the online commenters on the U.S. Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo did as good a job as any professional, calling it, among other things, a Lexus car dealership), but as an aggregator of opinions into a conversation. Twitter, in particular, has swiftly become the best place to get links to the work of critics worldwide. By following the feeds of key architecture blogs, or by following critics themselves, one has a constantly updated list of topics from which to pick and choose. The fact that all this work can be easily accessed online for free is both wonderful and terrible, from a future-of-the-design-press point of view. During the period that the Embassy was news, it felt for once like architecture was news. It felt like architects’ choices mattered, and the critics were there to tell us why.

Jonathan Glancey, in The Guardian, on 23 February 2010,

Luckily for London, the American people are considerably more sophisticated and less populist than we are. Here in Nine Elms, the new embassy will adopt the form of a giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park, complete with a lake and what appears to be a ha-ha. Seriously.

Versus Rowan Moore, in The Observer, on 28 February 2010,

Yet it is a lump. A green, well-dressed, diplomatic lump, but still an ungainly, dominating object that makes minimal attempt to relate to its surroundings…What will make this area succeed or fail is not the artistry of individual facades, but the kind of places that will be made by several buildings working together. And, yes, as many have pointed out, the embassy does look like a Norman keep, complete with moat. We all know it has to be exceptionally bomb-proof, but was it really necessary to rub this point in?

The behind-the-scenes spat did not hurt: Lord Rogers, the architect, and Lord Palumbo, the architectural collector, disagreed with the other jurors, all Americans, on which was the best design. They supported Morphosis’s proposal, also stilted, also transparent, also floating over what is essentially a landscaped bollard, and sent a letter of dissent to the State Department. Famous architects! Hillary Clinton! Feud! The British papers backed their compatriots, and immediately began treating the design with utmost disdain. But the American critics did not take the jingoistic bait.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, in The New York Times, 23 February 2010,

The proposed building — a bland glass cube clad in an overly elaborate, quiltlike scrim — is not inelegant by the standards of other recent American Embassies, but it has all the glamour of a corporate office block. It makes you wonder if the architects had somehow mistaken the critic Reyner Banham’s famous dismissal of the embassy’s 1960 predecessor [by Eero Saarinen] on Grosvenor Square — “monumental in bulk, frilly in detail” — as something to strive for.

Quoting Reyner Banham, always a good choice when a bon mot is required. If Ouroussoff thought it was dull, Martin Filler, in The New York Review of Books, thought it was shallow:

With KieranTimberlake’s scheme, the costume has changed to the architectural equivalent of Kevlar body armor thinly disguised underneath a Tommy Hilfiger seersucker suit. No doubt to soften the new embassy’s Fortress America connotations, the architects have gussied up their presentation with crowd-pleasing environmental details of the sort that real estate developers throw in to gain planning approval for otherwise objectionable projects.

The critics, suddenly, had begun to see through the transparency trick, long used as shorthand for democracy, openness, and freedom from fear (read Lewis Mumford on Lever House in 1952). Even Eero Saarinen’s unloved embassy, usually photographed from mid-way up its syncopated concrete façade, had a glassy, stilted first floor. Terrorism has made that particular material shorthand a little too obviously false—glass manufacturers now specify their products by blast resistance — and falsified by extension the frilling of the bunker by using landscape as a barrier. Grass had suddenly become the decorative equivalent of Edward Durell Stone’s screens on the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

Glancey’s reference to the ha-ha was well taken: a British 18th century topographic idea intended to keep cows in transformed into an American 21st century barrier to keep malfeasants out. As citizens and as architects we are still struggling with how to make a safe building an attractive building. The architecture of the new U.S. Embassy was important not only as an expression of the way America wants to be seen, but as an expression of the new parameters in which we build. The details are still being worked out. KieranTimberlake thought they could do it by adding layers of physical landscape, at the ground-level and crawling up the sides, and physiological landscape, in an array of sustainable features. As journalist Mark Lamster put it on his blog:

A U.S. embassy must be both a symbol of American values but also a secure place for the people who work in it. And that just happens to be an almost impossible brief… Is it a bit of a fortress, and somewhat separated from the city by a water barrier and other physical measures? Yes. But it’s also an environmentally attuned and congenial neighbor. We could do a lot worse.

In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne went further in the embassy design’s defense: deeds, not words. Sustainability should be treated as more than “parsley” — landscape architect-speak for being called upon to garnish a pig of a building.

The design suggests that, rather than standing in for certain American virtues, what a contemporary U.S. embassy should be doing is behaving virtuously… Even as the design itself, for all its airiness and crisp confidence, is hardly radical from a formal point of view… it represents a major shift in how we think about the role of U.S. government architecture, both at home and abroad. It suggests putting an emphasis on action instead of values, measurable behavior rather than symbolic gestures.

Why was this critique so vital, this conversation so spirited? Because it felt as if things were still unknown. KieranTimberlake are not famous yet, meaning their work could not be characterized in a nutshell, or that they have the Pritzker, an award that often turns architects into sacred cows. The building has to fulfill a number of functions: representing America, anchoring a new neighborhood, replacing an iconic building. The architectural problems are still being solved: sustainability, security, symbolism. The reviews opened up what needs to be an ongoing discussion about post-terror architecture. The multiplicity of articulate and wildly different views made it clear that architecture criticism is best when we really are undecided.

What struck me as missing from all of the critiques, positive and negative, were ideas about how to avoid the transparent-cube-in-a-moat problem. All the final entries followed this paradigm, in some form, and I didn’t think the Morphosis scheme was that different in many particulars. (If anyone designs lumps nowadays, it is Thom Mayne.) My unanswered question is: If we acknowledged that we have to build bunkers, could we come up with a better solution, without parsley and blast-resistant glass? Maybe Brutalism, for which many younger critics have a revived fondness, has something to teach us. Maybe we can’t have literal transparency anymore. Maybe that would be a freeing constraint.

Criticism also needs constraints, and the recession may have provided one. It is hard to manage a landscape whose borders are changing, hard to get cosy with people who may be unemployed tomorrow. It is terrible, but also an opportunity. The boom years fueled the circulation of architecture as images — all those blogs feed on the new, and rendering or reality hardly makes a difference. The more outrageous the image, the more likely a blog post is to get hits, so renderings are usually preferable. The top critics were among the few able to see all these buildings in person, but they often came back empty. I felt aggravated by critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff who suddenly turned on the profession, accusing practitioners of shallowness and greed. It seemed a worthwhile position to have taken whilst the global branding of architecture was going on, but self-serving to act as a sage in retrospect. It might, paradoxically, have strengthened his authority to have said where he went wrong — but he would not go quite that far. A benefit of the new openness of writing on the internet has been an increase in the ability of people to say when they have erred. Paul Goldberger has apologized for his support of postmodernism. Our critics might think about apologizing for not seeing through some of the hype. I have heard prominent critics and journalists complain about the way buildings are now launched — on a certain date, with a certain publication given an “exclusive,” and the rest of the critics paraded through before anyone has moved in. But I have never seen anyone write about the effect that has on criticism.

So how could new critics appear? Old-fashioned as it sounds, I think we need people who still have cultural power, as editors, clients, architects, to make them. In the olden days of criticism, critics hand-picked their successors. But now no one wants to leave the job. (Where is there to go?) I have heard several people suggest term limits as a way to keep the limited number of major positions fresh. It is not a bad idea, because if you are doing the job right, you should be exhausted. Michael Sorkin, who set the tone for tyro de-institutionalized criticism at the Village Voice in the 1980s, eventually gave it up. What he writes now has a different tone. But if he had kept writing at that pace his writing, too, would have probably have lost energy. It is a tricky question of timing. Most critics need time to settle into their jobs and find their voice, then they have a few years of glide, then we grow weary of their schtick.

Dwell editor Aaron Britt recently sent out a call for recommendations of the best practicing architecture critics in the U.S. What he essentially got back was a list of the only architecture critics in the U.S., or rather, the only critics you have already heard of: those previously mentioned, plus Inga Saffron at the Philadelphia Inquirer, John King at the San Francisco Tribune, Karrie Jacobs at Metropolis. Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG offered a different set of links, but to people who, like him, are engaged in a very different practice than that of the classic critic. His blog is wonderfully exploratory, but shows the limits of the role. Certain people love his work, but it is certainly not for a mass audience. He can’t write about the same topics as the major critics, so he doesn’t. We still need more young energized voices writing about architecture that is built rather than imagined. His example speaks to the basic economic reason why an unaffiliated blogger is unlikely to break through as a major critic. The institutional platform comes with invitations, and a travel budget. Otherwise you are the guest of the very people you should be critiquing.

On the positive side, design people are engaged in the question of critique, as writers, editors, and critics. They want to read something good. There are blogs devoted to just this, like ijustwantsomethingtoread and longform.org. Some people are planning their own publishing ventures, hoping to use the power of web publicity and distribution to institutionalize themselves, as with the recent 48 Hour Magazine. Others are hoping to start new online magazines that harness the power of commerce to bring more eyes to criticism, as with Fast Company’s spinoff blog. Others are simply hoping they will be anointed, the old fashioned way, called up from the minor leagues. But to where? My dream used to be to be The New York Times architecture critic, and it is unclear that that is still the world’s best job, or even, in a few years, an existing job. In his lecture “Architecture Criticism: Does It Matter?” Paul Goldberger said, “Nobody tears down a building if an architecture critic doesn’t like it.” This quote indicates an ambivalence to go negative (which Goldberger rarely does) not out of an excess of caution, but because there is no point. That was what was so refreshing about the Embassy debate. Going negative could have a particular, as well as a global impact. It was not that the proposed building was bad. Its blandness challenged our assumptions about what a modern monument, and a modern office building, should do for its city. Its blandness made the critics get to the point. In doing so, they showed us what we have been missing.

This essay was originally published in Architecture d-Aujourd'hui, summer 2010.

Posted in: Architecture, Theory + Criticism

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