Architectural Criticism

29 Nov

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized…Think big. –Daniel Burnham

Architectural Criticism is dead, and so is the architectural critic. We just don’t read about architecture. I pre-ordered Alexandra Lange’s book “Writing About Architecture.” I even wrote a short piece on it at The Urban Times. I care about the built environment but I am not an architect. And I know far too many architects who have no interest in architectural criticism. Who think Ada Louise Huxtable was Bill Cosby’s wife on the Cosby Show and that Bjarke Ingels wore a swan dress to the 73rd Academy Awards.

Bjork: Icelandic Singer

Bjarke: Danish Architect

If architects show little interest in the current state of their field, why should the rest of us? Because we are forced to live in it, to look at it, to work in it. Architecture affects our lives more than almost any other discipline. What gets built is of crucial importance to all of us. It is the role of the architecture critic to educate us, the non-architects, about what is built and why we should or shouldn’t like it.

Do I need Paul Goldberger to tell me whether a building is good or bad? While he may provide a context or background I was unaware of, I can come to my own conclusions as to the aesthetic of the building. If I think it’s ugly, Goldberger is not going to change my mind. What he, and so many other architecture critics are doing, is writing for each other, for the architect, for the intellectual. The rest of us don’t know all the jargon. I couldn’t tell you Bauhaus from my house. The jargon and the pseudo-intellectualism is the primary reason that we do not read about architecture.

Another reason that we don’t read architecture is because we don’t care about a building in Qatar or China – even if it is by Hadid or Gehry. Did you know Zaha Hadid is designing the new National Stadium in Japan? Did you care? Does this change the way you live your life? Do you now have a strange desire to see all buildings NURBy? Buildings go up in every city. The majority of which receive no fanfare. They are designed and built by local architects, that nobody could name. There are no movies about these architects. They are not celebrities. But they impact our lives. These are the architects we should care about. That we should be reading about. I spend more time in Home Depot than the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Should a critic write a review of Home Depot or Starbucks?

Beijing National Stadium: The Bird’s Nest

Architectural critics write about new buildings by starchitects. Goldberger, in a speech “Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter,” said:

Crowdsourcing is not the express train to wisdom. The most popular is not always the best. The new is not always easy to understand. And the last word will always be history’s. But this is always the critic’s challenge. In an age in which attention spans are ever shorter, it is the critic’s job to take the long view.

This sounds fantastic! The critic takes the long view. But does he? He reviews a building when it’s built, or maybe when it was designed and planned. But does he ever go back and re-review the building. Does the building function? How has the building aged? Does it still function as intended or was it modified? His long view is one of more thought – not just initial reactions and tweets of images. But this intellectual thought does not improve the building. In a few years we will all know what we think of the building and nobody will remember the critics review.

If a building is a failure, does criticism prevent the same mistakes in the future, or are we too late? A failure of a building is an expensive mistake that we must live with for decades. If criticism doesn’t educate us, it does nothing.

Pruitt-Igoe: A massive failure that lasted 20 years.

While we may not be reading about architecture, we are reading about the City and the Urban. Maybe this larger view is the future of architectural criticism. The design of buildings is important in what they contribute or take away from the system. Some critics and writers, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, have always looked at the surroundings of a building – the impact that it had on the city. Jane Jacobs also has more of a mass appeal than Paul Goldberger. The rest of us care about our surroundings. But we see them as larger than a single address. They are our cities and towns. This is the puzzle we are putting together and trying to understand.

Architects and critics need to expand their view. To look beyond the property line.

…..to think Big.

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