Criticalifragilistic*

 

THE PROBLEM

Criticism is in bit of a pickle. Nobody seems to agree what it is or what it should be. Media, Industry and Academia – the three dominant forces in the architecture ecosystem all claim it for themselves but when criticism becomes the sole preserve of any one of them, it becomes something else and no longer criticism.

Media

Traditional print media formats such as newspapers and magazines are the last place one can find architecture critics modelled on the Victorian era art critic paid to provide opinions and evaluations of works in established genres such as books, art, music and drama. Such evaluations were called reviews and could be be positive or negative. A positive one wouldn’t necessarily make a reader purchase the reviewed experience and a negative one wouldn’t necessarily dissuade them. Both generate a level of curiousity about the topic in line with the variously attributed English phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” and the French “Succès de scandale.” 

Damning reviews once forced the re-working of operas, symphonies and plays but architecture is not opera, music or drama and reviews of buildings do not function as a feedback loop. The most a review can claim to do is suggest to an audience the worth of a work or the author’s intentions. Nobody uses the word educate anymore.

In today’s world, the traditional architecture critic has to create content that genuinely informs and, at the same time, cultivate an audience that genuinely wants to be informed. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, seems to get the balance right.

Generally though, the traditional architecture critic model is failing along with traditional print media, as in-house critics become conduits for paid content rather than being paid to generate it. These next two images from a 2014 newspaper piece illustrate both the ethical problem and its workaround.

Industry

This New Yorker piece talks about the trend for media reviews insufficiently positive to be regarded as hostile criticism for not taking the commercial interests of the producer sufficiently to heart. It suggests we’re being coerced into sustaining other people’s media bubbles.

The architectural PRs of global architecture content providers must have a similarly short fuse because negative criticism of today’s big names is practically nonexistent. Providers of content that brings in the readers, can withhold that content and so pressure media outlets with advertising-based business models to stay on message. This asymmetrical and unsymmetrical standoff is where the relationship between industry and the commercial media is currently at and it seems to be holding. Commercial architectural media are in business to stay in business and make money, not to inform. So too are global architectural content providers. When industry and media collude, the first casualty is criticism.

The traditional symbiosis between Industry and Media worked well for about a century when there was only print. Architects provided content to magazines and newspapers in return for the benefits of publicity and the hope of future commissions. The news consumer makes this relationship into a triangle by paying for newspapers and magazines containing the wanted news and information. They receive nothing from “Industry” apart from a vague sense of being “interested in architecture” but it’s these people, not industry peers, that bestow Fame – which all means little until some client wanting a trophy building asks their project manager “Who’s hot right now?”

Academia

Academia used to be a world largely separate from Industry and Media. Critical evaluations of buildings and architects existed in the form of academic research but the resultant publications existed more for the purpose of academic promotion than they did for general elucidation. Neverthelss, universities could still transmit a knowledge of what was important along with fostering a capacity for discerning it and hopefully some skills for how to realize it,

When universities call upon global architectural design practitioners to provide course content in the form of design workshops and modules, it is time to ask whether design problems are set to instil in students a capacity for critical thinking or to recreate themselves in their visiting instructor’s image. In addition to the kudos of being regarded as having something worth imparting, visiting practitioners also get to enthuse a pool of future interns.

The three divisions of (1) Global Architectural Design Practice, (2) Commercial Media, and (3) Academia still exist as discrete entities but their traditional interdependence has gone. The dominant players are the Global Architectural Design Practices that manage that own perception directly, but also indirectly via a parasitic media and a symbiotic academia that both know their place. There’s no jostling to occupy the same territory. It’s a stable ecosystem that has no place for criticism. 

WHERE WE’RE AT

Industry

The relationship between Industry and Media began to fall apart about when global architectural content providers discovered they could create their global architectural media presence themselves, circumvent traditional media channels and provide their own consistenly praiseworthy newsfeeds.

pasted-image-at-2016_05_13-01_38-pm_custom-e569ed62fa53ee379f151c4b80502f1af049787f-s900-c85.png

Content can be proposals or completed buildings for, even buildings not built or not built according to plan can still be used to illustrate how visionary architects are thwarted by short-sighted tightwad clients lacking imagination. One recent development is to do away with the idea of a building altogether since most any content can be presented as tangentially architectural in some sense. Impresssed, the targeted audience returns their adulation in the form of a quantifiable buzz assumed to be some metric of worth.

It’s bad enough that the end result is a virtual architecture of smoke and mirrors. What makes it worse is that it creates a public (1) that has no interest in architecture beyond its diversionary value as entertainment, (2) believes architecture is something that happens to other people and (3) has no expectation for it to ever impact their lives. This is the situation we have and it has mostly been created and maintained by those global architectural practices and their overbearing media presence. When bad, poor or lukewarm reviews become a thing of the past, criticism can no longer be said to exist.

Curating 

The selection and validation of things deemed worth contemplation involves the discarding and marginalization of things deemed not. Curating conventionally refers to this minimal critical act applied to collections of objects or art. The selection and juxtaposition of items was meant to suggest new ways of looking at the items in question, perhaps by revealing macro-similarities not apparent when things are considered in isolation or in chronological sequence. Curating was once confined to galleries, museums and exhibitions but now describes an edited sample of just about anything. [This blog, for example, can be thought of as a curated archive of architects who don’t fit the conventional narrative and, in that sense, is a criticism of that conventional narrative.] Curating has become the defining act of our young century, with companies and individuals “curating” their identities and selecting and disseminating information that reinforces how they wish to be perceived. Criticism still exists as self-criticism but only for the “curator”. The receiver of such curated content accepts it uncritically even while knowing it to be perception management, or what we used to call advertising. 

Media

A case for the continued existence of architecture critics is repeatedly made by saying that, in today’s media environment,

This however is no guarantee of uninterrupted and lasting worth.

The fact nobody seems to want criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed and there has been a slow but observable reaction. Michael Sorkin’s 8,000-word [sheesh!] Critical Mass: Why Criticism Matters, was a “Thinkpiece” in Architectural Review June 2014. The gist was that criticism still mattered, particularly when written by him. [c.f. Too Clever for Words]

This was followed, two years later, in December 2016 by Steve Parnell’s Post-truth Architectureanother Architectural Review “Thinkpiece” but a shorter and more lucid version of the same. I suspect the mindset that thinks good criticism must be paid for is the same that thinks good healthcare and good education must be paid for.

Academia

The built environment is an interesting thing and there’s no end of interesting things that can be written about it. Academic writing not finding its way into the academic journals can often be found in the subscription format of a review that allows people to write and read interesting things about architecture. Articles may be curated/edited around the theme of an introductory editorial but unless there is an editorial agenda more expansive than to merely inform, they remain bubbles of apparent discourse and an end in itself.

THE PLACE OF THE CRITIC

Steve Parnell’s notion that architecture is constructed in the discourse is an interesting one, but the critic is still expected to serve the architect who serves society, humanity, and so on. It remains up to the architects to do what they like with the fruit of that discourse. This stance differs little from that of Manfredo Tafuri who, in his 1967 essay The Tasks of Criticismsaw the role of the critic as subservient, offering the architect “an endless vista of new and unsolved problems”.

Tafuri was also against rogue critics attempting to directly engage the public with architectural ideas. I get the impression he had Reyner Banham in mind.

But if architects can have an agenda then why not critics? If talking about a building is taken to mean it’s worth talking about, then surely the ideas underlying a building can be talked about, and the building only used to illustrate the argument? Constructing and selling architectural ideas on the page and with the goal of improving the built environment seems like a reasonable and honourable thing to do. Moreover, in this age where everything is now supposed to be architecture, it also seems more valid than most. (I’ll not pursue this concept of “everything is architecture” further here – it’s not so much minefield but quicksand.)

Rather than expecting an essay fifty years old to illuminate the present, perhaps we should all be paying more attention and taking better notes so future people won’t have to guess at what went down now? Neoliberalism snuck up on us yet has been around since 1975, perhaps even since 1965. On whose watch was that? As architecture became bewitched with clients demanding trophy buildings and redevelopment and regeneration, we were all led to believe it was a good thing … until it wasn’t anymore. Critics were as complicit as architects. It’s more difficult than ever to see the forest.

What does all this mean for architecture? It is easier and faster to communicate images of buildings than it has ever been. We suffer a surfeit of images that, since nobody is pre-curating it, makes it impossible to process using even the simplistic criteria of “like” and the increasingly not-an-option “dislike”.

“When architects value image over substance, it’s easy to see why the likerati/dislikerati do as well. People are more sensitive to the purported content of architecture than architects and the people who write their press releases give them credit for. If architecture has become money-shot images of proposed realities, then people are free to like or dislike them as they feel, and to say so as they wish. There’s no need for opinions to be constrained by having any meaningful relationship with reality.  It’s all subjective reactions to images of proposed realities bouncing around in virtual space. Let’s keep it real.” [from Architecture Myths #16: Genius Loci]

This is all a bit of a shame, because the combination of reading, writing and criticism is the only way non-visual aspects of architecture can ever be accessed or discussed. 

You’re welcome.

• • •

  • * What’re the odds of that happening? A shout-out to theatre criticism blog http://criticalifragilistic.blogspot.ae  Readers keen to know more about the associations of this word could click here [Wikipedia] or here [YouTube]. I’m not suggesting they should.
  • The header image is of Giacommo Balla’s 1923 painting, Pessimism and Optimism – a name that makes the blue bits look like the force for the good. I’m not so sure. When everything’s a blue bit and the only choice is to like it or stay silent, the blue bits deserve every brick thrown at them.

pessimism-and-optimism-1923

SaveSave

Leave a Reply