Architecture Criticism: Why Should We Care? 3

Monday, May 11th, 2015
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Architecture criticism has certainly raised a ruckus lately.

After Bingler’s and Pedersen’s December 2014 piece in the New York Times, entitled How to Rebuild Architecture, a few others have weighed in.

Critic Aaron Betsky lamented that the New York Times has abandoned “serious criticism,” with their “recent descent into know-nothing, cliché-ridden reviews of architecture,” which included a ding on the How to Rebuild Architecture article.

One of Zaha Hadid’s followers, Patrik Schumacher, blasted critics for “star bashing,” saying “The denunciation of architectural icons and stars is itself superficial and ignorant.”

Frank Gehry himself has also participated, saying that “98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s***.”

Admittedly, all persons noted so far are public figures of one sort or another, eager to grab readers’ attention. They might ratchet up the indignation here and there because, well, it sounds better.

More recently, architect and author Lance Hosey picked up the baton and addressed Betsky’s idea of “serious criticism” in architecture. With help from numerous other architecture critics, Hosey penned The 7 Lamps of Architecture Criticism for the Huffington Post. The title is a nod to the 1849 book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, by English art critic John Ruskin.

According to Hosey and his contributors, “serious criticism” has seven qualities. Serious criticism is:

  • Principled – a critic should be “fair, ethical, and empathetic,” according to Cathy Lang Ho, the original editor-in-chief of The Architect’s Newspaper.
  • Plausible – criticism must encompass both the mind and the heart. “Emotion doesn’t trump reason,” says Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects. “Passion will drive a lot, but it’s not all there is.”
  • Placed – “Good architecture criticism understands context, be it social, economic, environmental, or cultural,” noted Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis. “Design without these connections is a hollow exercise in styling.”
  • Persuasive – “The critic has to build a persuasive case–brick by brick,” said Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record.
  • Passionate – a critic “must have a passion and ambition that extends beyond simply taking stock of the latest tower,” declared John King of The San Francisco Chronicle.
  • Provocative – critics must be “daring,” Ho said, “rallying for practices that contribute to a more equitable and sustainable world.”
  • Public – architectural criticism is “a service profession,” according to Michael Sorkin, former critic for The Village Voice, whose role is to “assess and promote the positive effects architecture can bring to society and the wider world.”

But what’s the point of it all? According to Hosey, serious architecture criticism is “a vital topic, since architecture critics often shape public opinion as much as architects themselves do, if not more so.”

Criticism of architecture runs the gamut, from people who appreciate the grandiose – like the signature works of high-profile architects such as Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid – to those who prefer the forms with which they’re familiar and who specifically decry the works of those high-profile architects. Prince Charles, for example, is clearly in this latter camp and who’s to say that he doesn’t have a point?

Betsky, in contrast, says “Starchitecture is not the real problem. Bad buildings are.” Those bad buildings come from, he said, “the anonymous firms that truly dominate the field, and whose equally faceless buildings are dumb uses of resources that dumb down our cities and the building’s occupants both.”

Somewhere in between the traditional and the avant garde, there also is a quite practical and professional bent among many practitioners. Some readers of Architect Magazine, the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, have displayed remarkable judgment that bridges the gap between the nostalgic and grandiose. Many readers offer insightful commentary of their own.

Reader Douglas Rhodes noted that some works from high-profile architects “seem to stand alone as an ‘objet d’art’ rather than relating to the cityscape or natural world and her systems. The human scale seems to be lost in many of these projects. Is the influence of the computer allowing Architecture to become so indifferent to the functions of the earth and its people? Are these buildings going to be relevant in the future?”

Fellow reader Tim Culvahouse, meanwhile, posits that buildings can be considered on two axes: good/bad and ordinary/non-ordinary. He observed that critic Betsky “lumps all ordinary buildings in the lower left-hand box—bad and ordinary—as if the two characteristics are synonymous. The most important set—the good and ordinary—is neglected; yet this is where we should be putting our energy.” He continued, saying “There is a place for non-ordinary buildings—those of Hadid, Gehry, and the like—but it is a mistake to imagine that they can serve as a model for most buildings.”

Katie Chaunier, another reader, observed that “if the ego of the architect is blinded to the actual function of the building, its relationship to the environment, and mostly importantly how it serves its occupants, the building is a failure to all except for the less than 1% so called elites, and their fans, the critics such as Aaron Betsky. That, to me, is the essence of being “self-serving and culturally insensitive”.

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  1. Steve Ryder

    Interesting piece.

    I find the point about the ego of the architect particularly interesting, in that, it sometimes gets an unfair bashing while the ego of the critic gets away scott free.

    Architecture critics are a strange beast, as our film critics and art critics.

    They love to tell us what we should like. And more importantly they are also scared to praise the mainstream.

    Stimulate debate, sure. Give us an opinion, no problem. But is serious architecture criticism “a vital topic, since architecture critics often shape public opinion as much as architects themselves do, if not more so," I am not so sure.

  2. Harold Lee

    Architecture criticism like art criticism is just a hustle – how anyone can make a career writing florid prose about buildings and paintings is beyond me.

  3. Will Danson

    Betsky assumes that "starchitecture" and "bad buildings" are different things…?