Alexandra Lange | Essays

Criticism Kerfuffle 2010

Image: "The New Establishment" by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint (via BLDGBLOG).

I am torn about entering Criticism Kerfuffle 2010, entered in the pages of Blueprint and posts at BLDGBLOG, Words in Space and as of yesterday, Urban Omnibus. (You have to read all the way down in the comments of BLDGBLOG and Words in Space to get the dialogue, but I did find it all interesting and possibly productive.) The Twittersphere seems tired of it. There's fair, if not universal, agreement that more and more thoughful criticism would indeed be a good thing, even if some people are looking for it in the wrong places, and other people think it might be dead as form.

But since several parties linked to my writings on Nicolai Ouroussoff and architecture blogging in the archives, and I wrote a long piece on the state of architecture criticism for the Winy Maas-edited edition of Architecture d'Aujourd'hui this summer, I feel I have to say something.

I laughed at this tweet from @sevensixfive: "Is that blueprint thing that everybody's upset about even on the web? No? So what's the big deal?" My AA piece, "Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?" was not online, and I truly do not know if any living soul read it, in French or English. Zero feedback has become unnerving. Design Observer has posted the text in my archive, so you can read it if you so desire. Such is the world of architecture blogging that written in May, published in July, and about the USA for a European audience, it already seems dated.

There are a couple of points from it  I wanted to bring forward. The first is a pre-echo of this from Diana Lind on Urban Omnibus:
To my mind, the reason why there isn’t more of Peter Kelly’s kind of writing is that there aren’t enough places where one can make a living writing about architecture. There are probably fewer than a dozen people who make a living in the United States writing about architecture (and don’t get the majority of their incomes through editing, teaching or consulting). The problem, in other words, isn’t that Geoff Manaugh is a popular blogger, but that the vision of Peter Kelly’s ideal critic isn’t economically feasible these days.
In AA I wrote:
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...

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.
The blogosphere is perfect for the critical swarm, but (and I know this is not a bloggy POV) there still need to be arbiters to whittle down that swarm. We may want more critics, but do we really care to follow more than a max of 10?
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.
It's hard to find the time or place for any part of that old career trajectory. And yet Lind ends her post with, "Anyone else inspired to answer this call to action?"

That's what I have been trying to do since I started my blog on Tumblr last year (the archives are all now on DO), and my hope for this new Observers Room blog: that it be mostly a forum for the kind of architecture criticism I want to read. That's why Mark Lamster and I started the Lunch With the Critics gig. So far I think I have been most successful in pursuing parks, since I can go to them in my free time. The bottom line, at the end of the endless comments, and the Tweeting, and the kerfuffle, is that there are people — and lots of people besides me — trying to write their way to a future of architecture criticism. But obviously we still need some maps.

Posted in: Media, Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [7]

I have to admit that I just got on twitter about two months ago and before that rarely read more than a few blogs due to an intensive 9-5, so I am just beginning to assess the field again after having been dormant for the past two years. That said, I'm really glad to read your writing Alexandra! Been enjoying getting acquainted with your work. So for the record, I didn't mean to diminish the work already out there or in the pipeline, but to advocate for more change at the old establishment level and maybe spur some of the other dormant, new establishment critics (of which there are many) to get writing again.
Diana Lind

I too am hesitant to enter the fray. One reason is that I am namechecked in Kelly's article, and I am not ready to use my website to justify my writing when I can just let my work speak for itself (and for all its errors, lapses in thinking, and overall roughness). However, instead of identifying and choosing sides, it is probably better to use this "kerfuffle" to improve architecture discourse in general. And this means all aspects of it, whether it be historical analysis, criticism of contemporary architecture, or even contextualization.
Enrique Ramirez

I guess I'm not hesitant to enter the fray. First off, this kerfuffle could have been had ages ago, but complacent architecture journalists and writers for some reason couldn't see or didn't want to see the proverbial writing on the wall. Second, I for one have no sentimentality for the old schools of criticism. Let's let go of it! That was for the most part a world of privilege and selectivism that manufactured the enablers of urban renewal, gentrification, bland/complicit business design, branding, greenwash, and so on.

Most "successful" (paid) architecture critics are around (or were around) to know their own place in the food chain and not question it. We just watched a decade go by of some of the most high-design/most-braindead (and apolitical) architecture happen. I don't celebrate the loss of journalism jobs, but simply more of the same is not a good answer.

Finally, if the situation is that criticism "could disappear back into the academy", then maybe that's not entirely such a bad thing. Academics do blog (for lack of a better verb), and increasingly more will provide material for web publication. The idea that the academy is an enclosed ivory tower is about as true as the idea that criticism "back in the day" was positive for architecture. Neither one of those is correct. However, if it's appalling how little journalism as a whole has paid attention to the demolition of public education, the architecture establishment's deafening silence to the vivisection of architecture schools is abhorrent. And that's going to be one of the real causes of criticism's demise, not Geoff Manaugh or any other strawman blogger.
Javier Arbona

Print is dead (long live print!)... things are different now. I also miss Ada Louise Huxtable along with Herbert Muschamp, both represented a high water mark of excellent writing about architecture.
I agree with the need to fill the void with intelligent, principled and constructive criticism yet the ubiquity of the 24/7 online chattering makes it ever more difficult to cull the chaff from the wheat, which is why I read Design Observer in the first place.
So the hope is that certain voices will rise to the top through the winnowing process of the web.
Al Doyle

Pardon, but I am so weary of all these words lavished on criticism of the critics. Do you have any idea how little editors care about design and architecture? How easy it would be for them to siphon off the last dollars reserved for covering your work to spend on more television or celebrity stories? The thoughtful journalists whose work you decry are valiantly focusing public attention on the potential for excellence and the power of developers to shape our world. This thankless task is essential if we are to preserve a culture beyond 'Dancing With the Stars.' The person, the voice, matters less than the platform. So value our Huxtables and Ouroussoffs and Heathcotes while we still have them. Meantime, I implore you: Spend time designing something worth writing about instead of griping about the few people still employed to write about your work. Onward!
Linda Hales

I dream of a day when design writers can once again write about what we want without everything turning into a thinly veiled "print vs. blogs" debate.

All I can say is that it's a good thing that writers who embrace blogs and online media are much more positive people. I would want to crawl in a hole if I truly believe that the voice matters less than the platform. I may be deranged, but I believe in the future of design writing and look forward to being a part of it.

Alexandra, thanks for doing something about it, rather than being one of those people who just talks about doing something.
Chappell Ellison

I have to disagree with Linda. Treating architectural journalists with kid gloves because we don't want them to lose their jobs isn't going to help the discipline. Just because Time Magazine discusses architecture doesn't mean its good for architecture.

Like any good journalist, an architecture critic can pose difficult questions. They can challenge architects and make us work harder. This is to our benefit.

The problem is not simply the lack of serious architectural critics, they exist. The problem is that they don't attract enough readers for the major media players to care.
Jeremy Levine

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