Mark Lamster | Essays

The Architect & The Critic: An Epistolary Tale

A few weekends ago, while tooling about in search of the kind of castoff midmodern relics that those of my generation seem to covet, I came across the following collection of letters at an estate sale. I believe you will find they are quite telling with respect to the practices of both architecture and architectural criticism. In researching their provenance, I learned that X, the architect, was recently found dead, and the cause remains something of a mystery. [Due to an ongoing police investigation, I have been asked to redact all names in this correspondence.]

Dear M:

Let me just start by letting you know I've been a supportive reader of your criticism for some time now — your judgment of the confused circulation of [redacted]’s museum in [redacted] was I think appropriately lacerating — and my writing here should not suggest anything other than general admiration. Indeed, when I learned that you had been commissioned by [redacted] to review my recent project in [redacted], I was especially pleased; to have one’s work examined by a critic as perspicacious as yourself, not to mention one capable of such flights of poetry, is truly a gift. If there is to be no substantial criticism, how can one expect to progress as a professional, let alone advance the discipline? I consider it something of a tragedy that I typically find my office’s press releases lazily plagiarized and reprinted as news — I don’t blame the writers so much as our straightened culture, which has so reduced life to bare commodity that underfunded editors must vomit forth “content” endlessly, never mind quality or thought.

As it is, I thought I should correct a few errors of fact that appeared in your — what shall I call it, original? inventive? — essay on my recent project. First of all, you note (and I did detect some condescension here) that the building is “massed with all the subtlety of a housing project” and that its “warren of rooms on so many floors” will “poorly accommodate larger sculptural works once the present performance installation is removed.” Apparently you are operating under the misperception that this building is a museum. It is, in fact, a housing project — a mixed-income residential development, if we are to be technical about it — and I am sure you will agree this casts your comments about its massing and its disposition of spaces in a new light. Also, and I probably need not even write this, that was not a “performance installation.” Those were tenants.

Certainly your confusion is understandable. I know you are mostly asked to apply your considerable critical powers on museums and other major cultural facilities — and here I could insert a whole thesis analyzing why this is so, touching on power, money, politics, and glamour — and almost never on the public housing typology.

In any case, I thought you should know, and might recommend a correction in a forthcoming issue.  

With respect and admiration,


Dear X,

Thank you for your explanatory note, though I can assure you it was wholly unnecessary, and that, in fact, the confusion is not mine but yours. Being an architect, I know you are in general more comfortable working with images and not words, so your failure to comprehend not just the subtleties of my argument, but its very most basic and — so I thought — clearly articulated points, is certainly understandable.

Specifically, you seem to have missed entirely my fairly blatant metaphor of contemporary urban domesticity as a kind of Debordian spectacle necessitating a musealogical structural framework. As I am sure you will agree, the blame can hardly be placed on me for providing such a trenchant, conceptually rich commentary. I suppose it is also unfair to blame you, rather than the rather lax (to put it mildly) academic standards that seem so characteristic of professional architectural education, even at your very own alma mater, never mind its presence in the [redacted] League. I will have to send a note to my friend [redacted] at the accreditation board. In the meantime, I will try to use smaller words.

Otherwise, I am entirely in agreement regarding the savage state of our culture. It is criminal.



Dear M,

Your note leaves me wondering if you’ve recently been the victim of some unfortunate health setback, one likely entailing blunt force trauma to the cranial region and/or the prescription of Schedule I narcotics. That would of course clear up this entire situation.

As it is, I have been looking through some of your recent clippings and have noticed a few additional — how should I call them? — critical leaps? To wit:

-In the February issue of [Redacted], you refer to [redacted’s] 120-story office tower in Dubai as a “walkup.”
-In the March issue of [redacted], you refer to the “hatched lawn” and “weird ovular shape” of [redacted’s] new “concept restaurant.” It is a football stadium.  
-In the April issue of [redacted], you refer to [redacted’s] new museum in Shanghai as a “diced block of tofu in a chili-infused garlic sauce.”

I note, with some alarm, the increasingly fanciful nature of your analyses. I can only hope all is well?




Why do you continue to embarrass yourself? I am not sure what is less becoming to you, your utter lack of reading comprehension skill or what I now see is an ego inflated to the over-large dimensions of one of your housing projects — excuse me, “mixed-income residential developments.” Of course I am used to this, as both deficiencies are endemic among your professional colleagues. The architect: what an ungodly miasma of narcissistic grandiosity, utopian dementia, and confused pragmatism. That I have subjected myself to a life of terminal poverty in the service of exposing the typically mindless works of your confounded profession is a madness for which I blame myself daily. Is it any wonder that I feel compelled, now and again, to hew in a direction that is more conjectural than real? Of course not. But you would not understand. That is your curse. So please allow me my febrile moments of invention, as we are all stuck with your more prosaic ones.



Dear M:

After a quick Google search I now realize that your address is consonant with that of the [redacted] State Hospital for the Mentally Disabled. Perhaps I should have noticed this earlier, given the second line of your address, but I presumed, foolishly, that “Block 23, Ward 11, Room 212” was merely the numbering system of a fashionable new designer enclave, a kind of ironic appropriation of the low by the high that seems so commonplace these days. My bad. Parenthetically, I must wonder how you managed to visit my [redacted] project? On furlough? I will prefer not to think about this, but do ask that you refrain from future criticism of my work.

Wishing you a speedy recovery, if that is even possible,

Comments [8]

Is the picture connected with the text in some way? Based on the nastiness of the critic and the sincere questioning of the architect, I would side with the builder. Critics tend to jump from project to project without much humility, save a few exceptions. You better make a strong case if you want to tear down the work of someone who has actually BUILT something.
There seems to be a general disrespect for architects. Not every building is meant to be a master work of architecture, and there are many factors that have to be accounted for. But a little respect both ways would be nice.
Its funny that the critic can't take a little criticism. Dude should brush off a copy of the Fountainhead for a few lessons on the order of things.
R. Mackintosh

"Only connect." E. M. Forster.
The massive difference of opinion on Le Corbusier is a little like this collection of correspondence (which I am guessing can only be a satire.) Thanks for sharing it, Mark.
When I (an architect) read Le C's statement on walking thru the Villa Savoye - "You enter: the architectural spectacle at once offers itself to the eye; you follow an itinerary and the views develop with great variety; you play with the flood of light illuminating the walls or creating half-lights. Large windows open up views on the exterior where you discover again the architectural unity." - I connect immediately. It is exactly what I (we?) are after in our work.
On the other hand, a critic writing in the NYT recently ascribed to Le C the act of committing "crimes against humanity," largely, I believe, because of the unbuilt urban designs he published and promoted.
Two vastly different notions of one man, both true in their own ways.

Enjoyed reading this, made me think of Pixar's "Ratatouille" and its fine portraiture of most criticism, and of course, Peter Keating and Mr. Roark.
Mr. Downer

it seems to me that architectural criticism, a generic use of the term, is now dominated by the like button/tabloid splash headline of the online world and the analytical verbally complex writings that maybe more akin to a scientific paper.
there has been significant discussion about the value and expertise of critics such as McCoy and Muschamp. They perhaps wrote more for the local reader, a person who could perhaps actually experience the subject. who, more importantly, seemed to write about it in relation to themselves. what they experienced, felt, saw.
in this way architectural criticism is different to, say, literary criticism which can be relevant anywhere.


apologies to whomever had their (short) comment accidentally clipped while we were cleaning out spam. (but thanks for the nice comment.)

fwiw: that picture is connected to the text, and extra credit to whomever can figure out how....
Mark Lamster

looks like an early robot, sitting down with its legs in front on its chest
or the yellow one with 2 eyes

Great Caesar's Ghost, I'd know my great, great Uncle M's prose anywhere. The 1970s postcard of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center is -- considering its color balance -- a *yellow* herring. Uncle M was at the Payne Whitney Clinic on East 68th Street, and died before its 1996 demolition. Photographic records forthcoming.
Walter Dufresne

A gold star to you Mr. Dufresne, and our sympathies on the passing of your dear uncle.
Mark Lamster

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