Everybody's a Critic

Over at Urban Omnibus, Diana Lind reports on Critical Futures #3, an event at Storefront that I was unfortunately unable to attend. If I had attended, I probably would have said something on the nature of the following. 

There's a constant and sustained rhetoric of crisis among architecture critics now. Roughly summed up, there seems to be a sense that something has gone wrong in criticism—some people think that critics are too reactionary and mean spirited, others seem to think that they are in bed with architects—that blogs are a threat because of their peculiar obsessions (although what these may be never seems to be clearly stated), and that all this must be fixed.

I'll play puzzled for a minute. When was this golden age of criticism. Was it in the 1970s when architecture critics typed their columns on typewriters in Philip Johnson's office? The days of Montgomery Schuyler? When was it? And how are these mysterious bloggers to blame? Bldgblog seems to be invoked from time to time but to blame Geoff Manaugh is a category error. Geoff writes about architecture, but he has his own take on it which has less to do with contemporary criticism and more to do with creating a particular vision of architecture that is studiously idiosyncratic and extends much beyond the boundaries of the discipline. If every now and again he might get excited about a building, I hardly see him as a critic in the traditional sense, any more than I see Things Magazine as a critic. In contrast, we have blogs like Enrique Ramirez's Aggregat 4 5 6, Owen Hatherley's Sit Down, Man You're a Bloody Tragedy, Charles Holland's Fantastic Journal, Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest, Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes's Mammoth and Mimi Zeiger's Loud Paper. These are the blogs I read regularly (I'm sure I've omitted a few and I apologize). Indeed, these are the writers on architecture that I read regularly. All have particular, distinctive voices. Although two (Owen and Mimi) also write criticism, I regard them more as writers who occasionally have to keep themselves fed by writing about buildings. If there's a long list of blogs that I should be reading and I'm not, please enlighten me. There's archinect, but that's less a blog these days and more a news source coupled with a forum.

What interests me about all of the above blogs is that they situate architecture within a broader context. Disciplinarity is dying at a rapid clip. I suspect the lament is partly a reaction to the end of disciplinarity. We are losing our ability to talk about architecture on its own terms. On its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many of my readers—and many of the critics out there today—are too young to remember the bad old days of the early 1990s when architects mumbled ill-informed nonsense about Derrida* and showed random squiggles during their lectures that were supposed to be about the emptiness of nothing. Those were bad days, supposedly the days of disciplinarity. We don't want to go back there.

But speaking of the 90s, I think that what we are experiencing now is a crisis akin to that which critical theory went through in that decade. These conferences and articles (typically blog posts, thus reminding me of Johannes Trithemius's De Laude Scriptorum) are attempts to work through, or mourn the death of traditional criticism. We no longer live in an era in which people want to be told what to think. Those days are over and the old Bourdouvean critique no longer works so easily. Critics are something like travel critics today, largely serving to get buildings on the front page of papers, validating the next work of must-see starchitecture. It'd be great if they could have an impact on the generally shoddy quality of work that passes for advanced design today, but it's unlikely On the whole, however, the practice of describing a buliding in print is obsolete. Under network culture, everybody's a critic. 

People just aren't interested in traditional criticism anymore. That's something that critics will need to get used to, just as historians of architecture have had to get used to the idea that there are precious few positions in that profession left anymore (starting a Ph.D.? do you have a particular angle or hook? perhaps a large trust fund?). Coupled with the destruction of ad-based revenue for newspapers and magazines that has led to mass butchery of editorial staffs and you have the reason for the crisis of criticism. Just don't blame the bloggers. They're not playing the same game.  

*Note well. I am a big fan of Derrida.


I think that some people are

I think that some people are still interested in the traditional criticism of full-time professional working for major print publications. Journalists still have a lot of power to form and direct the wider attitudes and conversation around architects and buildings--and sometimes this is not eroded by blogging, but magnified by it.

I think part of the problem is that several of the individuals who hold such positions currently are, as someone put it just last week across Twitter, "embarrassingly fulsome" in their reviews of buildings. Their coverage lauds the global celebrities exclusively, drooling over every new building, or even, every new rendering, without offering even the mildest scold or ignoring the larger economic and political milieux in which the building was realized. Forgive if I'm not calling out specific names, but its really beside the point.

In Literary criticism, which I feel is still showing a pulse, a major publication's review of a bestselling author's latest release or a young grad's debut novel is far more likely to contain specific and extended discussion of the writer's faults and mistakes, even when it is abundantly clear that the critic adores the work and recommends it highly. Over in the architectural realm, we are at the level of Entertainment Tonight covering the Red Carpet: Who are you wearing? Is the main line of questioning.

I read lots of blogs and I really enjoy them, especially when they critically dissect the Starchitect phenomenon. Douglas Murphy blogging at Entschwindet & Vergeht offers an occasional brilliant example of polemically examining flashy new buildings and the ways they are marketed. But lots of bloggers don't feel any need to meet a public good by being regular critics, and I don't see blogging as eclipsing traditional criticism, unless professional critics continue to see the task as solely one of hagiography.

Thinking back to the pieces I

Thinking back to the pieces I wrote about public universities and celebrity buildings here and here, I think we need to ask who pays the critics and why. I have never, ever heard anybody besides architects say that they read a paper because of a critic. If the Arts & Leisure section of the paper encourages the idea that the paper really offers fully-rounded coverage, great, but it's increasingly unsustainable in an era of death by a thousand cuts.

So if you ran a big-city newspaper why would you maintain an architecture critic? The answer is simple: because you can use it for your own political motives vis-à-vis other institutions in the city (museums, corporations, the city, etc.). The stakes are different in literary criticism, moreover people are still more interested in reading actual criticism of a book. It's much more of a time committment to sit down and read something. I will have to check out Douglas Murphy's writing. Sounds very interesting. Thanks!  

Thanks for bringing some

Thanks for bringing some clarity to an incredibly longwinded and rather bewildering debate.

A key distinction to me is between criticism and writing. There's no automatic audience for architectectual criticism outside the academy. But there is, and always has been, an audience looking for good writing. That writing can be on architecture or an architectural theme, at which point it might classify as architecture criticism, and fair play to it. Blogs of course give a single writer the ability to range freely over whatever themes they care to address (unless they impose restrictions on themselves). This only appears to alarm the people who say "We must produce Criticism! Why are these people not producing Criticism?" Perhaps these people have mistaken criticism for automatic relevance. Schoolboy error!

(Also, Sam and Charles both do regularly write criticism, for us and in other places; it tends to be books and media rather than buildings, but still, it's always rewarding reading.)

I should also note that there

I should also note that there are editors like yourself who seek broader perspectives for their readership by soliciting contributions from historians, curators, practicing architects, and others. Of critical works, those are among the most interesting to me. 

I should also note that there

I should also note that there are editors like yourself who seek broader perspectives for their readership by soliciting contributions from historians, curators, practicing architects, and others. Of critical works, those are among the most interesting to me.