Three Complaints About Architectural Criticism

In enquiring into the state, role, and purpose of architectural criticism in Australia, the reader swiftly notes a widespread belief that it is in a state of crisis. Local commentators commonly complain that Australian architectural criticism is “not critical enough”, and that it is characterized by mild, politely descriptive, aesthetic or formalist approaches. Springing from this are a whole string of further assumptions—that critics are not sufficiently objective, that they are biased by their own connections within the small and close-knit architectural community, that they are complicit with the commercial bias of the journals, that they are timid and afraid of litigation, and that for all of these reasons architectural criticism is as nauseatingly sycophantic as it is irrelevant and ineffectual. This criticism of criticism is part of a particular contemporary sensibility—part cynicism and part knowing resignation, it disdains any naive hope for something better. It also tends to be lazy—it is easy to sit on the fence, but much harder to propose a way forward. So rather than blithely going along with the idea that criticism is in a state of crisis, it is both more interesting and more productive here to consider the assumptions and beliefs that these assertions are based upon.

Architectural criticism depends upon architectural practice—this statement is so obvious as to seem silly. The reverse idea, however, that architectural practice also “depends upon” architectural criticism, is more contentious. The common impulse would be to say that no, architectural criticism is a kind of supplementary activity that takes place outside the margins of true architectural practice, it is always excess and therefore redundant. However, I would argue that architectural criticism is useful in itself: it contributes significantly to a lively and thoughtful architectural culture. It is a tangible way in which the history and theory of architecture can be rigorously located in current architectural practice, and it is a central and invaluable tool in architectural education—in the basic teaching of design, as well as in the production of reflexive, informed, and discerning professional graduates. Indeed, the apparent crisis in architectural criticism might also spring from the profoundly mixed, and even contradictory nature of architectural practice itself. Architecture is an art but, unlike the other arts with their established critical and interpretative traditions, it is also useful. This tension between the demands of art and the demands of functionality also raises a fundamental question about the set of criteria chosen for critical evaluation.

This observation opens a series of more general philosophical questions: what is the actual function of criticism? Does architectural criticism exist in a continuum with other forms of criticism, or is it a sub-section or counterpart of architectural practice? Does architectural criticism actually contribute to better buildings, and if so, how? And do architects read criticism anyway, or do they just look at the pictures? (This is not facetiousness: in some cases, the images are indeed better, more informative, and easier to “read” than the obtuse and hyper-theorized, or flat and dourly descriptive, text.) Such questions are perhaps unanswerable, but they are worth contemplating here.

Of course, as an academic and practicing critic, I would naturally believe that criticism is a valuable and worthwhile activity, that critics are not the embittered parasitical nitpickers that they are sometimes made out to be, and that criticism itself can be a productive and creative practice, which is literary but also specifically architectural. More than this, I would like to think that architecture and architectural criticism are bound in a reciprocal and mutually constructive relationship, where each contributes in its own way to the other. But is there really a crisis at all? In order to attempt an answer to this question, the essay will now turn to three of the most often repeated complaints about architectural criticism.

Architectural criticism as ‘not critical enough’. There is a pervasive belief abroad that criticism is only ever rigorous and true if it is negative. In fact, the etymological origins of the word “criticism” relate more to discernment, disinterested judgment, and the ability to make distinctions, than to actual fault-finding. Nevertheless, in its everyday usage the word has become synonymous with negativity, with pulling things apart; and there remains a common belief that even the most insightful and incisive criticism does not count as adequately “critical” if it comes to an ultimately positive conclusion. There is a curious masochism, or at least a deep sense of suspicion, to this sensibility that insists on recasting critical praise as obsequiousness. Perhaps, in some ways, this is a good thing—it is surely true that things are almost always more complex, and possibly more politically and economically grubby, than they first appear, so a certain skepticism is surely healthy. But it is also rather sad that enthusiasm or praise is read as a sign of naivety or weakness on the part of the critic. It also attests to a kind of readerly bloodlust, a belief that critics should be fearless—either lambs sent naively to the slaughter or willing martyrs to the cause.

Architects seem happy to see their colleagues publicly lambasted: the “outrage” page in the UK’s The Architectural Review is often cited as an example of criticism that is appropriately “strong”. And sure enough, it can be very entertaining to read the rhetorical demolition of a bad building. When it comes to their own work, however, architects remain astonishingly sensitive and precious, and given to vicious counter-attack. Likewise, from the critic’s point of view, there is undoubtedly a certain frisson in nastiness, and a righteous satisfaction in condemning bad work. But it would be a cold and steely critic indeed who did not take the feelings and opinions of the architect into account in their writing, whether they are personally acquainted or not. Making public denigrations of a building can be as stressful and wrenching for the critic as it is for the architect, although, of course, in different ways.

The assumption that criticism in Australia is not critical enough also draws an inherent distinction between criticism—seen to be a deeply incisive and fundamentally negative activity—and commentary or reviewing. This distinction is not specific to architecture, and is perhaps best illustrated in film—a film review provides a synopsis of the plot, some description of the film’s salient features and, most fundamentally, an explicit recommendation to the reader whether the film is worth spending time and money on seeing. Film criticism, on the other hand, has a larger agenda. It seeks to open broader questions and draw broader conclusions, to place the work within the directors’ oeuvre, the specific history of film, and the larger history of culture, as well as making a judgment of its significance within these wider contexts. Reviewing has a specific, instrumental purpose—a book review helps you decide whether the book is worth buying. In architecture there is the complication that in most cases the building already exists in the world and has already, as it were, been “bought”.

Architectural criticism almost always happens after the fact, when the building (good or otherwise) is already a fait accompli. This leaves the critic in a difficult position—in the interests of being productive, there seems little point in railing against something that is already done and finished. Of course bad work can be seen as a warning of what should be avoided in the future, just as good work should be emulated. There is also a strong argument that architectural criticism should concern itself with unbuilt schemes, with drawings and ideas and competitions, because it is there that it has the potential to make a direct effect on the design outcome. Architectural criticism also has a role in educating the public into a better understanding of the built environment, which should lead to better architecture through a better-informed client base. Generally speaking, there is a sense of futility in criticism that does not project itself to the future.

Architectural criticism as ineffectual and irrelevant. Of all the complaints that are leveled against architectural criticism today, one seems to have a particular, and rather depressing, ring of truth. This is the idea that the problems of the built environment are so overwhelming and dire, that the vast majority of the total of buildings constructed are so bad, and indeed so actively harmful, that if criticism restricts itself to ineffectual commentary on a few notable, largely inner-urban projects, and passes over the worst excesses of the built environment in silence, then it is akin to re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But this does also raise an interesting idea: that criticism itself is a kind of honorific activity—that even to be lambasted is a kind of praise, a recognition that the work in question is worthy of note. Likewise, if a work is ignored by the critics, this can be seen as an implicit snub, a form of approbation. Embedded within this is an idea of architecture defined in opposition to building. A building only qualifies as “architecture”, and therefore becomes open to serious critical evaluation, if it embodies a sufficient level of “art”. The denomination “architecture” carries a judgment of value and worth by definition.

In spite of this, one need only travel to the outer suburbs of any Australian city to see that architecture is not winning the battle for quality, whether measured according to commodity, firmness, or delight. In fact, in the face of such pressing problems, architectural practice itself is marginalized enough, and criticism only compounds this. And, when enacted on aesthetic grounds, criticism seems even more laughably irrelevant and ineffective.

But there is a hypocrisy here—on the one hand architectural criticism, particularly in conjunction with the commercial journals, is condemned for its apparent fixation on heroic form and grand gestures, yet on the other hand few people are actually interested in reading about visually or formally bland buildings. Likewise, architects may complain about the prevalence of eye-goggling glamour photography in the magazines, but most still insist on having their own buildings photographed in their best light and from their best angle. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but if the journals are in fact constrained by an ultimately commercial imperative, then architects (and critics) would do well to examine their own commercial “bias”, especially the exploitation of journals as a form of cheap publicity. This brings us neatly to the question of objectivity.

Architectural criticism as ‘not objective enough’. The traditional view is that the critic stands in objective judgment of the work, evaluates and assesses it, weighs it against a set of criteria either stated or unstated, and pronounces it good or bad. This conception is predicated on the possibility of absolute value in architecture—the possibility that if a sufficiently authoritative and expert critic could be found they could make a true and final judgment of a building, and of where it sits on the grand, a-historical scale that is the architectural canon. This criticism would, in turn, be written in a “universal” voice, as a series of incontrovertible statements. The idea of critical objectivity also extends to the notion that the critic her or himself must be sufficiently “distant” from the work, preferably being an expert but disinterested bystander. This is partly why academics are commonly seen as particularly suitable critics—because they are seen to be less enmeshed within the complex webs of friendship, alliance and rivalry that condition the architectural profession.

These webs of complicity extend to the forums in which criticism is published. In order to be truly critically autonomous, so the logic goes, such a forum must be independent of any implicit or explicit obligation—to audience, architects, advertisers, patrons, or whomever—because any such relationship will result in self-censorship. Accordingly, the commercial journals are argued to perpetuate an architectural “star-system”, a kind of nepotistic “boys club”, where the self-promotion of the architect matters more than the quality of the work. In such a conception, the only winners are the “favored circle” of big-name “starchitects”, and architecture degenerates into fashion and commodity fetish. Many aspects of this attitude are questionable, but clearly they all stem from an idea that criticism is only true if it is objective. But this in turn is problematic; the unswerving belief that objectivity is good —or even possible—and that the role of criticism is impartial judgment, should be open and subject to question.

For one thing, it is now a truism that a human subject has certain attitudes and values, which are more a product of their time, place and culture than of themself as an individual. No one approaches architecture with a clean slate: the critic and layperson alike come with a whole array of preconceptions and prejudices—that is, pre-judgments. I would argue that such prejudices are not only inevitable, but they are vital to the interest and value of a given critic’s position and voice. The important distinction is not between objective and subjective critics, but between critics who are explicit about and aware of their biases, and a less reflexive critical practice that leaves its criteria and its assumptions unstated. More than this, the idea that there could ever be absolute objectivity and guaranteed certainty in judgment, is in fact a metaphysical concept, perhaps even a theological one. This in itself is not necessarily a problem, so long as it is recognized as an ideological position. As soon as the role of criticism and the critic is recast from one of judgment to one of interpretation, a substantial and significant shift takes place.

Evaluation is not the only, or even the most important purpose of criticism; critics also interpret, they articulate and identify the significance of architecture. Critics are engaged in the construction of meaning and discourse, in a way analogous to the construction of built form in architectural practice. Criticism is also a translation—it relocates and reconstructs the architectural object through language, and in so doing it re-creates that object anew. This brings us to the relationship between the practice of architecture and the practice of architectural criticism.

What is good criticism? It sometimes seems that architects regard critics as blood-sucking ghouls with no talent of their own who take out their frustrated architectural ambitions on the efforts of those who are actually out there doing it. The hoary old chestnut that those who can, do and those who can’t, teach (or write criticism) still holds a sting. But the fact is that the skills and talents required to be a good architect and those required to be a good architectural critic, while they have a degree of overlap, are quite different. And it must be said that architects, no matter how brilliant they may be, are not always the best people to interpret their own work. On a very basic level, architects are often so frantically busy getting things built that there is little time left for reflection, for thinking long and hard about what their buildings might mean. Critics, on the other hand, do have the time—or at least are obliged to make the time—to engage in such detailed consideration. This provides a hint as to the possibilities of the relationship that might arise between the architect and the critic—a good critic can teach the architect things about their own building, things which they haven’t realized, haven’t noticed, and even, significantly, haven’t intended.

Of the best critics writing in Australia today, some are architects and some are academics; there is no monopoly or franchise on the skill, and few if any of these figures have received formal training in criticism. But their work has significant commonalities. The best critics are informed, they have a body of knowledge—whether about architectural practice, history, theory, or some other thing—and they bring this knowledge to bear upon a work of architecture. In this way they read the work as an exemplar of larger issues and discourses, identifying and locating them in the architectural object, while also placing it within a broader framework of analysis and a larger context. The critical process thus simultaneously spirals inwards and expands outwards from the work. A good critic is then able to write about architecture—and also, crucially, about the critical process itself—in an engaging, insightful, clear, and eloquent manner. They open a project to a wider audience, as well as to a wider interpretation, and are able to pitch their critique appropriately to the forum, medium and audience for which it is intended.

Conclusion:

It remains to be seen whether architectural criticism in Australia is actually in crisis at all, and if so, why this is the case, and what might be done about it. But it is my suspicion that there is in fact no crisis, or at least that the level of crisis at present is the same as it ever was, or even that this so-called “crisis” is in fact a productive and necessary tension, one which reflects the larger, historically unstable equilibrium between theory and practice, the academy and the profession, architectural discourse and architectural materialization.

Buildings are objects in the world which have a life beyond their creator’s intentions. It is not the role of criticism to explicate the intentions of the architect, nor to measure the building against those intentions, but rather to make an original and constructive interpretation of the work. Architecture will always need interlocutors to speak of and for it, to analyze and describe and evaluate it. These interlocutors are architects, certainly, but they are also critics, and both have a crucial role to play in architectural culture.

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