On Criticism 2: Common Sense with a Little Bit of Style

To respond to Andrew’s question — What is the state of architecture criticism? — we first need to look at where we are in terms of architecture. I agree, the “Bilbao Ponzi era” is over. Starchitecture has, like some hurtling supernova, burned itself out. What remains? An era of infrastructure, of “fix it first,” of sustainability. But who is going to write about these new concerns?

When I think about architecture criticism, I think of two poles represented by my two favorite critics: Jane Jacobs and Herbert Muschamp. Jane promoted common-sense principles and ideas. You shouldn’t put a highway through the middle of SoHo; a street with broken windows looks unsafe and thus will encourage crime. Herbert, on the other hand, championed risk-taking — in architecture, in writing, in life. He compared Richard Meier’s Perry Street Condos to Hitchcock blondes; in his defense of preserving the old Huntington Hartford museum he asked us to remember Henry Geldzahler, lacy underwear, swanky taste and Singapore slings. The only problem was that architecture and Herbert were twinned in their teleology of fabulousness.

And so now we’re back to Earth. We started this conversation thinking about Ada Louise Huxtable’s collected writings, and I keep looking at that picture of Ada Louise perched on a settee. She looks like a decent middle ground — chic enough, but serious, too. I usually advocate for extremes, but at the moment I’ll call for this compromise: a fantastic marriage of Jane and Herbert (both dead!). Someone advocating for common sense in architecture, but with a bit of style.

Architecture criticism has become too much of a discussion of form and ability, and not enough about context. We wouldn’t dare call Jane Jacobs an “architecture critic” now — but she wrote about how buildings function in a society. What Jane and Herbert didn’t do was write about architects. They both used the built environment to comment on how it symbolized something more profound about society. As architecture criticism has been pushed further to the outskirts of regular arts coverage, we architecture critics can’t further isolate the discussion by writing solely about an architect’s talent or a particular building’s aesthetics. Maybe it will no longer be a matter of choice. How can we write about singularity in this time of populism and interconnectedness?


This is the second in an ongoing series of posts that ponders the state of architecture criticism. To read all posts on this topic, please click here.

As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Diana Lind is a 2011 fellow at Van Alen Institute where she helped develop the ideas competition Life at the Speed of Rail. She is also the author of Brooklyn Modern: Architecture, Interiors & Design. Connect on Twitter @dianalindindex.

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