On Criticism 3: What’s at Stake in Criticism

One night recently I took my three-year-old daughter to Cypress Hills, Brooklyn for a Dept. of Ed. hearing in a stifling basement with autopsy-grade lighting, and it got me thinking about how we urban-design writers work.

The nonprofit where my wife works had a stake in the hearing, and I’d wanted our daughter to sense the excitement of city politics, so I brought her out on the elevated J train. When she got restless, she asked: “Why am I here?” I told her she should clap along with the chanting, which she cheerfully did. Parents and politicians came to this dreary room, as they reliably do, to state their case and then hunt for an equitable resolution. I hope one day she feels how profoundly such meetings matter. But what will she understand about my work?

You’d expect those of us who “see” urban design to highlight projects that foster dialogue and blunt climatic calamity. Yet too often we acclaim renderings that airbrush conflicts out of urban scenes – like Rem Koolhaas’ mischievous new midrise, or Steven Holl’s constellation-like Shenzen experiment. Who will flag insidious design choices — like the temperature in that basement — and challenge them?

Urban design is “good” when it makes public space vibrant and makes efficient engineering seem exalted. 20 years from now, my daughter may ask why we let storm surges swallow Coney Island or let the Bronx’s waste-burning dumps shackle a generation with asthma. So I want to highlight designs that guide city residents to face each other and reuse natural resources. I’d hate to tell her that architects’ sublime renderings or elegant wording let me forget why we’re all here.

This is the third 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.

Alec Appelbaumwrites about how cities can become greener and fairer for the New York Times, the Architect’s Newspaper and others. He lives on the Lower East Side.

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