Every building, indeed every project of urban or landscape design, is a response to a multitude of questions, some intrinsic to the specifics of site, program and economics, others more general to the profession’s internal discourse and still others to the culture at large. It is the first job of the critic to list and elucidate for a larger, non-professional public what those questions are; then to ask how, and how well, the project responds to those questions. Finally, the critic must ask what value those questions have in a larger context and whether they are the right questions to be asking at this moment in time. It is here that the critic, necessarily, reveals his or her bias and it is here that the critic must work hardest to make clear why that bias matters.
The value of conceiving criticism in this way, it seems to me, is that it allows for and acknowledges that certain buildings and projects may be perfectly elegant or beautiful solutions to perfectly trivial questions (think Meier’s tower on Grand Army Plaza) and, conversely, that there may be difficult or unsuccessful designs which nevertheless engage questions that have much greater relevance or significance to the values the critic prizes. Because criticism is perforce a statement of values; it is in that sense that criticism is at root a utopian venture and a bully pulpit. If we weren’t interested in remaking the world it wouldn’t matter much what we said about it.
In this vein, it is also important, from time to time, to write about bad buildings and failed projects, to use them as counter-exemplars and to explicate what it is in their design and realization that makes them a negative standard. This is difficult for a profession bred on the false politesse of ‘if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything’. We need to understand what makes bad buildings bad, and what the steady accretion of poorly conceived, boring, venal and badly built projects does to our cities and our souls. We need to name names. Or else, give up altogether.
There is also an element of time in all this; Henry A. Millon, one of the best critical historians of his generation, used to say that history could not be written before 50 years had passed, the implication being that the circumstances which frame a project’s gestation could not themselves be looked at historically until a certain contemporaneous reverberation had dissipated. The prerequisite of history is distance and a consequent lack of immediate familiarity; context must become strange again, or more precisely, we must become estranged from it, for the methods of historical analysis to be deployed. By this standard we are only just able to begin to analyze the projects of the 1960’s, to look seriously at Saarinen’s TWA terminal for example. And, in fact, this is exactly what is happening, the Museum of the City of New York’s revisionist Saarinen exhibition and the current reappraisals of Rudolph and Stone following by a few years the welter of texts and exhibitions that had us look afresh at the icons of the previous decade, Lever House and the Seagram Building, etc. (to look only within the limits of Manhattan for examples).
Criticism of course is but the first draft of history, not the thing itself. It is journalistic in the original Latin/Francophone sense of the word — ‘of today.’ Its historical aspirations, such as they are, can only be to serve as the raw material of some future, more dispassionate, analysis. But in exchange criticism can — must — make full claim to passion, to the convictions, enthusiasms and biases that animate discussion today, now, in full understanding that once our passions are spent they too will become the subject of more broadly contextual and quieter historical methods. Deprived of any pretense to history, criticism has nothing left but bias: without bias criticism is worthless.
This is the sixth 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.
Stephen Rustow is the founding principal of SRA/Museoplan, a consulting practice working with arts institutions and design professionals on the presentation of cultural collections. An architect and urban planner, he is also a Professor of Architecture at Cooper Union and has written criticism for Praxis, JSAH and other publications. He lives in Manhattan.