On Criticism 6: On Bias in Criticism

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.

3 Responses to “On Criticism 6: On Bias in Criticism”

  1. Michael Davis, FAIA says:

    Nothing short of brilliant, Mr. Rustow. I am glad to see that serious, rational, and analytic journalism about architecture is alive and well. I will promptly share this series of essays with my graduate writing class at the Boston Architectural College. Thank you. – M

  2. faslanyc says:

    I agree. Great piece and salient points!

    I’m not sure that I agree with the emphasis on “elucidating for the public”. I see criticism functioning more as the scientific research paper (realize that is not a perfect parallel, as scientists publish their own work) rather than a piece of popular journalism. I would say it is both to some degree, but much closer to a scientific american article than a nytimes piece, or should be. The fact is, in a building project (as opposed to scientific research) people will have a reaction and form their own opinion based on effect/utility created, so i see less need for explaining it to them… It exists, it is big; users judge for themselves. Thoughts?

    Second, i love the appeal for criticism that is unapologetic, that owns the “passions, convictions, enthusiasms, and biases” of the context of a project. But, would this lend itself to hyperbole? Hyperbole is certainly the tendency in most other forms of media. I’m not sure, but would like to know some others’ thoughts on it…

  3. Stephen Rustow says:

    Thanks for both comments.

    I think that fas’ remark raises the question of publics (with an ‘s’) and I like very much the analogy, even imperfect, to scientific research and the varied set of ways in which it is reported: highly specialized research publications that are only comprehensible to colleagues engaged in the same work; juried journals that speak to the professional scientific community at large; popular science publications that target a general, non-specialized readership who have a certain level of overall scientific knowledge (Scientific American, precisely); and the Tuesday Section of the Times, intended for a curious lay-readership in the largest sense of the word. Each of these venues asks for a different kind of writing and, in a similar if not identical way, architectural criticism finds an analogous array of outlets and audiences. But the general idea of explicating context, for whichever audience, seems to me essential to anchor judgments in something more than simple opinion. It’s true, buildings have their own lives and users judge any way they like; but if they look for some foundation for their judgments, or a general framework in which to place them, criticism at whatever level it’s pitched plays its role.

    And then there’s the fact that the architecture critic (usually) visits the building in question, and serves as a surrogate for an experience that the reader may not necessarily have. Hence the importance of a descriptive language that can conjure on the page the qualities of a project that are submitted to analysis. Here’s perhaps where the scientific research analogy breaks down; a critic we trust is one whose capacity to evoke the experiential seems intuitively attuned to our own sense of spaces and places.

    On the passion/hyperbole question, I think the first responsibility of a critic is to write well and that precludes hyperbole in all but a very few cases. Reliance on hyperbole is usually proportional to the weakness of an argument; it can be useful, occasionally, as a rhetorical device, but it’s never a substitute for analysis. The most persuasive criticism is almost always shorn of adjectives.

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