On Criticism 7: Authority and Responsibility

In the past two weeks, a minor kerfuffle, the kind in which the Internet specializes, has erupted over the direction and substance of architecture criticism, sparked by a short essay by critic Peter Kelly called “The New Establishment,” published in the British magazine Blueprint.

The article takes issue with the kind of criticism that is found on popular architecture blogs. We know this brand of lament well: the web is killing everything that was ever good, and, in this case, Kelly is wringing his hands that “speculative” bloggers who focus more on cultural mashups than straightforward dissections of architectural projects — in the style of, say, Paul Goldberger — have failed to produce what he blandly calls “informed, intelligent criticism.” And because the blogosphere is the new establishment, this means that we can expect that this kind of writing and the figures behind it are here to stay.

Although Kelly takes aim at a few British bloggers (Bad British ArchitectureStrange Harvest, etc.), I was most interested in his attack on BLDGBLOG, which he calls “probably the most influential architecture blog in the world.” Its author is Geoff Manaugh, whom Kelly calls an “institution.” Manaugh’s response to Kelly makes two key points: first, Manaugh has never attempted to replace traditional architecture criticism, nor does he hope to cultivate an audience that is looking for that kind of stuff; and second, he would welcome an alternative to his own style of blogging that might resemble the smart, level-headed approaches of the LA Times‘ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne or The Center for Land Use Interpretation‘s founder Matthew Coolidge. He then ends by saying:

Imagine a world, then, where critics like Peter Kelly actually step up and demonstrate how to do the things they so enjoy pointing out as lacking in others. If they could succeed at this — and find an audience, and push an agenda, and gather influence, and raise the stakes of what it means to be an architecture blogger — then we would all, as writers and readers and builders, be stronger because of it.

To my mind, the reason why there isn’t more of Peter Kelly’s kind of writing is that there aren’t enough places where one can make a living writing about architecture. There are probably fewer than a dozen people who make a living in the United States writing about architecture (and don’t get the majority of their incomes through editing, teaching or consulting). The problem, in other words, isn’t that Geoff Manaugh is a popular blogger, but that the vision of Peter Kelly’s ideal critic isn’t economically feasible these days. Until a new business model, or a better way of funding criticism through a smaller niche of avid readers, is figured out we can expect to see the number of pages (even webpages) dedicated to serious criticism dwindle: even the monthly critiques by Robert Campbell and Michael Sorkin had to be cut from Architectural Record‘s coverage in 2010.)

This economic impossibility needs to be recognized before proposing a utopian world where architecture critics have all the necessary resources to provide the informed, intelligent criticism expected of them. Otherwise it’s like saying our urban education system should rival that of private schools without recognizing that there aren’t unlimited funds to support that revolution.

A sense of responsibility for guiding public discussion about architecture is what I miss most.

So what is the appropriate response to this situation that we all find a bit disappointing? Is it to voice frustration with the new guard that is innovating? No. Instead, we should be asking: Why does the Old Establishment, which is adequately supported, suck so much? Why is Nicolai Ouroussoff still the lead critic for the Times when his writing, at its best, is greeted with a shrug? And while we all love Paul Goldberger, why hasn’t The New Yorker given someone else a chance to write the occasional piece of criticism for the magazine? If we’re going to be using new means to create a dialogue about architecture criticism, it might be interesting to do it in a way that is purposefully attempting to overthrow the PMS (pale, male, stale) guard.

Kelly presumes that BLDGBLOG is incredibly influential, and it is, in so far as it has widened the context and lens through which we see architecture. But it doesn’t shape the architecture profession (that’s not what it sets out to do) and it doesn’t serve as much of a reference about what’s happened in architecture over the past few years. Like most blogs, it’s really more of a catalog of Manaugh’s personal interests.

If the old architecture criticism establishment continues to be boring and a new establishment continues to mine the esoteric margins of architectural thought rather than the work of architects, what is at risk is a clear sense of who is debating the direction of architecture as practice or discipline. Kelly blames Manaugh et al. for lacking the right style or substance; Manaugh seems to shirk responsibility for the future of online dialogue about architecture.

Perhaps magazines like Architectural Record feel too much of a responsibility for charting what’s happening in highbrow, mainstream architecture and don’t allow for enough personal, tangential conversation. But that sense of authority and responsibility for guiding public understanding and discussion about architecture is what I miss most about the old establishment. I miss that much more than the writing style in which old media expressed itself or even the architecture that old media referenced. When Herbert Muschamp was the critic for the Times, he felt a responsibility to curate a series of alternatives to the SOM-designed replacement for the World Trade Center — is there anyone writing right now who would take on that role of architectural shaman?

What should someone with the privilege of being listened to do then? Manaugh’s call for a more vibrant criticism scene, which enriches the thinking of writers and architects, is just one example of how he can wield his power to greater effect. We all seem to agree that we need more online voices that are actively challenging architecture and architecture criticism as they are practiced. To use a Manaugh-style analogy: he’s shown us the playing field and now he’s kicking around a soccer ball waiting for a game of pick-up. Anyone else inspired to answer this call to action? At the very least, I think this debate has revived the On Criticism series on this website, so game on!


This is the seventh 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.

3 Responses to “On Criticism 7: Authority and Responsibility”

  1. Just a quick thought prompted by this sentence: “To my mind, the reason why there isn’t more of Peter Kelly’s kind of writing is that there aren’t enough places where one can make a living writing about architecture.”

    The bloggers that Kelly was paid to critique are not paid to blog. Perhaps the fact that they do it out of passion is what makes their writing so much more compelling than Kelly’s. In any case, it’s interesting to wonder why people would have to be paid to write “traditional architecture criticism” but will happily write about spatial ideas in a broader context for free.

  2. Jeremy says:

    re: Nicola wonders why people “have to be paid to write “traditional architecture criticism”.

    All of the architectural bloggers combined have only a fraction of the readership of a publication like the New York Times. Fractional readership means fractional influence. If we value something then we should be willing to pay for it. This applies to both music and architectural criticism, whether it be traditional or not. The issue is not about old media versus new media. Its about big audience versus small.

  3. David says:

    I have yet to find an article that sufficiently makes a case against Nicolai Ouroussoff. Lange’s piece certainly did not. I’m surprised by how vapid most of her writing is.

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