On Criticism 8: Critiquing Critics

Last week at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a panel of six notable writers, editors, and curators spoke about the status of design criticism today (note: Justin Davidson, Lebbeus Woods and Kazys Varnelis were not there). Led by Joseph Grima, the new editor of Domus, the conversation mined the central question of how the Internet has changed architecture and design criticism.

Much has already been said about how everyone is an architecture critic these days, how the Internet has sped up the criticism cycle, and how the ubiquity of imagery has made architecture magazines that much less valuable. But Alexandra Lange noted another problem with Internet criticism: Nowadays most architecture “criticism” is really just commentary on renderings. Rare is a critic’s response to experiencing an actual building. In fact, a building’s merits are so thoroughly debated while in rendering form that writing about the built work can seem almost besides the point. As a result, the experiential quality of buildings has become less of a focus for design criticism — a potentially dangerous problem for architecture.

We’re a little too nostalgic for a kind of magazine culture that may not have been as robust as assumed.Indeed, very little of the evening’s conversation even touched on buildings themselves. While the Internet has enabled commentary on projects far from our backyards, it has encouraged a kind of watered-down criticism that lacks real reporting. Mimi Zeiger defended the Internet’s merits by giving a great example of how the Internet’s speed and conversational tone can enable a fast debate about the value of a building. Recently the LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote a short blog post about a Michael Maltzan building (yes, still in renderings!) at San Francisco State University. The building, which will cost $265 million, was then criticized by blogger Javier Arbona on the grounds of its financing — though it is paid for by a public university, which is getting less and less money from the bankrupt state of California, the money will come through a complex financial arrangement with Wall Street. Kazys Varnelis, Director of the Network Architecture Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), then chimed in about the corporatization of universities. Zeiger used this example of fast-paced dialogue to show how lively the Internet criticism sphere is — it drew in a “traditional” critic, a non-traditional blogger, and an architect, plus all the archi-Internet nerds through comments and Twitter. This debate has the additional effect of shaping future reviews of this building and other public-financed projects.

But as the editor of a print publication and the person responsible for the overhaul of Domus’ online presence, Grima voiced a fair amount of nostalgia for the heyday of print architecture magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, magazines like Domus or Casabella would publish all important buildings, and yet criticize many of them. Today’s architecture criticism is stifled by the fact that most magazines do not publish stories about buildings the editors don’t like — or can’t criticize. Zeiger noted it’s too expensive to print a story on a building an editor hates.

I’d argue that there’s something else at play here. Perhaps part of the reason we are nostalgic for the mid-20th-century coverage in print magazines is that the United States was then the center of the skyscraper and urban planning boom. Now the industry has moved to Asia. But where is the commentary on Zaha’s opera house in Guangzhou or Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay? Architectural Record will still cover it, but three months later. And certainly not with the same kind of first-person knowledge and passion that Maltzan’s SFSU building inspired. Isn’t it problematic that this blogger community is not able to respond to the work going up in Asia and the Middle East with the same kind of authority and visceral response as they might to one in California?

Eva Franch noted that this lack of “criticality” isn’t confined to print magazines. Rather than criticism, she sees the Internet encouraging more exposure of architecture and commentary on it. She noted that blogs are “reporting an obsession, not taking a position.” It’s a comment that gets right to the heart of my last On Criticism piece. A lack of editorial vision or critical position is the final element that many blogs are missing — the thing that keeps us pining for print.

Shannon Mattern helped to conclude the evening with a reminder: the unsettling aspects of Internet “microculture” pervade all art forms and are not particular to architecture criticism. We assume that most architecture blogs, which pursue niche interests without establishing broader socio-political values, fail to inspire a broader debate about architecture. But I’m beginning to think we’re a little too critical of the dialogue happening online, and a little too nostalgic for a kind of magazine culture that may not have been as robust as assumed.

In the drafty Storefront space, without adequate seating and headache-inducing microphone problems, I felt an honest desire to be back at home, in a comfortable chair, with my laptop and Twitter feed. I never thought I’d become the kind of person who occasionally prefers virtual communication to the real kind. But increasingly I think we are living in a golden age of online conversation, one that has more in common with “happenings” than the print journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Happenings had a great influence on the development of conceptual art; could the same be said one day about blogging and architecture?

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

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.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



3 Responses to “On Criticism 8: Critiquing Critics”

  1. Red leopard says:

    Urbanism blogs take positions – checkout Streetsblog, Greater Greater Washington, Design New Haven and others. Architects could learn a lot from these approaches.

  2. While I do think that Alexandra, Mimi, Kazys, et al. all have very good points, I want to remind readers that one of the functions of architecture criticism is to demonstrate how architects, buildings, et cetera all can be used to make large claims about our world. And just because such claims may be large does not mean that they cannot be useful for architects, urbanists, or planners.

    When it comes to online architecture writing in relation to print-based criticism and architecture in general, things are still in a state of flux, as Diana has pointed out. I started my website in 2006, and since then, the field of online writers seems to have increased exponentially, and it will continue to do so. So I think that Eva’s observation (and by proxy, Diana’s) that blogs are “reporting an obsession, not taking a position,” though partly right, seems a little bit too conclusive — has anyone actually taken the “pulse” of the architecture readership out there? Having been affiliated with architecture schools since 2003, I can’t help but notice a difference in the kinds of people who are choosing to study architecture. So, who then is the audience for this kind of criticism that we seem to be lacking? Perhaps we are asking for an audience that is either nonexistent, or that has faded into obscurity. Which means that any sense of an “editorial vision or critical position” may be a bit of a moving target.

  3. Thanks for this report! I want to add a few comments to this ongoing conversation.

    I agree with you on this: “I’m beginning to think we’re a little too critical of the dialogue happening online, and a little too nostalgic for a kind of magazine culture that may not have been as robust as assumed.” Definitely. It is all too often assumed that print writing in days of yore was always based on the experience of the “actual building.” That’s not the case, and historian Beatriz Colomina has done great work on this. In addition, a vast amount of architectural theory, for a good deal of the 20th century, has been based on drawings. What is the Domino House, for instance? How do we come to learn more about Eisenman’s ideas when most of his work still remains as images and words? What we should be more worried about is the openness of the internet, because if it’s true that we have lived a “golden age” of access to media (videos, images, sounds, words, etc), I definitely think it could come to an end.

    As far as what I have been writing in relation to the SFSU building, I think it should be noted that Hawthorne’s post was more of a report on what the university was planning. As a singular piece, I have no problem with it, although Hawthorne could have maybe said more about the master plan origins and the questionable mathematics. I have been very critical, however, of San Francisco’s critic John King, of the Chronicle, who has been ebullient about this project. It would seem like it is his job, as the local, to be more journalistic and skeptical of what the clients and the architect were delivering.

    I also seem to come across as criticizing the Maltzan SFSU project on “financial” grounds, but I think that’s a confusion I could have left too open, and one I hope I can still clarify. My main point is that architecture is a spatial discipline. An issue like access to education, though riding on money, is a matter of space. (SFSU is still planning to cut urban studies, for that matter). We’d be better served by architects and critics that do not simply focus on the form of the building, but its spatial politics. I think Maltzan has more wiggle room here than he seems to allow himself. Anyway, even when we have the finished built object, as opposed to the renderings, there is no guarantee that either the architect or the critic understood the spatial politics. Finally, on aesthetic grounds, as I’ve also alluded to before, and if you wanted to play in that court…is Maltzan’s design really all that good, as John King claimed? You would think that someone would start to mention how much it oddly looks like Holl’s Louisium, or the Knut Hamsum museum, to begin with.

    Thanks for reading.

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