On Criticism: Is Architecture Criticism Still Architecture Criticism?

In the couple months since my essay, In Praise of Slowness, was posted here on Omnibus, the meta-question of criticism has repeatedly floated to the surface. It’s been urged on by global upheaval—the end of the Bilbao Ponzi era!—but more modestly by the publication of On Architecture, a collection of Ada Louise Huxtable’s critical essays. In Architect magazine, Clay Risen praised Huxtable by pointing out that,

most critics today would rather watch the bright lights of architecture and design than cast light into the shadows of the built environment.

And on ArchNewsNow, Norman Weinstein wondered,

More critically, what is the function of architecture criticism at this moment beyond opinion propping?

I wanted to respond more directly to this question of the role of architecture criticism and reporting—in part to provoke some others who throw words at buildings, who have promised to chime in as well.

I’d put the two most pressing questions this way: Is architecture criticism still architecture criticism?

Is it still – if it ever was – about merely architecture? Or do the forces that change the built environment come from a broader toolkit: from urban planning, certainly, but also from the more engineering-heavy realms of infrastructure, or more policy-heavy realms of politics?

And is it still criticism? What is today’s balance between the act of appraisal and the act of explanation? Sure, it’s always been about teaching, about explaining the Why, but the “two thumbs up” part of the equation seems less important now than the understanding and questioning that goes into that.

These stakes and possibilities became pointed for me on Inauguration Day, when in a tone-deaf editorial stroke, the New York Times published architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s review of Jean Nouvel’s Copenhagen Concert Hall. It was the biggest of days for public space in America, not only because of the millions gathered in Washington, but because of the millions of smaller gatherings across the country. But as if nailing himself in the coffin of the Bilbao decade, Ouroussoff wrote of

one of the most gorgeous buildings I have recently seen.

Architecture is more relevant than that. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, saw that in DC, writing

not only about all the people filling Washington this week, but what they might symbolize or portend for Americans’ attitudes about cities and how we build them going forward.

The things that shape the built environment, and the things of which the built environment consist, are different now than they were ten years ago. With a financial crisis built upon too-cheap 2 x 4s, an environmental crisis owing partly to bad planning (and too much driving), and geopolitics as always driven by battles over borders and resources, space is power – now more than ever. How has the media’s role shifted in response? How might it?

This is the first 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.

Andrew Blum is a contributing editor at Wired and Metropolis magazines, and a contributing editor at Urban Omnibus. He lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Alec Appelbaum March 9, 2009

When easy credit vanished, the aura of power surrounding glossy renderings popped. We can’t presume to treat a design for a building as a snapshot from the future. It no longer seems conscientious to cover architecture merely as entertainment, a lulling series of pictures. It seems timely to cover it as economic activity, scientific progress and human ego. I’m trying to show cities’ changes as a series of decisions that readers can interrupt. By writing about what a design would cost or where its logic buckles, we reporters can help readers feel like owners of their cities- as emotional as sports fans following their teams- and not like passive viewers of spectacle.