Recap | 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?

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.

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.

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.