Architecture Criticism In the Age of Twitter
26 September 2017
Copyright © 2017 by Paul Goldberger. Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.
I’m about to do something almost unheard-of, certainly at MIT or at almost any architecture school, which is to give a talk without images. I’m doing it because I’m going to do something else that is probably almost unheard-of in this department, which is to give a talk that is not entirely about architecture. What I want to talk about is words, and about their relationship to architecture, and I’ll only be talking indirectly about buildings, because what I’m really going to talk about is communicating about buildings, and how that happens, or doesn’t happen, as the case may be. I suspect you probably know whatever buildings I might make reference to anyway, and you can’t use images to explain the effect of words, unless you are one of those people who uses those idiotic power point images where people put a few key words up on the screen while they are speaking. I hope I never sink that low.
In any case, I will try my best not to make you miss looking at pretty pictures. What I want to talk about is the relationship of the architecture profession to the rest of the world, and what role people like me have historically played in shaping, even sometimes controlling, what that relationship is. For most people in Boston, the way into architecture—other than seeing it as they walk around the city—the way architecture connects to their lives, has traditionally been by reading Robert Campbell in the Globe, just as people in New York once read Herbert Muschamp and then Nicolai Ouroussoff and now read Michael Kimmelman.
Or at least some of them do. Today, I am not so sure. The Boston Globe is not what it used to be, and neither is any other newspaper. Most of them are broke or heading there fast, and there seem to be fewer and fewer architecture critics in the mainstream media. There were never very many, but there are fewer than there once were, and things are not going in the right direction. Architecture critics were always viewed as something of a luxury by newspapers—which most of us in this room would agree makes no sense, but that is a story for a little later—and now almost no newspapers in the country can afford luxuries.
This has serious implications for all of us, because it isolates architecture further from the public, it makes the architecture profession seem distant and, much worse, it makes it seem, to far too many people, irrelevant, entirely off the radar.
So it is impossible to separate anything we might say about architecture criticism from what we might call the broader crisis in journalism, which as everyone knows has affected every mainstream publication there is, from the smallest to the largest. I think it is fair to say that no publication is as powerful as it once was, that nothing—not The New York Times, not The New Yorker, not anything—has a kind of hegemony as it once did. No institution dominates in such a way as to be able to set the agenda for architecture criticism, any more than any single media organization today can set the agenda for anything else. The context of the overall media landscape is simply too different, and it has changed more completely in the last ten or fifteen years than in the seventy-five years before that. Television, despite expectations to the contrary, didn’t threaten print journalism as digital technology has; it just added another medium to the mix, without detracting significantly from the economic power or the authority of the mainstream print media.
Now, of course, it’s another story altogether, which comes as a surprise to no one, but especially not to those who operate in the shadow of the MIT Media Lab, which is one of the first places in the world to have understood how profound the social and cultural changes would be wrought be digital technology—and that the most important one would be a kind of flattening of the playing field. At MIT people saw this early on, and understood what other people figured out only much later, which is that no traditional media outlet, even one that has established a reasonably robust presence online, such as The New York Times, can possibly hold sway over the world as they once did. If, as A.J. Leibling famously said, freedom of the press belongs mainly to those who own one—well, then, today, of course, everybody owns the equivalent of a printing press. Technology means that the playing field is leveled, and now there are a zillion voices out there, all clamoring to be heard.
If everyone is on the playing field I’m not sure what kind of a game it encourages us to play on it, however. And a leveled playing field certainly doesn’t mean that the score is automatically tied. The mainstream publications, the ones with a tradition and a history and an ongoing commitment to architecture criticism, certainly continue to possess at least some degree of continuing authority. The New York Times architecture column isn’t some random blog, at least not yet. But to many readers, particularly younger ones, it isn’t all that different, and what greater authority it has is seen, by many readers, as more of a historical leftover, a form of inheritance, than as a matter of current day relevance.
In any event, whether seen as possessing greater authority or not, mainstream publications struggle to make themselves heard within this new and constantly shifting mix, as well as to shoulder the costs of maintaining what we might call the physical infrastructure of print. In many ways the situation of print publications today is not unlike that of retail merchants with brick-and-mortar stores to maintain, struggling to hold their own against Internet competition. While I don’t think the plight of newspapers today is the exact equivalent of, say, Best Buy trying to compete against Amazon, it’s closer than we might have expected it ever could be. What makes it different—where the analogy falls apart—is the fact that there is no media equivalent of Amazon, since another effect technology has had is to break apart the audience into smaller and smaller and more and more specialized segments.
The effect of all of this goes far beyond the realm of architecture criticism, of course; the turmoil in journalism, as I’ve said, affects every discipline. We feel it in today’s political climate more than ever; the fact that last winter it was Buzz Feed and not The New York Times that first released the dossier about the current President’s alleged doings in Russia is not irrelevant here, and it is interesting to watch the guerrilla warfare that has broken out between the White House and the media, which shows, if nothing else, how much the power dynamic has shifted. In the Vietnam War years the support of the mainstream media was a key part of political capital, and when that was lost, political support was lost with it. As Lyndon Johnson famously said, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Today, there is no Walter Cronkite, just as there is no Ada Louise Huxtable, to bring us back to architecture criticism.
I think that architecture criticism has special challenges. One of them is that new media is particularly tempting as a means of discussing architecture, especially now, because it is easier and easier to transmit images. I had a long conversation about new media with my criticism class at Parsons at the end of the last semester, and they concluded that blogs, to them, were old hat. The future, they insisted, was in image-driven apps like Tmblr and Pinterest.
I can see the point. New media, whether in the form of blogs or Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram, makes pictures of everything available all the time, instantly, and new images can spread like wildfire. That has its usefulness in architecture in a way that it doesn’t, say, in literary criticism. The idea of media functioning as a kind of continuously scrolling portfolio, showing you everyone’s new work, all the time, does have a certain appeal. Architecture certainly plays to the strengths of the technology. I now assume that a picture of anything worth knowing about will, sooner or later, show up on my screen, often via a Twitter link.
And Twitter isn’t really such a bad vehicle for architecture criticism. After all, some buildings aren’t worth more than 140 characters. And so far as the ones that are worth more than that are concerned, well, there is a wonderful discipline to boiling things down to their essence. Not enough respect is accorded in the profession of architecture criticism to Strunk and White’s famous precept, “omit needless words.” Twitter carries this to an extreme, and few tweets possess the elegance of a haiku. But Twitter does get thoughts across fast, and it is invaluable as a source of links. After a lifetime of writing essays and books, I have to admit to a certain pleasure in writing things that are 140 characters long.
“Everything is now shorthand, either visual shorthand or written shorthand,” one of my students said, and this is right again. However useful shorthand may be, it is not a way to deal with complexity and nuance. The most serious issues we face in architecture and the most meaningful architecture criticism cannot be reduced to 140 characters, or even 1,400 characters. And even when short-form electronic media and social media succeed in doing worthwhile things, as they often do, they have the pernicious effect of getting us more and more accustomed to getting information in short, fast, constant bursts. Who has an attention span longer than about 10 seconds these days? You scroll through Twitter, seeking the stimulant of more and more little, fast, injections of data, and before you finish one, you’re hungry for the next one. This is not a condition that is conducive to the best criticism.
Connected to all of this is the fact that images become more and more important. A recent in-house study by The New York Times about the future of its newsroom, released earlier this year, concluded that the paper, in both its print and online versions, would be more and more driven by images, which would become ever more central to the product that The Times is; a summary of the study in the paper said that it made “an urgent call for more visual journalism.” The unspoken corollary to that statement is that, given the Times’s limited resources, as images become more important, words may well become less important. The cliché about a picture being worth 10,000 words looms somewhat ominously here. Once, we had 10,000 words accompanied by a picture. Now, we have a whole bunch of pictures, and the real tragedy is that they are often taking the place of 9,900 of those 10,000 words. I love images as every art or architecture critic must, but I despair at the culture’s willingness to continually trade away words for more and more transient images.
The other challenge that this constant, never ending torrent of images and information, wave after wave of it, poses is how you filter all of this stuff, and make it into something coherent. We encounter most of it in as a continuous stream; not for nothing do we refer to a Twitter “feed.” Given how this new, level playing field is so full of players, as I said a moment ago, I’m not sure how the game even proceeds. Maybe a better metaphor than playing field might be that of the curator. Who is going to curate the material that pours across our computer screens all of the time? It never stops, as you know.
While I’ve been standing here talking I’m sure I’ve missed hundreds of tweets, and a handful of them might actually be interesting, or be links to things that are interesting. Plenty of the things I discover this way are things I might never otherwise have seen, and for that, too, new media is invaluable. I don’t know how I functioned before ArchNewsNow, the daily feed of links to architecture news and criticism from around the world. And now there is Architects Newspaper and Architect Magazine and Dezeen and ArchDaily and suckerpunch daily, and so many other sources, not to mention a zillion tweets, all dumping data across my screen. Next to Twitter, an early and relatively discursive blog like Design Observer seems as loquacious as Lewis Mumford.
There is almost too much architecture visible in various forms of media. And yet there is not enough architecture criticism. I have to admit to some fear that Alexandra Lange’s excellent new book, Writing About Architecture, which was published a couple of years ago, will turn out to be an elegy to a fading craft, something I am quite sure she did not intend or would not want it to be. But what we might call long form writing about architecture has always had a tentative status within the world of journalism; even when print ruled the world and long form writing was more the norm in every field, the position of architecture criticism as a discipline worthy of critical attention wasn’t really all that secure, despite the presence of such towering figures as Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable, and the Pulitzer Prize board’s decision in 1970 to make Huxtable the very first winner of its then-new category of a Pulitzer for distinguished criticism. You couldn’t ask for more recognition of the value of architecture as an appropriate subject for critical inquiry than that decision, forty-two years ago, to honor an architecture critic with a Pulitzer Prize in criticism before any music critic, film critic, art critic or theater critic had been so honored. Since then, five other architecture critics have won this prize and four others have been named as finalists—a remarkable number when you consider how few architecture critics there actually are. As a percentage of total practicing architecture critics, the number who have been either Pulitzer Prize winners or finalists has to be many times that of film critics, theater critics, or music or art critics.
And yet this is still considered a marginal subject for criticism. So in times of economic pressure, when newspapers are closing bureaus and laying off reporters, an architecture critic’s position is among the most vulnerable. And we all know that the less architecture criticism there is, the lower the demand for it becomes, since good writing creates interest that brings about demand, and the absence of writing is felt mainly by people already committed to this field, not by people who do not know what they are missing. So it is a vicious cycle, in which reducing the amount of architecture criticism reduces the sense that it is important and worthwhile.
But I think that architecture criticism is a tough sell for many editors not only because of the state of the economy and because of the wrenching transitions technology is bringing to journalism. It’s also because, despite the fame of some of architecture criticism’s practitioners and the accolades bestowed upon them, many people aren’t entirely sure what it actually is, and what it should be doing.
It’s a paradox, because we are living in a time when architecture is more than ever a part of the public discourse, when people know architects’ names, when they pay attention to what gets built—well, to some of what gets built—and the whole phenomenon known as “starchitecture” (a truly awful word) seems to many of us in the field to have become almost too much a part of the culture, so that we often feel a responsibility not to fan the flames further. The reaction against all of this, against celebrity architecture, is sometimes motivated by a genuine and admirable sense of social responsibility, and a recognition that social issues have not been at the forefront of the architectural discourse as much as they should have been in recent years. But this reaction has already become excessive, and results in what seems to me to be a growing amount of architecture criticism that is arrogantly indifferent to creative ideas, and to attempts to right the balance like the last Venice Biennale.
I’m almost ready to have a reaction against the reaction and say that however infuriating the “starchitecture” phenomenon can be, it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing for architecture, because it has put it, more than ever, in the public eye. I know that inevitably means ideas are simplified and often cheapened and vulgarized, causing understandable distress among those who cherish the notion of architecture as an intellectual pursuit. We’ve seen huge amounts of that in the last decade. And it can be infuriating to see architecture treated as part of the culture of celebrity—not to mention to have to listen to the constant refrains from architects about how much they hate the term “starchitect,” which seem invariably to come, disingenuously, from the architects who court publicity the most. (The latest is Richard Rogers, who told the Financial Times that he hated the term because “I don’t like ‘star’ anything. In the end we are all people”—perhaps a slightly curious vote for egalitarianism from someone who is known officially as Lord Rogers of Riverside.)
In any case, as I said, much as I too hate the cheap glitter of the term, and so much of the vulgarity it brings in its wake, I do feel we have to concede that this phenomenon entirely has also brought architecture more fully into the public realm, made it more central to civic discussion—even as our time makes it more difficult to have real and meaningful civic discussions. And as it is hypocritical for architects to revel in public attention while pretending to be above it, it’s equally hypocritical for architecture critics to take the position that there is not some larger social good in this greater visibility for architecture, however annoying many of its specific manifestations may be.
In any event, all of this has to be relevant to the larger questions that I want to think about: what is the state of architecture criticism today? Why should architecture criticism exist? Does it make any real difference? Can it do more than just entertain and enlighten a few readers who come to it already interested in architecture, or can it truly shape the city? And how is new media going to change it?
We’ve just been talking about two opposing trends, two conflicting sets of facts. It is a paradox, really. On the one hand, there is the crisis in journalism, brought about largely but not entirely by technology, inevitably adding pressure to what has not, even in different times, been what anyone would call a large field. Architecture critics have never been plentiful. But then, on the other hand, there is the greater sense of engagement that people almost everywhere seem to have now with the built environment, the heightened sense of caring about what their houses and streets and neighborhoods and downtowns and public spaces will look like and feel like to use.
The mysterious thing is how architecture criticism seems so often not to be capable of addressing these things in a way that those who employ architecture critics—which is to say editors—appear to find convincing. I’m as willing as anyone to lay at least some of the blame at the feet of editors, so many of whom seem still not to understand our field very well. But I think that we as critics need to take some responsibility, too. Architecture criticism has too often removed itself from the very public discourse that architecture itself has entered. I don’t think that paroxysms of pleasure at the latest swoops and curves of Zaha Hadid, or repetitions of Rem Koolhaas’s latest disingenuous pronouncements about the irrelevance of architecture, or celebrations of a certain young Danish architect who has become the latest celebrity architect with such astonishing speed that it makes the careers of the first two people I just mentioned seem almost plodding—all of the things are, to one degree or another, “inside baseball.” And they serve mainly to accentuate the gap between architecture criticism and the lay public who, whether or not they choose to participate in any dialogue about architecture, are, after all, its users, at least so far as public architecture is concerned.
This, of course, makes architecture different from anything else that is generally considered to fall within the realm of a subject of criticism. You choose the music you hear, the films you see, the books you read, the theater you attend. But other than the house you live in, you almost never choose the architecture you experience. It is imposed upon people, often by forces over which they have little or no control. When architecture criticism is doing its job, it helps you understand these forces at least a little bit better, and gives you at least some agency over them. Not much, I know, but some. And it should give you at least some understanding of how things come to be, of why they are as they are, and of how else they might be imagined.
The ubiquity of architecture in our lives, and the fact that architecture inevitably has a public component to it, should lead to a demand for much more architecture criticism, for much more writing of every kind about it, but I think it sometimes works in the opposite way. Because architecture is always there, always around us, always visible yet also seemingly so uncontrollable by us, we tend to tune it out—and by “we,” of course, I mean the average person, the potential reader of architecture criticism, not critics themselves. I think people develop a kind of automatic numbness to a lot of the architecture that they see every day, as a kind of protective measure. It’s not just because some of it is too painful to look at. It’s more because most of it is just too much trouble to look hard at. There’s too much of it, all over the place, at every moment, and it’s hard to pay attention to, and harder still, for many people, to have any sense that it matters, that the architecture around them can have any effect on their lives.
It’s the implicit mission of architecture criticism to help people understand that architecture does matter, of course, and why it does. That’s why I’m not particularly distressed at the recent trend toward more socially oriented criticism, particularly at The New York Times, where the current critic has done an abrupt and total about-face from the position of his two most recent predecessors, neither of whom seemed to view political process, issues of urban design, or the social utility of buildings as a priority. If The Times lately has seemed to define architecture as narrowly in one directly as it once did in another, I’m hopeful that in time there will be a more inclusive balance, as there has been for some time at both the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, both of which have a long tradition of architecture criticism as relating to the broader issues of the city, and where the current critics have for several years now successfully balanced political, cultural, and aesthetic concerns, not to mention been entirely comfortable writing about single buildings as well as about preservation issues, about planning and about urban design. It’s not really so hard to do everything. Architecture criticism, like architecture itself, needs to be comfortable on multiple scales, and to be written with the recognition that different circumstances demand different kinds of writing. It needs, in other words, to be comfortable with the notion that architecture is art and is not art, at once—that it is an experience of the everyday and also, potentially, an experience of the transcendent. Criticism needs to take both sides of this equation as its subject. That isn’t being equivocal. It’s just being real about what architecture is.
Buildings do not just happen: they are the products of a peculiar combination of artistic vision, money, political wherewithal, cultural stance and engineering skill. To the extent to which it is possible to say something about the process by which buildings happen, the critic has to, not to excuse the results—no critic should ever do that—but to place the building within a context that enhances its meaning. You understand Palladio a lot better if you know that the villas he designed around Vicenza in the sixteenth century were not just expressions of classical grandeur but attempts to enhance the image of his aristocratic clients, whose houses were as often as not working farms. You understand Herzog and de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium and Norman Foster’s Beijing airport better if you see them as having been made possible by the mix of high aesthetic ambition and cheap mass labor that exists in China right now, and that may not exist for too much longer. While you do not absolutely need to know that the Basques, in northern Spain, had already begun to remake the old, industrial city of Bilbao when they turned to Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim Museum to give them a new symbol of their region—and that they wanted the building both to stand out and to reflect the city—you will surely understand Gehry’s remarkable building better if you know something of the political and cultural context of its origins, and can recognize that there more complicated and subtle ways to demonstrate respect for context than replication.
Still, when we strip away the layers of real estate finance and zoning and construction and politics, and get beyond the arguments about what kind of environment is best for educating people, or healing people, or housing people, we are left with the reality that a building is an object. That is what buildings are: physical objects with walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, doors, and windows, which look a particular way and function a particular way. This is what you think about every day, and what a critic has to think about if he or she is to do their job properly. Evaluating how a building looks as a physical object and how it functions will always be the core of the obligation of architecture criticism. Every critic needs to feel that the greatest moments of all are those when he or she calls attention to those buildings that, in Mumford’s words, “cause people to hold their breath for a stabbing moment or that restore them to equilibrium by offering them a prospect of space and form joyfully mastered.”
Matthew Arnold defined criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”; implicit within that is the obligation to share your judgments as well as your enthusiasms. Both judgment and enthusiasm can be ways of expressing love, and a critic who does not love his field cannot last long in it. To love the thing—whether we call it architecture, design, planning, whatever—and also to love what it means in other people’s lives, and not only your own, is, I think it is fair to say, a further prerequisite to functioning well as a journalistic critic. This is not inconsistent with exercising judgment; judgment and education go hand in hand and are parts of a critic’s role as a kind of interpreter, to communicate his or her love of things and, in so doing, instill love in others.
A key difference between an architect and a critic, or a theoretician and a critic, is that in both cases the former has a right, even an obligation, to proceed from a theoretical viewpoint, while no such obligation exists for a critic. Indeed, the opposite is true—a critic should not believe that there is only one right way to do things. The belief that there is only a single solution to a problem can strengthen the work of the architect, and enable the thinking of the theorist. You do not want an architect who sees too many ways to go, who does not feel a passionate drive toward one of them. But that worldview weakens the work of the critic, who needs to proceed from a pluralist position, at least nominally; if not, he forfeits his ability to interpret, explain, and judge the work that is before him.
But a critic has to stand for something, obviously. He or she cannot proceed from the view that anything is acceptable so long as it is well done. So how do you combine an absence of rigid ideology with some guiding principles that are necessary for criticism? The answer, I think, lies in the difference between what we might call social or moral or ethical issues and aesthetic ones, between issues of social and political responsibility and issues of aesthetic choice. A critic can and should establish a set of social and political principles that define his judgment and act as a foundation for his criticism. The challenge is to hold onto these principles and at the same time to remain open to a broader range of aesthetic responses to these principles than any one architect might have, and then to be able to judge these different aesthetic responses on their own terms. To say it one more time: I believe architecture exists in a social and political context and almost always needs to be judged within that context.
The issue of the relationship between aesthetics and politics seems particularly relevant today, in an age in which there has been a significant surge of conservative political sentiment, which has often seemed to be paired with pressure for conservative or traditional architectural solutions. I hesitate to suggest a causal relationship here—I really don’t believe that conservative politics automatically equals an insistence on traditional architecture, or, conversely, that a preference for traditional architecture necessarily connects to conservative politics. These automatic associations are silly at best, and dangerous at worst.
Still, that being said, the climate is an odd one right now, given the current occupant of the White House, a man who, if nothing else, brings both the issues of the press and the issues of architecture criticism to the fore. Talking about Donald Trump’s taste is a pointless exercise; it is almost laughably traditional, glitter and gold and glitz and bad imitations of classical French design, although curiously it did not begin that way.
Trump’s first projects in New York were modern, definitely garish but it was more the garishness of reflective glass and shiny chrome. “I like new and shiny,” he once said to an architect who had tried to persuade him to leave some of the original façade of the old Commodore Hotel, the building in New York that he converted into the Grand Hyatt Hotel as his first major project. Later he did other glass buildings, including Trump Tower, and it was clear that while his first priority was creating an image of money, of prosperity, he was more than willing to use modern design as a route to this—as I said, so long as it was sufficiently sleek and shiny. His own apartment in Trump Tower was originally designed by Angelo Donghia, a widely respected modern interior designer in the 1970’s and 80’s. Only later, as his view of himself became even more inflated and grandiose, did he re-do the apartment and turn it into a kind of pseudo-Versailles in the sky. Trump quite literally went backwards in his taste.
Herbert Muschamp, who was one of the most distinctive critical voices in the last generation, was somewhat awed by Trump, and while his swooning over Trump now seems bizarre, not to mention self-indulgent, it is worth noting that Muschamp made a distinction between Trump’s taste, which he conceded was terrible, and his assertive personal style, which Muschamp found bold and exciting. “Mr. Trump has found in me a connoisseur of the combative style,” Muschamp wrote, adding that “I believe that conflict is the most valuable cultural product a great city puts out”—a remarkable observation that I do not believe is true, unless we define conflict to mean exposure to a wide range of people and ideas, but a point that nevertheless gives one pause, as much that Muschamp wrote did.
In any event Muschamp saw in Trump a man who wanted to make a mark on the world, and he thought, naively but earnestly, that he might be able to persuade Trump that architecture could be a route to the impact he sought—real, serious architecture, that is, not the glitz he was building. “If he wants to be the hip swinger, the 007 dude, why won’t he connect with contemporary architects with proven talent to transform such desires into art?” Muschamp wrote. “Arquitectonica, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Thom Mayne…One can rattle off names, but the point is this: What’s objectionable about Mr. Trump’s taste is not the desire for attention, for the best, the most, the tallest, the most eye-catching. It is his failure to realize these desires creatively in the architectural medium. The persona is a force of nature. The buildings don’t rise to the occasion.”
That was in an essay entitled “Trump, His Gilded Taste, and Me,” published in 1999. Now, as I said, it seems naïve, not to say ridiculous, in its romantic view of Trump as a kind of noble savage, ready to be rescued by the architecture critic, who would lead him out of the desert of Liberace to the promised land of Zaha. Muschamp died in 2007, and he would probably have been as appalled as most of us are by what has happened, even though he did begin that essay with a remarkably prescient anecdote of Trump attending an event at Madison Square Garden and being told by cheering crowds that he should run for President. Muschamp reported this with a kind of bemused amazement—the idea, back then, seemed too ridiculous to be worth condemning outright.
Anyway, what does all of this say about architecture criticism? Muschamp’s piece was published 18 years ago, which is a lifetime in the evolution of media, as we have been saying. Back then, the newspapers were still powerful, and Trump wanted good reviews from The New York Times. I know that, since I had my share of having him try to curry favor with me when I was the architecture critic of the Times, before Muschamp, and when I wrote something mildly approving of the richly colored stone in the atrium of Trump Tower, he immediately had that line lifted out of the review and blown up into a quote that he put up on the wall of the atrium—ignoring, of course, the context of the rest of the review, which was not nearly so positive. Later, when I wrote more thoroughly negative pieces about some of his projects, without even a mildly positive line he could take out of context, he turned aggressively against me, and started saying nasty things about me to the gossip columns, mainly about what terrible taste I had. He called me brilliant when he thought he could get something he wanted out of me, and an idiot when he realized he couldn’t. I guess I should be grateful that there was no such thing as Twitter then. In any case it was an early indication of his modus operandi—hit people as viciously as you can by accusing them of the very shortcoming that you possess.
Does architecture criticism have anything to do with the current political/cultural situation in which the country finds itself? We do not need to share Muschamp’s naïve belief in criticism as a kind of cultural savior to feel that architecture criticism is as urgent now as ever, in part because its mission, far from being too broad under Muschamp, was actually far too narrow, I think. He paid relatively little attention to issues of urban design, zoning, planning, housing or preservation, let alone issues of sustainability and technology; it was mainly about aesthetics—admittedly aesthetics defined very broadly, as a kind of cultural positioning with a lot of attention to the connections between aesthetics and the psyche, but aesthetics nevertheless. As I said a few minutes ago, while the core of architecture criticism is always the building as an object, which we can, which we must, evaluate as an object, that core is encased in layers of social, political, cultural and economic realities, which we are equally obligated to engage. I think a moment like this, when millions are poorly housed, when cities lack the support of our Federal government, when we are likely to define infrastructure as meaning more highways and more missile bases and not more housing and more transit, and when tax benefits for building sustainably and for preservation and for alternative energy sources all seem in jeopardy—such a moment cries out for a more activist stance toward architecture criticism than the purely aesthetic. While we have no idea yet what results the current debate about infrastructure will yield, it strikes me as a sad lost opportunity that architecture critics are not at the center of it, key players in the public discourse. And that is just one of many problems we face today in which a more activist criticism could make a difference.
There is plenty of precedent, both in journalism—think of Ada Louise Huxtable and her influence on both preservation and planning—and of Vincent Scully, who used his academic position as an architecture historian to engage powerfully in the battle against urban renewal in the 1960’s; and of course of Lewis Mumford, to whom social issues were paramount all through his long career, which he ended with writing that moved away altogether from architecture and took issue with technology, excessive militarization and the ever-expanding power of the government.
But however much social policy matters, however much all of these other issues are urgently part of how architecture criticism ought to be practiced today, I question the validity of a criticism that is defined solely by these issues.
I do think it is worth remembering that in architecture criticism, as in art criticism, the critics whose voices have mattered most over time have been the ones who are driven as much by their eyes as their hearts and minds, and who bring to the table at least a significant degree of enthusiasm for the new. Mumford and Huxtable did not become the most enduring critical voices of the twentieth century by virtue of rejecting innovation and invention. They did not accept it uncritically, and they often judged it harshly, but there was always a sense of belief in the notion that as architects throughout history had looked for new ways to make form, so can architects today, and the critic can and should encourage the best of them. In art criticism, consider how many people today remember Royal Cortissoz, the famously reactionary art critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, as compared to, say, Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg, the greatest mid-century advocates of the new. John Canaday, the art critic of The New York Times when the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, is little remembered for his impassioned denunciation of Wright’s great building; even though some of his points about the building’s functional drawbacks were true, his writing today appears more like a desperate attempt to swim upstream against the current, or to reject out of fear what he did not understand. The practical shortcomings of the Guggenheim now appear minor compared to its awesome aesthetic power, and you wonder about a critic who was unable to see this.
If architecture matters, it should go without saying that criticism matters. It is, after all, the closest thing we have to a living guide to architecture, what it means, how it affects us. But to say that criticism matters because architecture matters is not enough, because criticism needs to matter on its own terms as well. It matters if it can change architecture, and it matters if it can change people’s lives, helping them to understand the architecture they live with, and to make it better.
For a long time critics yearned for an age when people paid attention to architecture, when society cared about it. Beware of what you wish for, as they say, for we have now gotten that wish, and it is a mixed bag. If we once expected too little of architecture, I fear that today, some of us may expect too much of it. It is worth remembering, I think, that architecture does not cure cancer, and it does not put bread on the table. It is not justice in the courtroom, or peace on the battlefield. The awful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, of a few weeks ago took place on ground hallowed by Thomas Jefferson’s great architecture, but Jefferson’s architectural vision did not put the issues to rest, or add more than a level of tragic irony to what was already a terrible situation. If there is anything the critic needs to be mindful of today, it is that architecture does not solve all of our problems. It does not assure justice; it does sustain life. But it can make the already sustained life much more meaningful, much more pleasurable, and it is the critic’s job, in a way, to observe and encourage and support that process, enhancing the impact of architecture as a resonant presence in all of our lives—whatever the medium, to keep the discourse alive.