horizontal line

Criticism Today

Dallas Museum of Art
April 26th, 2012

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here and to mark the official opening of this conference, and to honor the memory of David Dillon, who was the sort of critic every city needs, and it seems to me that fewer and fewer cities now have. When you read Dillon’s pieces, the thing that leaps out at you is the sense that he had no agenda, or at least no ideological or stylistic or theoretical one. His agenda was a better Dallas, and the belief that architecture was a key part of creating that better Dallas, and that the city owed architecture and planning professionals respect, and the opportunity to demonstrate their ideas—and that they, in turn, owed the city their best work.

David Dillon was an advocate for quality, a word that gets tossed around so much it has been stripped of much of its meaning. But in Dillon’s writing you could get a sense of what quality was: it meant care, and precision, and faithfulness to both formal ideas and practical use. It also meant that no building could be viewed as a pure object, apart from its context; you are struck, when you look back at his writing, by the extent to which he focused on planning and public issues that affect the built environment. He never evaluated architecture as an isolated, designed object. He saw it as a living object, if a relatively static one within the larger and constantly changing object of the city itself.

Yet he never took only the large and distant view. In a single review of a single project he could write about the city and write about the larger image of a piece of architecture and at the same time he could bore right into it like a laser, coming close and examining and evaluating its details. “If God is in the details, as Mies van der Rohe is reported to have said, then these office towers are at best agnostic,” he wrote in 1986 of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s Crescent complex here in Dallas. He then proceeded to take apart the mix of “corporate America and Napoleon,” as he called this bizarre relic of what seems, with the benefit of more than two decades of hindsight, to have been Philip Johnson’s most bizarre period. But Dillon never took the easy swipes at this project. He tried, hard, to acknowledge what Johnson was trying to do, and to judge it, first, on its own terms, which is to say he didn’t immediately denounce the very notion of a French Provincial skyscraper complex, even if it did, as Dillon wrote, contain “probably the world’s first French Provincial drive-in bank.” He started out by analyzing the project as a work of planning and urban design, and called it an awkward hybrid of urban and suburban in which even the good planning gestures were overwhelmed by the project’s servitude to the automobile. And then he zeroed in on the architecture itself.

“The mansard roofs, with their finials and frilly ridges, make pleasant if somewhat kitschy skyline decorations,” Dillon wrote, then went on to toss a left-handed compliment: “At least they are designed to be seen against the sky, as Francois Mansard intended, instead of being pushed down over the brow of the building like oversized hats.

“But the metal-and-glass bay windows in the center of each tower look like cheap afterthoughts, especially in combination with the elegant Indiana limestone. And the base of the building is a complete flop, too slight and unarticulated for such a massive facade. It’s as though the weight of the towers has pressed it into the earth, leaving only a narrow band of polished granite showing. On a building that works so hard to evoke older architecture — in which the clear division of a building into base, shaft and top was axiomatic — this is not a minor slip.”

I’m enjoying reading this so much I think I will go on just a bit more. “Spreading over, above and around the Crescent, like a kind of architectural psoriasis, is the cast aluminum grillwork,” Dillon wrote. “Whatever value it has as a decorative or scaling device is offset by its riotous proliferation. No surface or shape has been spared…”
“The architects…explain these details as a grander expression of early Texas architecture, and point to precedents along the Texas Gulf Coast, such as Nicholas Clayton’s Ashton Villa in Galveston. But most of these older structures are less than four stories tall, and their ironwork was manufactured on the East Coast and shipped in. It is about as indigenous as the mansard roof on the neighborhood McDonald’s.”
There are many other pieces like this one, but for our purposes tonight we’ll have to allow that one to stand for all of David Dillon—his commitment to urbanity, his belief in quality, his freedom from ideology, and perhaps most of all, his fundamental fairness. All things considered, it’s a gentle review; I don’t think David took any real pleasure in bringing out the scalpel, and whenever he wrote negatively there was always an air of slight disappointment. You felt that he truly wished the thing he was writing about had been better, and that the architect, or the developer, or the public official, or all of them, had somehow let him down. You always felt that he never gave up hope that the next one would be better.

That earnestness would have been insufferable if it had not been combined with David’s sophistication, intelligence, knowledge of history and a sense of realism. But together with those other qualities, David’s earnestness gave him a belief, a passion, which energized all of his writing, and pushed it forward. To say that Dallas is a better city because of his voice is to speak the obvious. If the phrase “conscience of a city” is a bit of a cliché, I can’t think of an alternative that describes David’s role in Dallas any better.

There was another quality to David Dillon’s work, and let me use it as a way into a broader discussion of some issues of architecture criticism. He was comfortable being a reporter as much as a critic; he knew that facts were the foundation of criticism, and he took pleasure in digging them up. He didn’t only write about what he saw, then; he wrote about what he learned, and what he turned up when he investigated. That’s why he could write about cost overruns at the Meyerson Symphony Center, for example, and make them, as much as the physical setting of the building, a way of contextualizing what he had to say. Budgetary issues weren’t themselves an architectural judgment and he had no desire to make them one, but he saw them as a part of the story, a part he was obliged to his readers to discuss.

I don’t know how much of that we have any longer. It requires an author willing and able to play reporter, as well as a newspaper prepared to devote the resources to supporting that kind of journalism. Of course I do have to admit that right now, Dallas is talking about a story that is a wonderful example of this kind of thorough reporting of an architectural issue, the long piece by Tim Rogers about Museum Tower in the current issue of D magazine. It’s really as good an example of the kind of writing I am referring to as you will see anywhere, though I will say that while it is implicitly sympathetic to the position of architecture since it presents the Nasher as a serious work of architecture being compromised by greedy and shortsighted developers, it isn’t written with a particular focus on architectural issues. But still, it’s a strong and important piece, and given that it’s the talk of the town right now, it may seem a bit odd for me to come to Dallas and complain about the need for more in-depth reporting about issues around architecture.

But my point still holds; this thorough and strong piece of reporting is the exception that proves the rule. It’s tough to do that kind of reporting for a blog, or for a newspaper or a magazine that has cut its expenses to the bone—or if you are an architecture critic writing for a newspaper that expects you to appear in print or online so frequently that you never have enough of the other resource, besides money, that good reporting requires, which is time.

I mention all of this because I think that if we have a problem in architecture criticism today, it is at least as much a function of the broader crisis in journalism, which as I hardly need tell anyone in this room 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 the Internet 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. Even those publications that have established reasonably successful presences online, such as The New York Times, don’t 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 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 you can have 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 continuing authority. The New York Times architecture column isn’t BLDG BLOG. 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 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. But I think that architecture criticism has special challenges. One of them is that new media is particularly tempting, 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 last week, 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, 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. It certainly plays to the strengths of the technology.

“Everything is now shorthand, either visual shorthand or written shorthand,” one of my students said, and this is right again. The challenges are in how you filter all of this stuff, and in the random way in which we encounter it, given how this new, level playing field is so full of players that, as I said a moment ago, I’m not sure how the game even proceeds. Maybe a better metaphor 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 just this spring, 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. Still, I have to 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. 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 the other day 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, I’m disinclined to dismiss this phenomenon entirely, since it has also brought architecture more fully into the public realm, made it more central to civic discussion. 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 bring us all here: 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. On the one hand, there is the crisis in journalism, 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 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 meaningful. 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 you, often by forces over which you 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 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, just as David Dillon was. 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.

Buildings do not just happen: they are the products of a peculiar combination of artistic vision, money, political wherewithal, 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, were eager 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 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. Evaluating how a building looks as a physical object and how it functions will always be the core of the obligation of architecture criticism. My point is only to say that if the core of the responsibility of the critic is to consider the building as an object, that certainly cannot be the whole of his or her responsibility. But I think 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 when the biggest architectural story in Washington is the attack on the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial, much of which seems to be motivated by a demand that the memorial be redesigned in the classical style, an insistence that has often been accompanied by the suggestion that Gehry’s design shows insufficient respect for the principles and politics of Eisenhower. In the age of the Tea Party, of course, Eisenhower seems hardly a bona fide Republican any more, since his politics would hardly pass muster with the Tea Party—by comparison to this year’s crop of Presidential candidates you could almost think of him as a bit of a leftie. But that only makes this story even more complicated.

The problem in this case is how to separate the concept of an official style, which is what the opponents seem to believe classicism should be in Washington, from the challenge of creating an effective and moving memorial to an unusual and important figure in modern American history—the only man since Ulysses S. Grant to have served both as an important general in a major war, and as President of the United States. Should this man, of the twentieth century, be memorialized with essentially the same kind of architecture that Grant was in the nineteenth century? I think there is nothing immoral with doing that, but it is hardly essential. And recent experience in Washington, if the World War II memorial is to be any guide, suggests that we are no longer able to design classical memorials with the power and the grace that we did in the days of Henry Bacon and John Russell Pope. The greatest memorial of our time isn’t World War II, but Maya Lin’s extraordinary Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which of course was also opposed bitterly by some who said that modernism was incapable of creating a memorial that would communicate adequately to the vast numbers of people who would see it—that it was an “elite” style, cold and abstract, revealing hostility rather than patriotism.

I would have thought that the success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the brilliance and power with which it does communicate to everyone, would have been sufficient to have opened the door to more willingness to continue to invent new forms of expression to honor great Americans, but no such luck. The battle now bears an eerie similarity to the one that took place more than thirty years ago. The one difference, ironically, is that the Eisenhower memorial is also being criticized as representing the wrong process, since the architect was chosen not through an open competition but through the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, which has an excellent record of raising the level of Federal design, and has hardly been a system of cronyism.

I’m not sure, by the way, that the Gehry design can’t be improved; there are several aspects of it that I am somewhat unsure about. But I raise it here to make a very different point—that it can’t be discussed in purely formal or aesthetic terms, without at least some discussion of the difficult political context in which this controversy plays out. And the dismissive and hostile tone of the arguments here is deeply troubling as a testament to where the public discourse about architecture stands right now.

No more encouraging is the situation in upstate New York, where one of Paul Rudolph’s public buildings, the 1971 Orange County government center, is closed because of water damage after a hurricane, and the county executive wants to tear it down and replace it with a mock-Georgian structure of brick. Now, Rudolph is difficult, and in general his buildings are not what you would describe as user-friendly. They certainly do not recede into the background. But at their best they are extraordinary investigations into the nature of space and surface, and they place human activity within a dynamic set of forms that, at its best, is ennobling. They are buildings that demand more from us, and that give us more in return.

It is the obligation of architecture criticism to explain that equation, and to help people make a judgment as to whether the price is worth paying. Unfortunately this particular situation is colored by—big surprise here—nasty disputes about money as well as style, since the advocates of tearing down the building show studies that purport to prove that renovation is more expensive than new construction, and advocates of keeping the building have numbers that suggest the opposite.

Probably the particular solution the county executive wants, the banal Georgian building, is cheaper because it’s as plain vanilla a building as you could imagine. It lacks not only architectural ambition, it also lacks the dignity and the grander ambitions of Rudolph, who truly wanted to make a statement about the importance of civic life, and the high value citizens could place on the workings of their government.

He also, of course, wanted to make a statement about innovation, about fresh thinking and new ideas, things that it often seems were valued in government more a generation ago than they are now. Whatever else you can say about the Rudolph building, it’s not government architecture for the age of the Tea Party. But this brings us to another question, which is the extent to which architecture critics have a responsibility to the avant-garde, a responsibility to support the new. If they don’t, the argument might go, who will, outside of architects themselves?

There is some truth to this, although I have a visceral reaction against critics who support the new reflexively, as automatically as some critics reject it. But 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 bring to the table at least a significant degree of sympathy 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.

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. 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 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.

horizontal line