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Scully Prize Lecture, National Building Museum

National Building Museum, Washington DC
November 15th, 2012

Good evening. I could not be more grateful to Maya Lin for being here, and for what she has said. This is the most meaningful and pleasing prize that someone who does what I do can possibly receive, and Maya, by your presence and your words, you have made it even more meaningful and even more pleasing. I am deeply grateful to you.

And I am grateful to the jury of the Scully Prize and the administration of the National Building Museum, not only for making the choice they did this year, but also for the ongoing commitment they have demonstrated to the ideals of this prize. I am not sure that there is any other list in the world that includes Jane Jacobs, the Aga Khan, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Prince Charles—I am not sure that there ever could be any other such list except the roster of Scully Prize winners, and it is an extraordinary honor to be on it.

My greatest debt, of course, is not to anyone in this room, but to Vincent Scully himself, who I first encountered as a 16-year old high school student who went on a college exploratory trip to Yale, attended a Scully lecture, and pretty much decided then and there that this was the place for me. I was lucky enough to have it happen, and I went to History of Art 53b, as it was then called, for four solid years. Yale was willing to grant me credit for only one of them, unfortunately, but that didn’t matter; I went year after year anyway. It was always exciting, it was almost always different—and when it wasn’t, that was fine too, since it was like hearing a favorite piece of music, and when you are nineteen or twenty all you want to do is play all your favorite music again and again.

I went all the time, I think, because I came to expect the transcendent. And often enough that is what we got. I remember being astonished when Vince started quoting from Wallace Stevens in the middle of a lecture, or talked about Frank Lloyd Wright by comparing him to Melville, or to Whitman, or to Mark Twain—I think that at one time or another he did all three—but whoever it was, the notion that an architect might be discussed by comparing him to a literary figure rather than another architect was a stunning revelation to me, a powerful introduction to the belief that underlies all that Vincent Scully has said and written, which is that architecture is a part of the larger culture, and that its meaning comes from its connections to that larger culture.

This is a kind of scholarship that is the opposite of hermetic; it reaches outward, not turns inward.  If I may take one more moment to speak about Vince, I would say that he has based his career on the belief that scholarship exists to make the world better—and that when we develop knowledge, we have a responsibility to use it.  There is a Hebrew phrase that I have always felt described Vince’s motivation as a scholar, Tikkun Olam, which means “to heal the world.”  Vincent Scully, as a teacher, has always healed the world.

Learning that architecture matters is really the greatest lesson I took from Vincent Scully. More than anything I learned about Michelangelo or Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn or Robert Venturi was coming to understand that serious intellectual inquiry need not be inconsistent with passion, and that empathy is a true and legitimate part of analysis, and, most important of all, that the making of architecture cannot be separated from the making of community—indeed, that the very purpose of architecture is to make a visible civilization over time.

It was Vincent Scully, too, who convinced me that I should be studying architectural history, not English, despite my love of writing and literature, and that there was a life to be lived in architecture that could be separate and distinct from being an architect. I went to Yale thinking architecture would be an avocation, a side interest in my life, and I left it feeling that it had to be central to my life’s work.

The way to do that was to continue on the path I had started toward being a journalist, which is what I did. I entered the small field of architecture criticism because it was where the two worlds I cared most about came together. I have never been great at making choices, and I suppose this was a way to avoid ever really making a final choice between writing and architecture.

I’m going to talk a bit more about this field over the next few minutes, since one of the burdens of winning this wonderful prize is the expectation that you will deliver a lecture of some relevance to the theme of the prize: the importance of ideas and scholarship to the built environment, and the direct effect that writing, ideas, or activism can sometimes have on architecture, separate from what we actually build. Architecture criticism, which I will talk about for the next few minutes, is the front line of this process. It is the way into architecture for most people, the medium through which most people who are not architects connect to architectural thinking, the thing that leads non-architects to think about what is built and how it affects them—the beginning, we might say, of public discourse on the built environment.

It’s a very different profession from what it was when I began. Architecture is different, of course, and plays a larger role in the public discourse than it did back then, but if anything, journalism has changed far more. There is more similarity between the architecture we were producing when I started out forty years ago and the architecture we produce now than there is to the nature of journalism forty years ago and the nature of journalism now. Let me say a word about this first, because it is impossible to talk about the state of architecture criticism today without talking about the state of journalism today.

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. It often feels like the swarm you have when five-year olds who don’t yet know how to play soccer play soccer, and you cannot make head or tail out of what is going on. Neither can they, of course, and that is part of the situation we have in journalism and media right now—it’s a swarm that keeps moving and shifting so rapidly that no one can quite grasp its shape, especially if, like the five-year old soccer players, you are in the middle of it. And the chaos on the field can often mean that the most skillful players have little advantage over the others.

I don’t mean to compare the state of journalism intellectually to a scrum of five-year old soccer players, of course. And it’s important to say that the mainstream publications, the ones with a tradition and a history and an ongoing commitment to architecture criticism, certainly continue to possess some degree of ongoing authority in this new world. 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, for many readers, 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 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 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, 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.  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 I admit that tweets rarely 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. The challenges in this are twofold. One is that 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.

And then there is the other challenge this world of new media presents, which is 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, it’s not always easy to know how the game even proceeds. The playing field may be level, but the players aren’t equal, and somehow we need help in sorting out who is worth listening to and who is not. That is really the first challenge of the new media: who is going to curate the material that pours across our computer screens all of the time?

And you know that it never stops. While I’ve been standing here talking I’m sure I’ve missed hundreds of tweets, and maybe 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.

But even if you succeed in managing, or curating, or filtering, the unending flow of information and comments and observations that land in your electronic home, the problem of the level playing field itself remains. Let me go back to the notion of authority, which I brought up a couple of minutes ago. It’s not bad that the hegemony of certain organs of old media has been curbed—the world needed to be opened up. But there is an implicit presumption in the idea of the level playing field that all players are equal, and they are not.

Everybody’s opinion is not equal. It’s unfashionable to say that in the age of crowd sourcing, but there is such a thing as expertise, and such things as knowledge and judgment. New media does implicitly de-value these, even as it gives the welcome opportunity to all kinds of other people to be heard. But a book review on Amazon and a book review in The New York Review of Books are not the same thing. So how do we maintain some sense of authority, some way of making sure that meaningful voices are heard amidst what we know is a lot of noise? The answer is not to shut out the noise, because that’s impossible. Technology will not roll back, and we need to learn to live with its bad aspects as we benefit from its good ones, in architecture as in just about everything else. And I don’t think we want to go back to an age when just a few voices spoke with a kind of celestial authority, and that was all there was. I have an extraordinary admiration for both Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable, each of whom, in a somewhat different way, presided for a period as a kind of oracle of architecture criticism, but no one is going to be like that now. The world is not going to permit it, any more than we will have a political columnist with the authority of Walter Lippman or Arthur Krock or James Reston, or a theater critic with the authority of Brooks Atkinson or Walter Kerr, or, for that matter, a gossip columnist with the power of Walter Winchell or Liz Smith. There are too many other voices out there. And now they aren’t just clamoring to be heard, they are being heard.

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, with the rise of electronic media 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, and there are fewer of them now than at many times in the past. The New Yorker has no plans to replace me now that I have moved on. 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, Michael Kimmelman, 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 the Chicago Tribune, where there is a long tradition of architecture criticism as relating to the broader issues of the city, and where the current critic, Blair Kamin, has 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. Christopher Hawthorne in Los Angeles has done similarly. It’s not impossible to cast the net wide, as they have done. 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. This ought to be clear to everyone now, in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, as challenges of infrastructure and the relationship of buildings to environmental concerns seems more urgent than ever—as sustainability becomes not a buzzword but a very real concept.

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, I know that 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, and past the question of whether we should or should not rebuild towns of little wooden structures on barrier islands on the New Jersey shore as water levels rise—and as I said a moment ago, it becomes harder and harder to deny that sustainability is an issue the architecture critic needs to acknowledge—but when we go through all of these other issues, 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—and what role it may play in the larger story of our culture—will always be the core 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 Lewis 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,” but of course the critic who is only an enthusiast risks appearing, like Browning’s duchess, “too soon made glad, too easily impressed.” Implicit within the idea of criticism is the obligation to explain and interpret, and to share your judgments as well as your enthusiasms. Yet a critic cannot be only an explainer and interpreter; it is all well and good to communicate an architect’s intentions to readers who might not otherwise understand them, but woe to the critic who makes too much of these intentions, and lets them get in the way of clear-eyed judgment. As I look back at the things I wrote during my fifteen years at The New Yorker, or during my career at The New York Times, I’m pleased to say that I like almost everything I did, but for a few pieces in which I was too forgiving of architects’ good intentions—that’s the common element to just about everything that I think I should have done better. The reality is that every piece of architecture is created with good intentions; no one designs a building with bad intentions, and good intentions have given us a lot of bad buildings. Part of the critic’s job is to see through this, and be able to puncture the balloon of architects’ rhetoric.

That said, the critic who has only negative judgments, who never appears satisfied with anything he or she sees, who wants only to rant against the awfulness around him, is of little more use than the enthusiast. Negative pieces can be ferociously entertaining, and we all enjoy a good fight now and then, but tantrums are not criticism, and the critic who can be expected to throw a tantrum every time he sits down at his computer eventually loses his credibility; he seems to be telling his readers more about himself than the work at hand.

And it is, in the end, the work at hand that matters, not the critic himself. 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 this world that all of us here at the Building Museum care about—whether we call it architecture, design, planning, historic preservation, 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 an architecture 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.

The critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote recently that “The serious critic ultimately loves his subject more than he loves his reader,” which seems harsh, but it is absolutely right. Mendelsohn went on: “Because the serious literary critic (or dance critic, or music critic)”—and, we might add, architecture critic—“loves his subject above anything else, he will review, either negatively or positively, those works of literature or dance or music”—and again, we can pretend that he also said architecture—“high and low, rarefied and popular, celebrated and neglected, that he finds worthy of examination, analysis, and interpretation. To set interesting works before intelligent audiences does honor to the subject.”

Mendelsohn wrote this in an essay last summer he called “A Critic’s Manifesto,” in which he offered an equation as the basis for a valid work of criticism:  “Knowledge + Taste = Meaningful Judgment.” He explained: “The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (That is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (That is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.)”

So a critic is not the same as an academic scholar, and he or she is not the same as a tweeter or an online Amazon reviewer or a blog commenter, either. A critic may write tweets from time to time just as he may produce a work of scholarship, but his work as a critic is something different from either of these things.

An architecture critic is also not the same as an architect. I hope that they share a love of their subject as well as knowledge of it, but after that, they are worlds apart. An architect has a right, maybe even an obligation, to believe there is a right way to do things, that there is a direction in which you have to go to solve a particular problem. He may tweak and vary and evolve his design as he works with his client, but he is unlikely to reverse course and turn 180-degrees from where he started. 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; he needs to believe that there are multiple solutions to any architectural problem, and that there is validity to many of them. If not, the critic 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 at all is acceptable so long as it is well done. So how do you combine an absence of ideology, an avoidance of dogma—for that is what I am speaking of—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 in a different way: it would be an entirely reasonable critical position to argue that our housing policy is woefully inadequate, not to say catastrophic, that we need to do more to house the poor than to put our faith in trickle-down economics, just as it would be a reasonable critical position to argue that we need a wider range of types of housing to adapt to the changing needs of the evolving nuclear family, or to argue that we need to build up the public realm and strengthen our commitment to public space. But the critic who states these positions should then be open to a wide range of architectural responses to them. There are many different architectural solutions to our housing needs, as there are many different architectural solutions to our need for a better public realm. By the same token, it’s entirely appropriate for a critic to argue in favor of certain principles such as the value of urban design and policies that strengthen the idea of the street, or even for particular zoning laws, while remaining open to multiple design responses to these principles.

This is another reminder, of course, that architecture can never be wholly divorced from politics. 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 over the last few months has been 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? Even if you think it is, 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, say, who designed the Lincoln Memorial, or John Russell Pope, architect of the National Gallery of Art—two great Washington buildings that, for all their classicism, are brilliantly conceived buildings that are not copies of anything, and in which the twentieth century is stunningly visible.

The greatest memorial of our time isn’t World War II, which is pompous and banal, 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.

Anyway, 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 going on now in Washington bears an eerie similarity to the one that took place more than thirty years ago. I raise it now not only to remind you how suspect modern architecture remains in the minds of so many people, but also to underscore the extent to which this whole business reminds us that architecture 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.

Can criticism fix a situation like this? Not entirely, but it has an obligation to play an active role in the dialogue—as, it should be said, it has done here in Washington where Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post has worked admirably to raise the level of discourse.  And criticism has played a particularly active role in another current issue in which modern architecture has come under fire, this one in Chicago, where Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, a cloverleaf-shaped concrete structure from the 1970’s with round windows, cantilevered over a Miesian base, an early attempt at re-thinking health care design by one of the city’s great architects, has been marked for demolition by its owner, Northwestern University. Here, we saw criticism bloom in every form, from Twitter up to extended essays, and while it does not appear to have been enough to have convinced Mayor Emanuel to stave off demolition, the pressure of critics has made the Mayor’s decision difficult and assured that he would not escape political fallout for deciding to let the building go.

I’m not here to discuss specific works of architecture tonight—that’s why I did not bring any images with me—but it’s hard not to say something about the particular way in which this dispute, too, reminds us how intimately intertwined architectural issues are with everything else.  Northwestern wants to tear the building down to put a medical research tower on the site. Their hospital has multiple alternative sites nearby, but they refuse to use any of them. And they have mounted a campaign against the preservationists, saying that they are against medical research. In other words, you can save this building, or you can save lives: which do you prefer? Well, we couldn’t be better thrust back into the arena of architecture and social responsibility than this argument, which attempts to pit architectural form against social benefit, and suggest that saving a building will have a direct and negative effect on the social fabric.

This is the worst kind of architecture-society connection to argue for, since it is utterly disingenuous. It’s a completely fake dichotomy, a fake opposition, because you can of course believe entirely in the value of medical research and still believe that there are benefits to saving the old building—one does not preclude the other. In the case of Northwestern, they just have to put the new research tower across the street, on land they already own, or their affiliate hospital already owns. For all I am arguing for evaluating architecture in its social and political context, and not seeing form in a vacuum, I don’t buy the architecture vs. human life arguments. If you put architecture up against food, food will win, and it should. Food is about sustaining life. Architecture is about giving the already sustained life meaning.

Floating over all of this, I suppose, is another question, which is the extent to which architecture critics have a responsibility to the avant-garde, a responsibility to support the new—or, in the case of Bertrand Goldberg, the once avant-garde. 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. 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.


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