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Writing About Architecture

Yale School of Architecture
October 8th, 2007

Thank you. I am pleased to be here, presumably representing the critic’s side of the equation. You know, Sir Henry Wotton, a frequent commentator on architecture, used to say that critics are like brushers of noblemen’s clothes, according to Francis Bacon.

Not to be outdone, Lord Byron wrote that one might

_As soon seek roses in December, ice in June,
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff
Believe a woman or an epitaph
Or any other thing that’s false
Before you trust in critics._

Well, there you are. I would like to think that Byron was really talking about literary critics – but even so, the point is clear, which is that the critic is a complainer, a naysayer, or perhaps, even less admirable, a flatterer – that is surely Sir Henry Wotton’s implication – but either way, whether he praises or complains, he is not a figure who either creates real work or makes a significant contribution to the theoretical dialogue. He is neither architect nor historian nor theoretician.

While we are in the mode of quoting from eminent literary figures on criticism, let me add Matthew Arnold, who defined criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” – a line I understandably prefer to Byron. This actually gets to the heart of the point of criticism, I think, which John Donatich touched on in his opening remarks when he asked about whether architecture criticism should have an educational role, building the aesthetic sensibility of readers.

The answer to that question is yes. If it didn’t sound hopelessly pompous, I would say that the purpose of criticism in the general media is to create a better educated, more critically aware, more visually literate constituency for architecture, and thus, presumably, increase society’s demand for good design. Now, since I don’t want to sound hopelessly pompous, I won’t say that. And in fact I am not I am not here to advocate for the notion of the architecture critic as missionary, believing that he or she is saving the world, or rescuing it from the sins of ignorance.

Still, at the end of the day, this whole notion has a certain amount of truth. It isn’t the only reason people like me do what we do, but it is a big part of it, and while it is important not to get carried away with your importance, and to believe that you are there to provide enlightenment for the unenlightened masses, it is equally important not to forget that a substantial part of what a critic does is to educate. If you believe in education, and you believe in what we can call visual literacy, and you believe that there is some way in which design can make the quality of life and the quality of community better, then you have to believe that this is at least part of why design criticism exists, and why it is essential that the profession not talk only to itself.

So a certain part of a critic’s job is to provide a kind of bridge, you might call it, between the profession and the public, though bridge is probably the worst possible analogy, because the last thing a critic should be providing is unfettered passage in both directions. We all know that everything is not worthy of advocacy, and that the critic has to be a filter of ideas – in other words, to exercise judgment. If I were to take issue with anything that John said at the outset of this session, it would be with his use of the word “alternatively” to set apart the critic’s educational role and his or her activist role in the public sector, advocating for good projects and doing what he can to prevent bad ones. This and the educational role are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they go hand in hand. Without judgment, there is no criticism. And without some sense of public advocacy, criticism is not grounded in the reality of our time, and forfeits a key opportunity for meaning.

In a wise critic judgment is tempered by enthusiasm, although surely many critics could be described more in terms of having enthusiasm tempered by judgment – and I think the difference between those two speaks more to the personality of individual critics rather than to any critical or journalistic imperative – anyway, whether it is judgment tempered by enthusiasm or enthusiasm tempered by judgment, a critic needs both of these qualities to be of any value.

Both judgment and enthusiasm are 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 or 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. I don’t think this is inconsistent with exercising judgment; indeed, as I said before, judgment and education go hand in hand, and are certainly parts of a critic’s role as a kind of interpreter, to communicate his love of things and in so doing, instill love in others.

Now, I realize that all of this sounds a little touchy-feely, or maybe a little soft in the head. It definitely feels distant from the notion that the point of this realm of journalism is to be tough, and judgmental, and to expose the wretchedness of ninety-nine percent of what gets built in this country, not to mention to expose the rampant inequities in redevelopment schemes, and the horrendous lack of a housing policy in this country, or the failure of planners to create a viable public realm in cities today. Well, yes, and the critic who is only an enthusiast risks being seen, like Browning’s duchess, as “too soon made glad, too easily impressed.” As I look back at what I have done in _The New Yorker_ in the last couple of years, I think several of the negative pieces – whether on the Westin Hotel at Times Square by Arquitectonica, or the Astor Place condominium by Gwathmey Siegel, or the Atlantic Yards project by Frank Gehry, or the Prada store in Soho by Rem Koolhaas, which I compared unfavorably to the Toys "R" Us store in Times Square – all of these have had at least as much impact as the positive pieces I’ve written. Now, because _The New Yorker_ does not as a matter of policy try to cover everything – because we are selective, both for reasons of limited space and editorial judgment – the decision to write a negative piece has a special weight. We need to believe that there is something important enough to say in a negative piece to justify giving a building one of the few precious slots in the magazine for an essay on architecture. After all, we can always simply ignore a building. We ignore most of them anyway.

But it is important that criticism not follow what we might call the Kindly Grandmother’s Rule – in other words, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. At _The New Yorker_, because we are so selective in what we write about, I am always a little worried that people may think we are operating on the Kindly Grandmother’s Rule of criticism, since there are so many buildings we don’t say anything about. Often we pass on them merely because they do not present any significant issues that can inspire an interesting and provocative short essay, not because I don’t like them and don’t want to say anything negative. Then again, sometimes I pass on a building that I don’t like because there isn’t anything negative to say that feels enlightening enough, or meaningful enough.

I wrote about the Astor Place building not to be critical of Charlie Gwathmey, an architect who I generally admire, but to make a point about the glib and superficial modernist work now being done by developers in the condo market, and about the way in which architecture has been conscripted into the process of marketing. In some ways the Westin hotel piece – which had as its subhead, under the headline, “Is this the ugliest building in New York?” – was written to inquire into what constitutes vulgarity today, and also to make a similar point to the Gwathmey piece, about the way in which architects with serious design intentions can become compromised by the commercial development process.

I have not spoken much so far about ideology and theory, and that is intentional. I think a key difference between an architect and a critic – or a theoretician and a critic – is that the former has a right, even an obligation, to proceed from a theoretical viewpoint, and 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. That belief – that there is only one correct solution to a problem – strengthens the work of the architect, and it enables the thinking of the theorist. You do not want an architect who sees too many ways to go, and 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, or 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 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, from a recognition of the difference 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. I believe architecture exists in a social and political context, and almost always needs to be judged within that context.

Finally, I’m mindful of another issue John raised, which is the question of the effect architecture has on the quality of life. 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, we may expect too much of it. 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.

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