places on architectural criticism – mammoth // building nothing out of something

places on architectural criticism

While mammoth by no means aspires to fit within the category of architectural criticism (though we do occasionally have something to say about it), Nancy Levinson’s recent meta-criticism of the genre in Places strikes me as essentially correct:

By now the rules are so familiar they seem almost inevitable. We’ve come more or less to accept that architecture criticism is a form of art critique; that as such its proper focus is the important output of major architect-artists; and that because the major architect-artists work on an international scale, the scope of criticism is necessarily global. Clearly this isn’t the only critical modus operandi, but it’s the main one, exemplified for decades by the powerful and pace-setting Times, and emulated by any organization with aspirations and a travel budget.

And yet this critical set-up, this art-critique model, is hugely problematic; and its dissatisfactions have been a contentious issue for years (witness the outpouring of comments inspired by Lange’s essay), for it’s a model that’s highly reductive of a complex field. As Lange and others have noted, it tends to view works of architecture almost entirely as objects and hardly at all as environments. It values formalism over experience, aesthetics over function, technology, comfort or performance. It’s about how the building looks more than how it works (which is why you will not learn, in Ouroussoff’s recent pan of the proposed U.S. Embassy in London, by Kieran Timberlake — he dismisses it as a “bland cube” — that the building is designed to be carbon neutral). And the art-critique m.o. is deeply implicated in the increasingly claustrophobic and boring star system, in which critical validation leads to major commissions which in turn receive more critical validation, and so on, creating an ever-constricting favored circle…

This is quite similar to the implied critique present in our recent list of our favorite architectural projects from the past decade.

7 Responses to “places on architectural criticism”

  1. Interesting points. They bring to mind a recent comment from Peter Eisenman, roughly that green architecture allows uninspiring architects to find work. Although he was joking, it suggests a (false) dichotomy between the responsible and the visually exciting.

    I’m not sure critics like Ouroussoff should have to focus on aspects of buildings that fall outside their expertise. Debating aesthetics is important given the way buildings occupy shared space and the tendency of markets to make profit top priority.

    Still, I would prefer that architecture critics include broader ecological impacts in their reviews. Perhaps they could write about buildings at different stages — possibly 5, 10, or 50 years after they open for use — to better understand how they function (including how they look) over time.

  2. rholmes says:

    I’m not sure critics like Ouroussoff should have to focus on aspects of buildings that fall outside their expertise. Debating aesthetics is important given the way buildings occupy shared space and the tendency of markets to make profit top priority.

    I suppose you could make such a case. I don’t think that I would want to — not because I think aesthetics are wholly irrelevant, but because I think that a well-rounded architecture critic cannot be limited merely to aesthetic expertise (as aesthetics are an important part of what architects do, but aesthetic expertise alone does not make one an architect).

    But even if you concede that Ourousoff is basically the right kind of critic, there are still a host of reasons to think that he’s not a particularly good example of that sort of critic (chief among them his obsession with a very small group of elite architects and his disinterest in the local).

  3. rholmes says:

    Oh, and I’d tend to agree that the Eisenman quote is revealing (though to be fair to Eisenman I’ve neither read much of his writing nor paid much attention to his buildings… I’m not an architect, after all).

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  5. To me, architectural criticism comes in two flavors. There is criticism that advances the work of architects and criticism that interprets architecture for the public. That’s Ourousoff’s job as the premier architecture critic of the country. Whereas the intra-professional criticism is usually used to allow architects to express themselves more coherently, the public critic’s job is to interpret the building for the general public.

    The critic should give context to the aesthetics, the conditions, and the history. It’s about bringing the unseen to life. A general knowledge of sustainability, security technology, history, style, building function, building systems, our own unconscious cultural goals are more or less necessary for an interpretation that is not just an opinion. Take a look at this Spillway post I found on Pruned. The discussion of the soft defenses near the end is exactly the kind of commentary that should be permeating Ourousoff’s writing.

    Paul Goldberger’s recent New Yorker article about female architects who break the unjust stereotype of being “decorators” in the mold of Zaha Hadid is a great alternative. It mixes feminism, lean functionality, beauty, iconoclasm, history, gossip, and whatever else into a seriously meaningful article. And this is from a guy who sits on the Dreihaus Prize panel. It’s not just about beautiful mental images (like Ourousoff and Muschamp), it’s about trying to sniff out the purpose and consequences of our built environment.

    So, criticism or no, you two are doing plenty good architecture writing.

  6. I don’t have a strong opinion on Ourousoff, but I’d like to see debate over the built environment fully include those who experience it every day. I’d also like to see any architect considered on the merit of their work instead of star power.

    Of course aesthetics shouldn’t be the only consideration, and I think it’s less important than use, public health, energy consumption, and many other factors. Still, I’d like to see it included, since buildings shape our environments and it’s the greatest when they help create a pleasing atmosphere.

    As for Eisenman, it would be unfair for me to imply that his point was to call all green architecture inferior or claim that great architecture can’t be responsible. I think he was mainly referring to its trendiness.

    And you know I consider landscape architects architects. :) Not that it matters anyway. I wish the term would give way to something that sounds less autocratic.