An architect wrote to me recently in near anguish that architecture criticism is in crisis. The case seems pretty compelling:
In December, the website Slate rubbed out its architecture critic post filled by Witold Rybczynski. In March, The New Yorker gave the heave-ho to The Sky Line column established in 1931 by Lewis Mumford and for the past almost 15 years written by Paul Goldberger. And at the New York Times new architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, ten months on the job, rarely writes about individual buildings.. Anyone can write architecture criticism, says Alexandra Lange in her new book Writing About Architecture (reviewed for AN by Goldberger), but that may be just another way of saying that no one is currently doing so with real authority.
Is the media giving architecture the shaft? It certainly felt like it when former New York Times managing editor Bill Keller blogged with imperious condescension about architecture as “a genre that can be, at its worst, precious and narrow” where buildings are treated “as if they were gowns on the red carpet.” A whiff of hostility hovers as well over the controversy surrounding Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial design which should have been making slow progress from concept through revision towards realization but has been stopped in its tracks by compulsive and eagerly covered nit-picking with no sense of trust that Gehry has long since proved his abilities.
Recently Goldberger and I chatted about the media’s versus the public’s interest in architecture. Where the former seems soured on the subject, the latter seems more engaged than ever by the look of crowded community board meetings (often for NIMBY’s sake, sure, but true civic interest is also on abundant display), the proliferation of design-themed blogs and ample coverage on major sites such as the Huffington Post, and even Bjarke Ingels’s clips from the TED conferences that attract an average of half a million online viewers. The audience seems to be there, even if it is moving away from thoughtful consideration in the traditional sense and more in the direction of play-by-play commentary.
Still Goldberger and I have both had our share of experiences where editors—those easily distracted gatekeepers to readers—dismissed architecture coverage as so much insider baseball or acted suspicious of it as an extension of someone’s marketing plan. Architects have not helped with over-complicated narratives that too often read like parodies of complexity rather than accurate representations of all the intricate forces that comprise building.
Perhaps it’s time to give formal criticism a rest. Remember that the last time architecture was a popular subject matter for public intellectuals was during the reign of postmodernism when Tom Wolfe among many others had a heyday reducing a moment of intense intellectual foment into a gong show.
Today again, architecture is at a moment of tremendous transformation when to be successful buildings must address a wider array of imperatives—social, financial, technical, sustainable, contextual—than ever. Patronage displays and destination building are a thing of the past. Even China emerged rather quickly from its fever dream of building to impress the world, while the latest Olympics in both London and Rio are stalwartly avoiding show-off structures in favor of lasting infrastructure.
Architecture criticism may no longer have important friends or fans in the general media. What better time for architecture commentary to find a new voice—not one that engages strictly with any one aspect, whether of form or social responsibility, but one that takes on the entire gamut. Instead of bemoaning a crisis in criticism, architecture writers and also educators could start down that new path by focusing on plain writing making sure that it is as compelling, comprehensive, and clear as it can be. And for that there is always an urgent need for, as Mumford understood (even as he carped short-sightedly about the disappointments of Rockefeller Center), architecture remains an “index of civilization” well worth the widest possible attention.