The Design Observer Group

Posted 11.24.10

Alexandra Lange

Criticism Kerfuffle 2010

Image: "The New Establishment" by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint (via BLDGBLOG).

I am torn about entering Criticism Kerfuffle 2010, entered in the pages of Blueprint and posts at BLDGBLOG, Words in Space and as of yesterday, Urban Omnibus. (You have to read all the way down in the comments of BLDGBLOG and Words in Space to get the dialogue, but I did find it all interesting and possibly productive.) The Twittersphere seems tired of it. There's fair, if not universal, agreement that more and more thoughful criticism would indeed be a good thing, even if some people are looking for it in the wrong places, and other people think it might be dead as form.

But since several parties linked to my writings on Nicolai Ouroussoff and architecture blogging in the archives, and I wrote a long piece on the state of architecture criticism for the Winy Maas-edited edition of Architecture d'Aujourd'hui this summer, I feel I have to say something.

I laughed at this tweet from @sevensixfive: "Is that blueprint thing that everybody's upset about even on the web? No? So what's the big deal?" My AA piece, "Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?" was not online, and I truly do not know if any living soul read it, in French or English. Zero feedback has become unnerving. Design Observer has posted the text in my archive, so you can read it if you so desire. Such is the world of architecture blogging that written in May, published in July, and about the USA for a European audience, it already seems dated.

There are a couple of points from it  I wanted to bring forward. The first is a pre-echo of this from Diana Lind on Urban Omnibus:
To my mind, the reason why there isn’t more of Peter Kelly’s kind of writing is that there aren’t enough places where one can make a living writing about architecture. There are probably fewer than a dozen people who make a living in the United States writing about architecture (and don’t get the majority of their incomes through editing, teaching or consulting). The problem, in other words, isn’t that Geoff Manaugh is a popular blogger, but that the vision of Peter Kelly’s ideal critic isn’t economically feasible these days.
In AA I wrote:
But if we are not careful, if critics don’t assert their authority and attract an audience, if magazines and newspapers don’t keep design and architecture in their culture sections, if new institutions aren’t created online, architecture critique could disappear back into the academy. The uncertainty of the media landscape is part of the problem. For critics to do their job, they need a certain degree of security. Financial security, in the sense of someone to pay for their travel (if the architect pays, it creates an ethical quandary) and someone to pay for their words (to make it worth their while). But they also need institutional security — to a point. Authority comes from expertise, it comes from developing a point of view over time, it comes from the audience expectations that a critic will be there to tell them what is what, but it also comes from others’ support...

Recent experience has confirmed for me that the global architectural audience is dying for everyone to get to the point. Tell us what is at stake (and make sure something is). Be incisive (describe, critique, stop). Be emotional (if you don’t care, don’t cover it up with words). Be thrilling (Why is everyone nostalgic for Herbert Muschamp? Because his writing had feeling). And if possible, talk to each other. One architectural critique can only be so interesting, but the critical swarm, offering real differences of opinion, born from critics’ experiences of different places? That’s exciting.
The blogosphere is perfect for the critical swarm, but (and I know this is not a bloggy POV) there still need to be arbiters to whittle down that swarm. We may want more critics, but do we really care to follow more than a max of 10?
So how could new critics appear? Old-fashioned as it sounds, I think we need people who still have cultural power, as editors, clients, architects, to make them. In the olden days of criticism, critics hand-picked their successors. But now no one wants to leave the job. (Where is there to go?) I have heard several people suggest term limits as a way to keep the limited number of major positions fresh. It is not a bad idea, because if you are doing the job right, you should be exhausted. Michael Sorkin, who set the tone for tyro de-institutionalized criticism at the Village Voice in the 1980s, eventually gave it up. What he writes now has a different tone. But if he had kept writing at that pace his writing, too, would have probably have lost energy. It is a tricky question of timing. Most critics need time to settle into their jobs and find their voice, then they have a few years of glide, then we grow weary of their schtick.
It's hard to find the time or place for any part of that old career trajectory. And yet Lind ends her post with, "Anyone else inspired to answer this call to action?"

That's what I have been trying to do since I started my blog on Tumblr last year (the archives are all now on DO), and my hope for this new Observers Room blog: that it be mostly a forum for the kind of architecture criticism I want to read. That's why Mark Lamster and I started the Lunch With the Critics gig. So far I think I have been most successful in pursuing parks, since I can go to them in my free time. The bottom line, at the end of the endless comments, and the Tweeting, and the kerfuffle, is that there are people — and lots of people besides me — trying to write their way to a future of architecture criticism. But obviously we still need some maps.