If you want blood, you’ve got it

July 25, 2012

‘What is the point of architecture criticism?’ Four writers, architects and editors this week participated in a panel exploring the conventions, merits and shortcomings of architecture criticism. AR editor, Simon Sellars – a participant in the discussion – responds.

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A panel of four speakers convened on 23 July as part of Refuel Victoria’s Monday Night Talks for ’Blood-Sport or Boosterism?’, a discussion about the nature of architecture criticism. The impetus behind the event was as follows:

“What’s the point of architecture criticism? What are its conventions and can we productively subvert them? Who speaks and writes about architecture and why? How might we broaden the conversation about architecture and what it means? Of late, there has been a good deal of debate about criticism and how to do it. This panel discussion uses a new book edited by Naomi Stead, Semi-Detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture, to open up a more complex account of architecture criticism and the role it can play in architecture and in the broader culture.”

 Speakers: Naomi Stead; Ian McDougall (Ashton Raggatt McDougall); Tom Morgan (co-editor, Post magazine); Simon Sellars, editor, Architectural Review Asia Pacific. Chair: Justine Clark.

SIMON SELLARS: Thank you to the esteemed panel members and to the audience for allowing me to participate.

The question for the panel is: “What is the point of architecture criticism?”. I aim to find a way into the ‘problem’ by addressing a few interrelated points. I speak from the perspective of an editor and publisher of architecture reviews, in particular the humble project review – a form of criticism maligned in recent times. Examples of this particular stance can be found in the recent online debate about the MCA, as recorded on our website, in which architect Sam Marshall said “most architectural criticism is drivel,” and in Alan Davies’s recent post on Crikey, ‘Are architecture reviews critical?’. According to Davies, architecture reviews in professional journals “usually present only one solution (the adopted one!) and tailor and massage the constraints to flatter that choice – to make it seem like it was the inevitable, best and only one. More often than not these ‘reviews’ are written by the architects themselves and consist largely of pictures. Even those written by others are rarely critical and seldom in any way that isn’t awfully nice and awfully oblique. They’re really fluff pieces, not reviews in any meaningful sense of the word. There’s little of the plain-speaking criticism a novelist or painter might expect from a critic.”

I’m disappointed in Davies’ assertions, as he is a critic whose opinions generally stimulate me, but also because he appears to be recanting a 2010 article he wrote on the subject, almost identically titled (‘Is architectural criticism critical?‘). There, he wrote: “I would love to see architectural reviews [that discuss] to what extent the architectural outcome was retarded or advanced by the actions of other parties such as the owner and the builder… [However] While authors depend on reviews for sales and some architects perhaps benefit from them, developers and owners generally do not. They might even be damaged by a negative appraisal. So any critique of private developments that is truly critical would have to step carefully around commercially sensitive issues.”

As Davies’ 2010 article suggests, it’s an act of bad faith to equate architecture criticism with literary criticism, art criticism or even film criticism, although confusingly, Davies, the 2012 model, is hardly the first to suggest that it should be treated as such, with many of the most strident voices in support of similar ideas coming from architects themselves. Architecture criticism, and I’m talking about the project review of the type found in both AR and AA, and which Davies, 2012-style, is pointing his gun at, is in fact a peculiar act of collusion between architect and reviewer. There is no getting around that. Most obviously, the reviewer needs the architect’s help or even permission in accessing the building, particularly if it is a private home. Often the architect has paid for the photography that appears in the magazine and also owns the rights to the plans that are published alongside the review and photos. For all of these reasons, there is an unspoken burden of responsibility on the reviewer to not shed blood, to not stick the boot in, to not claim that the building doesn’t work or has failed its civic or public function, to skirt around the issue of how it has failed the client or the taxpayer. After all, the architect’s eyes are watching – they’ve gone to all that trouble! And, to be quite blunt, architects also tend to inhabit thin skins.

A good writer will of course find ways to test such constraints, using their wordsmithing to craft constructive criticism. For my part, I have never instructed a reviewer to hold back. I would also never censor a writer who submitted a review containing very strong opinions. However, the reality is that a great deal of self-policing occurs. If the reviewer is an architect, invariably they will not want to be seen to be attacking a peer, nor will they want to jeopardise potential collaborations or future job opportunities – this appears to be particularly so at a time when so few job opportunities seem to be on offer. If the reviewer is not an architect then those pressures obviously don’t apply, although the burden on the publisher remains. If we annoy an architect by publishing a less than enthusiastic review, then there’s a reasonable chance that the practice won’t give us access to their best projects in the future, and as a commercially driven, advertiser-beholden publication that is a worry. I’m not saying I’d pull the review necessarily, or rewrite it, but it is a concern – advertisers, after all, want to be situated next to the best projects. This is peculiar to the profession: architectural criticism, in this form, is what it is and there’s little point in pretending otherwise. After all, a film reviewer doesn’t need to ask a director for permission to view the film before reviewing it.

Yet Davies and certain architects, including some in the audience at Monday night’s discussion, feel that the gloves should come off, that we should say in plain-speaking terms when, why and exactly how a building does not work. My response? If you, the architecture profession, want a more ‘robust’ culture of criticism, in the ways that you have outlined, then that is up to you, as architects, to accept the consequences. I place the onus back on the profession because I’m somewhat bemused that publishers are being held accountable for this particular ‘problem’. If you want us to ‘spill blood’ in a review, then I’m fully prepared to spill blood, and to unleash my review-dogs of war, but don’t then turn around and say you’re not going to publish with us again, or that you’re going to sue. I don’t believe in negative or hurtful criticism for the sake of it, but I do believe – like Davies, funnily enough – in honest, constructive criticism. And sometimes that can sting.

This brings me to another point: the threat of libel. When I first started at AR I was warned that defamation laws in Australia are particularly vicious and unforgiving when it comes to criticising buildings, no matter how reasoned or articulate the opinion may be. In this country architecture writers can be and have been sued, and Alan Davies knows this. In his 2010 article, he acknowledged: “The law has long made it hard to review buildings critically. In 1979, architect John Andrews won a defamation action against Fairfax for claims in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Belconnen office complex he designed ‘leaked like a sieve, was an administrative nightmare, a property manager’s nightmare and, in effect, a security risk’. The leaking issue is something that presumably could be established factually but the other points are much harder to pin down.” From talking to other architecture editors, publishers and writers in Australia, I know that this overarching, unspoken threat is not confined to one misty incident in time.

One way to get around the constraints of the project review is to publish features alongside them that talk in more general terms, that are ‘no holds barred’ about the problems and challenges facing Australian architecture. But even then, and I don’t exaggerate, I’ve received semi-serious death threats and half-serious threats of legal action for publishing certain pieces – and I’ve only been in the job just over a year. Let me assure all of you: in the journals at least, there is no conspiracy to protect certain reputations via ‘fluffy’ architectural criticism, or to preserve a certain elite, or to prop up whatever other silly charges get levelled at us. To return to the ‘blood sport’ metaphor, and to quote AC/DC this time: “If you want blood, you’ve got it”. But then my warning would be: “Be careful what you wish for.”

To conclude, I feel that a large part of my role as AR editor is to involve the public in the debate about architecture and the built environment, to widen and enhance the conversation by capturing and including the public voice. In that sense, I agree with architect Don Bates, who in the audience on Monday posed a provocative question to the panel: What does it really matter if architecture criticism, as we once knew it, no longer exists? Maybe we’re looking at the wrong model: Why do architects want to be assessed in the same terms as film or book or art reviews? Again, the humble architecture project review is what it is, unless you, the profession, say otherwise.

In this debate about ‘toothless’ architecture criticism, and the point of the critical discipline, people frequently point to the demise of long-form architecture writing as some sort of harbinger of doom, as if it means the profession itself no longer matters, but a lack of writing about architecture should not be confused with a lack of interest, public or otherwise. On Twitter and in the margins of other social media, such as the comments sections of online newspapers, there is a very vigorous, very robust and often blood-spattered public debate happening about our built environment involving architects, planners, developers and the public alike. The interest is there but the means to tap into it in a meaningful, analytical way is perhaps not, at least as long as the obsession with the ‘review’ remains – or at least, a nostalgic view of what a review is supposed to be (as local lore states, real blood, alongside the metaphorical variety, was spilled in the old days of RMIT’s Half Time Club, a legendary live forum for architectural debate). As another audience member, Ammon Beyerle, suggested, perhaps it’s not the public that lacks the language to deal with architecture – perhaps it’s architects who no longer have the language to communicate with the public.

For me, asking the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” is to ask the wrong question, and it’s no wonder that we are, in a sense, getting the ‘wrong’ answers by asking it. After all, this exact same debate crops up in a circular fashion in Australia, and there are online records of similar debates, couched in remarkably similar terms, being conducted as far back as 2003. Has anything been resolved in the meantime? I don’t want to sound entirely cynical by posing that question, as I wonder if the debate crops up in times when the profession itself – let alone the sideshow of criticism – is perceived to be ‘in crisis’. Was that the case in 2003? I can’t say for sure as I wasn’t on the scene then, although I can say that ‘crisis mode’ is certainly the perception today from many quarters. Perhaps asking the question, then, is a sign of the profession wanting to claw some credibility back for architecture, to make architecture mean something again in the face of rampant development, artificially intelligent consumerism and sentient capitalism. And that’s valuable – it’s an undeniably valid concern. Yet I still think the debate can be productively shifted sideways without losing that core ideal.

This brings me to my final point: that perhaps the role of the architectural advocate, rather than the critic, will play a more crucial and central role in not only educating the public about good design but also actively involving all of us – critics, architects or otherwise – in the conversation about good design and liveable cities. Here in Melbourne, for example, Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips and their Amsterdam-based colleague Rory Hyde fulfil that role, with their fingers in publishing, radio and TV pies. Learned, articulate and witty, their response to the built environment, and their advocacy of it, is never dumbed down or less than serious, yet it is always engaging. It’s not simple cheerleading, either – it’s an honest appraisal of what makes good built design, and the implications if that is ignored. Given an even bigger stage, I have no doubt that they would continue to educate an even wider public interested in the makeup of our cities. I like to think that the project reviews I’ve commissioned for AR begin to approach this new mode, too.

I’ll end with two quotes that articulate the idea of advocacy for me, and that also render further the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” as redundant. The first quote is from Kieran Long, the English architecture writer, who participated in a similar panel organised by Domus magazine. On Twitter, Long said: “Any long essay on the future of architectural criticism is about the most pointless piece of writing imaginable.” When pressed, he responded: “I was part of the Domus event, and it was an aimless discussion. [Architectural criticism] just feels like a microscopic concern right now, and the current state of it doesn’t really reward/merit lengthy study.”

The second quote is from Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architectural critic, who makes a similar point, while introducing the advocacy angle:

“To a large extent, the public conversation about architecture has been dominated by people who shared particular interests in formal and material innovation … But there have always been vast numbers of people interested in buildings, landscape and urban affairs, infrastructure and planning, in the interaction of formal and social inventions – people who have profound interests in cities and transportation and the way we live – who have felt left out of the conversation … I’d like to believe that my role is to act as an advocate, not simply to respond to what’s proposed or built – which often means going beyond the role of a reviewer, as criticism is so often defined. Architecture is far too important to lose itself in questions about the state of criticism, which is not interesting.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Long and Kimmelman: there are far bigger fish to fry.

  • Justine July 25th, 2012 4:43 pm

    Thanks Simon. The point I would make is that the bloodsport/boosterism opposition is part of the problem. If we persist in framing arch crit in these terms we can’t fry the bigger fish. The modes of criticism I am interested in do all the things you argue for – and I think we have writers here who are very capable of writing, and do write, in this way. To say we need to step outside this opposition is not to say that arch crit is or should be toothless – or that it is in crisis (yawn) – it needs to be robust, and to take the work and the world very seriously. Maybe you are right, maybe we should just get on and do it and stop talking about it. But if readers are only looking for the tick or the cross next to the building, they miss both the point and the frying fish.

  • Anu Chatterjee July 26th, 2012 10:53 am

    Good piece Simon. I am happy to see you advance the “architectural advocate” over the “critic”, that in its purest form will take the form of blood thirst, as you point out…The role of the advocate on the other hand is a generous (read generous as considered and informed) gesture to both the public and the profession (not to mention students)…I was interested in the quote from Kimmelman – “going beyond the role of a reviewer, as criticism is so often defined”, and will keep thinking about this…

  • Alan Davies July 26th, 2012 10:59 am

    Simon, there’s no contradiction in the passages of mine you quote. I’m saying (a) most reviews aren’t critical and (b) there are understandable reasons for that. You’ve quoted selectively, but anyone who reads both articles will see they both make those two entirely consistent points.

    One of my takeaway message is don’t use terms like “criticism” or “review” when they don’t apply. It’s clear from your article that’s not the business you’re in.

    Another takeaway is architecture schools should be doing the sort of detailed evaluations of buidlings – including post-occupancy assessments – that journals, for a range of reasons, choose not to.

    I also think that, even with the essentially political constraints you discuss, there are things journals can do better. One is to explore in more depth how an architect responded to a problem, and how the solution evolved. Explain the range of constraints that had to be addressed and the alternatives considered.

    Have a look at your current lead architecture story on the Francis Street apartments. It tells us little about why and how that particular solution evolved. I’d say many readers are very interested in the pictures, but they’d also be interested in the design process if editors would offer it to them.

    And as editors, you could and should be doing something about all that pretentious prose. I suspect most readers from design professions would prefer plain-speak over archi-babble. If there is indeed a lack of interest in what’s being written about architecture that might be a key reason.

  • Naomi Stead July 26th, 2012 1:35 pm

    Thanks Simon – a thoughtful contribution to the debate. I am still thinking about your question on the night, about why this perception of crisis in criticism is cyclical, and also why it just won’t go away. I think you might be getting close to an answer – it may indeed be ‘a sign of the profession wanting to claw some credibility back for architecture, to make architecture mean something again’. Architectural criticism would then be the lightning rod for all the much larger ills of the profession, and its marginality in the world more generally. Lightning rod, or scapegoat.

    That twitter comment by Kieren Long was in fact in response to my own essay in Design Observer. While I am stung by it (who wants to think of their work as the ‘most pointless piece of writing imaginable’? It’s almost comically demoralising) I think he missed the point – the essay was not actually about the future of design criticism (that title was an add-on), it was about how new modes of online sociality can be seen in a continuum with the historic development of the public domain. I think that cultural critique which sees architecture in the context of larger historic, social and cultural currents, will always be a worthwhile intellectual endeavour.

    In the meantime, I can’t share your optimism about the role of the ‘advocate,’ as distinct from the critic. If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck… The role of the critic has always been broader than that of judge; as far as I’m concerned the critic has always been an advocate – in the sense of arguing a case either for the prosecution or the defence, supported by evidence, and measured against a body of historic and disciplinary architectural ‘law’. Hence my comment on the night about the critic/advocate walking a line between enthusiast and apologist. But I suspect that your advocate will encounter just the same circular conversations, the crisis mode, the constant complaints about weakness and bias. Sigh.

  • tania July 26th, 2012 1:43 pm

    While it goes without saying that Transition and the Half Time Club were powerful and influential forums for criticism, nostalgia gets us nowhere. The issues that were contested in those forums are not the same issues that are being contested today.

    Currently the landscape for critical discourse is wide open and filled with opportunities that we need to engage with. The project review is just one small part of the equation.

    Perhaps, rather than asking what the point of architectural criticism is, we need another discussion that asks the question: what is the current terrain for architectural criticism? If the terrain has shifted: what is at stake now; who is engaging with these issues; how are they doing it; and how might this engagement be expanded?

    If the media of dissemination and the modes of production for architectural critique are in flux and more varied than ever what roadmaps need to be produced to make contemporary architectural criticism accessible? Social media has the potential to be a powerful site of critique. It is enabling the development of new and subversive ways to disseminate and discuss architecture but navigating it can alienate a significant audience.

    And a final thought: if the old fashioned architecture critic is on the way out, as many suggest, how does the contemporary critic establish agency and how might this agency have broader influence and engage at a greater level with the public and the public realm?

  • Simon Sellars July 26th, 2012 5:54 pm

    Thanks Alan – I think there is scope to do what you suggest in feature-length essays, and that’s something we look to implement. I am talking mainly about project reviews in this piece, but critical essays are something we can and do run. Post-occupancy assessment ideas are something that has been discussed, too.

    Also, I think there’s very little ‘archi babble’ in the recent issues of AR. Have you read them?

    In any case, I, as I said, am a fan of your work. If you’re interested in correcting some of the things you identify, from the ‘inside’ so to speak, I’d be happy to commission you for AR.

  • Simon Sellars July 26th, 2012 5:55 pm

    Hi Naomi,

    I didn’t realise Kieran was talking about your essay. However, I think you and I broadly agree, sharing an interest in the cultural/social currents swirling architecture and built environments. And just being on the same panel as you, and reading Semi-Detached, has sent my mind racing in all sorts of positive directions!

    When I say ‘advocate’ I want to stress again that I don’t mean ‘cheerleader’; the people I’ve mentioned in that category, and yourself of course, are still critical in approach. It’s the nostalgic definitions, though – and how they straightjacket debate – that we’re all trying to avoid, isn’t it? But yeah, the same depressingly circular arguments will always be a constant to be battled, i suppose…

  • Jo Russell-Clarke July 30th, 2012 7:55 pm

    Thanks for the post and discussion. I agree with Justine that ‘the bloodsport/boosterism opposition is part of the problem’. As indeed is an opposition of critic and advocate as Naomi suggests: ‘the critic has always been an advocate’. ‘Criticism’ is not necessarily negative – a bloodsport – while praise is not necessarily targeted boosterism or vacuous puffery or impenetrable archi-babble.

    It is a little hard to set aside the insights of Michael Benedikt in his introduction to Judging Architectural Value (Saunders, W. S. (2007) “Judging Architectural Value: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader.” University Of Minnesota Press http://www.archidose.org/books/value.html ) But I thought I’d like to share a favourite text I came across while looking for material for students to get a grip on critique – and critical practice for that matter. (For here is almost another form of false opposition: the creative practice of architecture as one that gets real stuff built vs the critical practice of writing about architecture which doesn’t build anything. Where to then put practices of drawing and other representational media that occupy slippery scales of ‘reality’…? Of course, they may all be critical as well as creative modes of architectural practice.)

    Tania asked:
    “… if the old fashioned architecture critic is on the way out, as many suggest, how does the contemporary critic establish agency and how might this agency have broader influence and engage at a greater level with the public and the public realm?”
    While I am not sure there is an old-fashioned critic who offers criticism differently to poor criticism in any age, as partial answer to Tania’s question I would like to suggest consideration of the critical engagement and writing of Peter Schjeldahl. Yes, an art critic. So already I disagree that architectural criticism – especially if it is seeking the forms of wider as well as loftier engagement being aspired to as I think Naomi encouragingly says (‘I think that cultural critique which sees architecture in the context of larger historic, social and cultural currents, will always be a worthwhile intellectual endeavour’) need not excuse itself as having a different mission from critique of other forms of cultural production, even if it may have some different constraints and difficulties.

    Anyway, in the introduction to a collection of his reviews, Schjeldahl speaks of a note he came across scribbled by his much younger self on a 1979 catalogue:

    “What do I do as a critic in a gallery? I learn. I walk up to, around, touch if I dare, the objects, meanwhile asking questions in my mind and casting about for answers – all until mind and senses are in some rough agreement, or until fatigue sets in. I try not to think about what I will write, try to keep myself pried open. My nemesis is the veer into mere headiness, where ideas propagate fecklessly, and the sense are reduced to monosyllabic remarks now and then. I try to chasten my intellect with the effort of attention, which in intellectual terms is doubt – doubt being the certainty that you’re always missing something. To stay as close as possible to confusion, anxiety, and despair and still be able to function is the best method I know.”
    Schjeldahl, P. (1994) Columns & Catalogues, Figures. p.12

    (You can read this and more on Google books: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=DAL-se4M9IkC&q=what+do+I+do#v=snippet&q=casting%20about&f=false )
    This description of the ideal role and process of the critic might well be different to what is anticipated of the audience who has come to experience (and ‘wonder’ at) the work and different too to the process of conceiving and producing it. It may be particularly different in the case of producing architecture. But if appreciation requires critical evaluation and design is a critical practice, there must be similarities. As design critics we can – often without permission – touch, stroke and physically experience the work with impunity…

    The issue of permission (from architect, owner, etc) to experience the work is raised as a peculiarity and potential impediment to architectural criticism. (Regarding ‘permission’ Justine brings up another core matter in an earlier post: ‘It is important to distinguish between the magazine having ‘permission’ to publish a project and the reviewer having ‘permission’ to write about it – ideally, the reviewer gains permission through the commission, not through the architect.’ http://www.australiandesignreview.com/opinion/19965-criticism-in-crisis-justine-clark-and-andrew-mackenzie-in-conversation ) I wonder if we overplay what others determine to be permissible. After all, if we want broader public engagement with work, do we expect the public will have to find the same permissions as the critic in order to find the same experience? Or can we bring our knowledge and trained sensitivity to assist in analysis and unfolding of the experience of architecture that might be available without anyone’s explicit consent, even though it is quite marvellous to have access to materials and places generally unavailable as well as the assistance and generosity of designers who are keen to share and even keener to know what others think of, and feel about, their work?

    There is a lovely review of Schjeldahl’s book here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/887162

    “You feel that when he is addressing you personally, he is still respecting your inevitable differences of opinion. After all, he allows that he often disagrees with himself… He is often surprisingly generous as when, speaking of Barbara Kruger, he admits that ‘art has legitimate ways and uses beyond what I prefer’. In Schjeldahl’s re-telling, even his (seemingly rare) experiences of boredom seem interesting… Too often American critics ask: ‘how should I judge this work?’ Schjeldahl asks: ‘what here excites me?’, or, at least, ‘what can I enjoy in my encounter with this artwork?’ …these texts pose, yet again, one serious question: to what extent should art criticism transcend its origins in journalism? Schjeldahl trusts his eyes, and so everything he says inspires fascination. Most critics send you to the library. Schjeldahl makes you rethink your own experiences.”

    Who would not wish that their critical writing might approach such helpful insight and offer its own delight to readers?

  • Neph Wake August 1st, 2012 12:15 am

    Some really interesting food for thought here, thank you Simon et al.

    The ‘stretching’ of practice is fairly well established (think for instance of Klein Dytham’s practice and ‘Formations’ for Venice 2012), but criticism still seems to be framed in a fairly static manner. That is, the default assumption is that criticism consists primarily as a written review of a built projecct. Even here, where there is an attempt to dissect form and purpose, the comments are about ‘writers’ ‘pretentious prose’ and ‘scribblings’. As I missed the panel session (curses, curses), I wonder if the form of reflection (written or otherwise) is being used to subconsciously distinguish between ‘critic’ and ‘advocate’? As Naomi points out, the division is blurry (and possibly meaningless). However, abandoning to some extent the baggage of the term ‘critic’ may open up more meaningful opportunities for dialogue with a wider audience, which appears to be presented as the desirable endpoint here. (Again, apologies if this was covered by the panel).

    To pick up on Tania’s questions on evolving modes of production of criticism and the terrain of criticism [great term by the way!], Kazys Varnelis’s interview of Pedro Gadanho for Domus “Curation is the new criticism” is well worth a look (http://www.domusweb.it/en/interview/pedro-gadanho-curating-is-the-new-criticism/) as well as an earlier reflection on the same topic (http://blog.biarch.eu/mbiarch/gadanho-interview/).

    Will keep thinking on this…

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