Features

Essential Reading

January 25, 2013

AR editor Michael Holt outlines the upcoming forum surrounding the potential within critical writing and its impact on architecture & the built environment.

On Saturday 9 March, the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at University of Sydney – in collaboration with Architectural Review Asia Pacific and Make Space 4 Architecture – stages an event which not only provides encouragement to a flailing profession, but also offers an unique opportunity to discuss the virtues of critical discourse in the contemporary profession. The event Words and Buildings: A Roundtable Forum on Architectural Criticism will be conjoined to a workshop of the same name (both of which are part of the wider Criticism in Art, Architecture and Design forum) offering the Australian design community an occasion to explore the current state of architectural criticism and the challenges it faces.

Renowned architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, author of Writing About Architecture (2012), will join leading members of the Australian architecture media in discussing the role, importance and prospects of architectural criticism in Australia. Lange will be joined by other prominent architecture commentators, representing a range of views on the potentials for architectural criticism.

Alan Colquhoun, the seminal British architecture critic, wrote in The Concept of Regionalism (1997) about “essentialities”, an eighteenth-century term reused by the critic in relation to architectural discourse. He describes how “all societies contain a core or essence, that must be discovered and preserved.” It may well be interesting to consider criticism in this mode of essentiality. Instead of castigating theoretical works or critical accounts, should the process be rediscovered and preserved? This is not to suggest a taxidermist’s approach to theory and criticism. Rather it is to advocate that, as architects and writers, the discipline should reflect on the immediate, present state of architecture.

But what is the function of architectural criticism in the contemporary? Does architectural criticism require a rationale or, obversely, does architecture as a subject need justification through supplementary statements of pseudo-criticism?

Architectural critique currently operates in a sphere of natural indifference, where critical accounts are limited to descriptive recollections of projects or superficial – rather than actual – enquiries into the disciplinary issues related to architectural production. Instead of vacuous and timid approaches, the present profession must return to criticism in a much more incisive way, focusing on the essential and elemental.

The Gothic Revivalist, Augustus N.W. Pugin, produced a revolutionary critical account of his contemporary discipline in 1836. Pugin’s Contrasts was a polemical book attesting to the merits of revival. It was far more than an enquiry into architectural revivalism; it was an attempt to oppose the ruling class. A bold and irreverent publication producing a form of manifesto to challenge and breakdown the conventions and universal orders of the, then, current condition. The present state of architecture may well be reminiscent of its romantic predecessor. The contemporary discipline allows only for the justification of its merits through obeying laws and regulations given to themselves. Therein lies the problem. If practitioners produce conventions to ensure their own validity, then surely the profession has reached a zenith: it no longer requires conventions at all. Regulation becomes conventions, which become ideological doctrines manifesting as ‘taste’. Architecture, as a mode of physical and literary representation, becomes its own destabiliser.

AR editor Michael Holt will appear as a guest panelist for the forums in Melbourne in Sydney.

Alexandra Lange arrives in Australia to undertake a whirlwind tour of major universities. As well as Sydney, Lange will be a guest speaker at a free public event (March 7, 2013) presented by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, exploring the evolution of architecture writing and criticism and the rise of the design blog. The panel includes Justine Clark (independent architectural writer and former editor of Architecture Australia) and Dr Karen Burns (University of Melbourne).  Information on this event and how to register will go online as of February 1, 2013 at abp.unimelb.edu.au. The Criticism in Art, Architecture and Design forum begins on March 6, 2013 at the University of South Australia, Adelaide – unisa.edu.au/seenoevil.

The Sydney workshop is intended for current students in tertiary architecture, art, design, history or cultural studies programmes and will equip participants with a better understanding of architectural criticism’s forms and history. With places limited to fifteen participants, it will be necessary to send an example of previous writing on architecture (published work or academic paper) to Dr. Lee Stickells at lee.stickells@sydney.edu.au by 5pm February 19th, 2013.

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