Analogue critics, digital world

April 6, 2010

To commemorate Australian Design Review’s first birthday, we invite blogger Linda Bennett of Archi-Ninja.com to comment on how digital media is affecting design criticism.

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Midway through my architecture degree, I founded the architecture blog Archi-Ninja. I didn’t set out to provide people with news and information, and I have absolutely no desire to compete with magazines or traditional media – I blog, rather, because I feel the desire to revolt, to find the obscure, to agitate, to be critical, to be self-critical, to expand and to question.

Archi-Ninja is about evolving the field of architecture by aiming to expand the field of architectural criticism. In contrast to the current condition, today’s public is tomorrow’s critic. While architectural magazines and print journals present criticism from a singular frame of reference, blogs with their multivalent, comment-heavy and user-participatory framework offer an unconventional way of communicating architectural ideas in a way that is as flexible as buildings are grounded, as provisional as structures are permanent.

I would describe the traditional position of architectural criticism, both locally and internationally, in terms of two leading variations on architectural discourse: architecture as the ‘hyper-theorised’ and architecture as the ‘building-specific’. Architecture as the hyper-theorised is the discussion of a building from the perspective of abstract ideologies, whereby architectural criticism is developed from a precise field of knowledge. Architecture as the building-specific is the isolated discourse of aesthetic consideration; in this case architectural criticism is limited to a built form and examines only visual considerations.

Each variation of current architectural criticism is supported by the design journalism and print media industries; in my opinion, both are typically toothless and unrepresentative of public concerns. This in turn has rendered a profession that is unable to be self-critical and incapable of openly engaging and communicating with a mass audience, and I believe these traditional forms of architectural criticism are partially responsible for the introverted condition of our industry.

Not that print is entirely without its advantages. The slower pace of offline publication encourages the critic to spend more time thinking about their argument; magazines are not capable of jumping into fight-of-the-moment frays in the same way that many blogs do. The economics of print publications have also lent them an air of weight and responsibility – consumers are willing to pay for high-quality, printed content, and magazines offer sustenance for those who don’t want to spend hours wandering the internet.

Print, however, is fundamentally limited in that it provides a controlled view of a building, concept or idea, without the cross-linking and references that make online reading so rewarding (and so exhausting!). Online architectural criticism differs in the way people discuss architecture, and by what they choose to talk about. It expands into a limitless field, as open-ended as the internet itself. Most importantly, because the economic models are entirely different, many online critics write about architecture not because it’s their job, but because they happen to enjoy it. Critics here are typically far less biased than journals or magazines, as they are generally less reliant on advertising dollars for their support, and have far greater freedom to push the envelope and ask sometimes difficult questions.

The number of blogs is growing every day, responding to the demand for rich, vast and dynamic content, and through doing so beginning to expand the definition of architecture itself. They have become a catalyst for change, rapidly creating online movements and shoring up collective opinions. Blogs are positioned to deal with fast-moving industry changes as well as the micro-shifts that happen in between the monthly issues of magazines and well in advance of the standard two- to three-month print lead times. The reader rather than the industry decides whether something has news value, and is furthermore able and encouraged to immediately provide comment, corrections and more information. In this way, the audience becomes an integral part in the process of criticism, producing a back and forth dialogue that slower paced magazines can only dream about. It is also easy to see which stories are grabbing attention, without having to speculate on which particular pages a reader may or may not be lingering on. Real-time traffic statistics and analytics data become an accurate reflection of what ideas gain traction.

Online culture has handed the reins of criticism over to the public for the first time, diluting the hyper-theorised and building-specific criticism dominant for the latter part of the previous century. Architectural criticism in the hands of the public will evolve both the perception and practice of architecture, by producing a design culture that is more immediate, more responsive, more public and more criticised than ever before. While at present there is an important role for the thoughtful processes of print media, the assimilation of print into the online community is inevitable. That said, no matter the form, as long as we continue to house ourselves, transport ourselves and surround ourselves with space, architectural news and criticism will continue to evolve.


  • Ross Maher April 8th, 2010 9:23 am

    Although a pretty wordy dialogue (I know it can sometimes be hard to avoid), I definitely agree and think online mediums also make architectural critics more accessible to those not schooled in the discipline which will ultimately achieve the outcome you suggest, to “evolve both the perception and practice of architecture”; let’s just hope this doesn’t ‘dumb down’ the discipline and lead to a built-form that only appeals to the lowest common denominator.

  • Linda April 8th, 2010 10:11 am

    Thanks Ross,

    Hopefully by communicating to all denominators, design and architecture will move forward more receptively as a result.

    I recently did a study on ‘skateboarding’ as a medium for architectural criticism because it is one of active participation (unlike writing or theorising). Skateboarding is about resistance, but also about searching for new possibilities of represention and imagination.

    I think architecture can learn and expand from vast and very separate industries.

  • Jeremy April 8th, 2010 10:43 am

    Great article! I tend to enjoy blogs like BLDGBLOG and Archi-Ninja that cover architecture from a different perspective.

    One thing I think blogs will struggle with, is replacing the feeling of a brand new crisp magazine straight off the shelf! Sad to think if it truly is inevitable that digital cannibalises print, younger generations will lose the sensation of purchasing a magazine?

    Well done Linda

  • Simon April 9th, 2010 12:00 am

    It’s good to hear of a criticism that isn’t about hyper-abstract theory or photo visuals. Architecture is, must be, more than this.

  • Mark Raggatt April 9th, 2010 5:00 am

    Theory and critical practice become conjoined twins via the web. Practitioners are more readily able to ‘publish’ ideas without being dependent on print media. This pushes architects toward articulating ideas while also a means to accelerate past the words through intense and immediate criticism.

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