The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.06.10

Nancy Levinson

Critical Beats

Alexandra Lange begins her recent essay in Observatory — Why Nicolai Ouroussoff is Not Good Enough — with a provocative allusion to the possibility that the job of architecture critic "might be doomed" and that the current critic for the New York Times might be "the last architecture critic." Lange then concentrates on Ouroussoff's sensibility and approach, and she argues, eloquently and astutely, that he is "making a poor case for keeping the breed." She doesn't really delve into whether the field has a future. So I'd like here to take up this thorny topic, and to suggest that architecture criticism, at least as practiced by our paper of record, is doomed, that in fact it's been losing force for years — and for reasons that have to do not just with the quality of the critical players but also with the rules of the critical game. [1]

By now the rules are so familiar they seem almost inevitable. We've come more or less to accept that architecture criticism is a form of art critique; that as such its proper focus is the important output of major architect-artists; and that because the major architect-artists work on an international scale, the scope of criticism is necessarily global. Clearly this isn't the only critical modus operandi, but it's the main one, exemplified for decades by the powerful and pace-setting Times, and emulated by any organization with aspirations and a travel budget.

And yet this critical set-up, this art-critique model, is hugely problematic; and its dissatisfactions have been a contentious issue for years (witness the outpouring of comments inspired by Lange's essay), for it's a model that's highly reductive of a complex field. [2] As Lange and others have noted, it tends to view works of architecture almost entirely as objects and hardly at all as environments. It values formalism over experience, aesthetics over function, technology, comfort or performance. It's about how the building looks more than how it works (which is why you will not learn, in Ouroussoff's recent pan of the proposed U.S. Embassy in London, by Kieran Timberlake — he dismisses it as a "bland cube" — that the building is designed to be carbon neutral). And the art-critique m.o. is deeply implicated in the increasingly claustrophobic and boring star system, in which critical validation leads to major commissions which in turn receive more critical validation, and so on, creating an ever-constricting favored circle. Certainly this helps explain, for instance, Renzo Piano's remarkable dominance of U.S. museum design in the past two decades and why, as James S. Russell of Bloomberg has pointed out, in a piece on the backlash of overexposure, "what once seemed special now looks rote."

Persistent problems, to be sure; but I'd like to spotlight an issue that's gotten less attention and which seems to me to underlie the contemporary critical dilemma. This is the rise of the global critic, the critic with the world beat, beaming copy from Beijing, Dubai, Rome, Basel, or wherever the newest icon or latest star is being born. In a sense this might seem a natural progression in the portfolio of the critic — a nimble adaptation to a discipline that's gone planetary. Yet the accelerating globalization of architecture culture has created for architecture criticism an unintentional conundrum, which is that it's practically impossible to produce good criticism on a global scale. 

But what is good criticism? H.L. Mencken called criticism "prejudice made plausible," and no doubt it's a tough genre to tackle, requiring the delicate calibration of professional principles and personal loyalties. But it seems fair to describe good criticism as criticism that strives not only for an immediate, personalized response but also for a richly informed and insightful understanding of the state of the discipline and how it both reflects and shapes the larger culture. It's criticism rooted in deep experience, comprehensive knowledge and (yes) love. How can you make others care if you don't care?

You can see the challenge. How can a critic attain deep experience and comprehensive knowledge of a global field whose perceptual boundaries are ever expanding as the world grows more interconnected and as media channels proliferate like mad and propagate an infinitude of information — and yet whose significant works are ultimately three-dimensional, place-bound artifacts created to satisfy specific conditions and which require actual personal presence to know and understand? 

Left: Lewis Mumford. Right: Skillman Avenue in Queens, renamed in his honor.

Here it's telling to compare the architecture critic with his or her counterparts in the arts criticism zone — let's say with movie and book critics. Film and literature have powerful critical traditions. Partly this is because they've attracted talented and passionate writers (in film think James Agee in the '40s, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris in the '60s and '70s, and now David Denby, Anthony Lane and David Thomson; in literature there's an even deeper bench, from Edmund Wilson and George Orwell to Gore Vidal and Elizabeth Hardwick to Louis Menand and James Wood . . . to barely skirt the edge of the edge). But just as important to the strength of these critical cultures is the fact that the artworks themselves are cheap and easy to access.

Consider the book critic evaluating the latest novel by Jonathan Lethem, or the film critic judging the new Roman Polanski. The ambitious reviewer will read Chronic City but won't stop there. She'll continue on with The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, et al., all obtainable at a nearby bookstore or via next-day delivery from Amazon (and the OCD critic will clock some time on the author's website just for the miscellaneous uncollected writings). The conscientious film critic will attend the press screening of The Ghost Writer and then commit to a Netflix-enabled home-viewing marathon of The Pianist, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, et al., taking care not to neglect the early Polish works (all but one currently available).

You can see the point. Cheap and easy access to a virtually limitless catalogue of artworks is no guarantee of great arts criticism — but it makes possible the sustained engagement and encyclopedic learning that inspire it. (I am convinced that the incomparable David Thomson has seen every movie ever made.) How can architecture criticism compete? How can the individual critic amass the disciplinary equivalent? To write with in-the-bones insight about the output of any one of our era's peripatetic architectural stars, let alone the collective production of the whole constellation, would take endless international travel and an unlimited expense account — and those are just the logistics. To claim with conviction that this artwork or that artist is at the top of the game is only convincing if you've paid keen attention to the rest of the field.

I think this helps explain why Nicolai Ouroussoff's criticism is so unsatisfying. It's the unexpected trap of inhabiting the tower of the Times. You've got the editorial charge to be national and international, like the rest of the paper, and you've got the budget to roam. So you rack up the datelines: Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, Moscow, Stuttgart, Basel, etc. etc. But the view from the tower is broad not sharp, panoramic but not particular. The inevitable result is that you are writing at the thin edge of scant knowledge: you are critiquing places you know only as a tourist, and buildings you know only from brief and usually tightly programmed visits, often in the company of the watchful designer. This is no way to gain meaningful experience or serious knowledge of a building or landscape or how it fits within its local setting and larger environs. 

So maybe all you can do is pace out a perceivable part of the field — a few favorite architects whose work you might actually know well. This is, as Alexandra Lange elucidates, exactly what Ouroussoff does (as did his Times predecessor Herbert Muschamp). "If we were to reduce Ouroussoff’s output to a list," she writes, "the names would be slightly different [than Muschamp's], but the emphasis remains the same: yes to Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel; no to people you haven’t already heard of. His neighborhood, then, is the floating world of the international architectural profession. He goes where the big-name action is (most recently, to Boston and Basel). This approach only reinforces contemporary architecture’s disastrous tendency toward placelessness and divorces the New York Times critic from New York. He can judge a design anywhere, but he can’t assess its function, urbanity or livability. And he’s unlikely ever to revisit, since that would involve another flight."

Left: Jane Jacobs. Right: Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, renamed in her honor.

This is dead-on. Lange suggests that Ouroussoff was perhaps "the perfect critic for the boom years, when looks were the selling point," but that his "formal, global approach seems incongruous in a downturn." I'd take it further and argue that it doesn't matter when or who — it's the wrong set-up. The fundamental problem of contemporary criticism is precisely this global beat — dateline: placeless. For the frequent-flying critic it's a heady gig — a movable feast of bold-face names, privileged access, private mobile numbers. Yet what results from all this effort and expense — the hundreds of thousands of air miles, the guided tours of pristine new projects — is a kind of attention-deficit critique. It's criticism focused on the singular object because that's all that the on-the-go critic, with a return ticket on the red-eye, has time to see. It's criticism directed more to the remarkable moment than the larger narrative or complex whole, and almost always it feels paradoxically slight, impressionistic and formulaic. 

Lange's essay and the animated comments that followed (61 and counting, as I post this) suggest that we're near the end of our collective patience with this kind of global-beat, star-centric critique. And that it's time to rethink the job of the critic, to revise our assumptions and expectations.

So here's a start: even as we value global access and high-speed broadband, let's consider that the liveliest and most influential architecture criticism has been largely local. Think about the legendary mid-century critics like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, and still active voices like Ada Louise Huxtable and Michael Sorkin. It's no accident that they all made their marks, found their critical voices, as passionate observers of the New York scene. Mumford started writing the "Skyline" column for The New Yorker in 1931 (with a piece on Radio City Music Hall) and didn't file his last article until 1963, along the way endlessly exploring the city, all five boroughs too, tracking not just the big obvious projects like Rockefeller Center and the '39 World's Fair but also public housing in Queens and laundry buildings in the Bronx. And his reviews — astonishing to think about today — were unillustrated; which he didn't mind, figuring that readers would be that much more motivated to seek out the works for themselves. [3] Huxtable, who was the Times' first architecture critic — and the first full-time critic in the country — also operates across the different scales of the city. She doesn't ignore the big architects but she's a connoisseur of neighborhood character, and she's been fierce in exposing the backroom deal-making that she argues has coarsened the richly textured city of her youth; not for nothing was her first collection titled Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of American Cities grew out of her decade as an architecture journalist and as a rabble-rousing resident of Greenwich Village, fighting to preserve what she saw as the virtues of density and history from the big-scale impulses of the urban renewalists. And Michael Sorkin continued this citizen-activist tradition from his perch at the Village Voice in the '80s, where he tenaciously attacked — when "Disneyfication" was a new word — the accelerating corporatization of urban space.

Of course, when New Yorker editor Harold Ross asked Mumford to write about architecture, a trip from New York to London took the better part of a week on a transatlantic liner; ditto New York to L.A. on the cross-country train. And in the minimally digital '80s, keyboards were connected to typewriters, new buildings were introduced in the pages of the magazines, and the chief research tool was a library card. That was then. I'm definitely not proposing we give up on the global. Critics like Huxtable and Sorkin filed copy from far afield from time to time. You want your local critic to take the measure of other places — the more you travel the better you understand where you live. But what we can do is to renegotiate the balance, reweight the mix of local to non-local. Which would mean that the influential critic for our leading paper would rack up fewer miles and forgo the foreign junkets —  travel would be less international, more interborough. (Didn't Mumford once declare that he wanted to walk every street of Manhattan?) And more: it would mean that we'd all have to be willing somehow to deglamorize the global, to make it a measure of critical strength to commit to the local. And in fact some really good critics — Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times, David Dillon at the Dallas Morning News and Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune — have already made that commitment. (Kamin's Why Architecture Matters is subtitled "Lessons from Chicago.")

And while we're rethinking the global beat we might also look hard at the art-critical model, and get serious about incorporating into architecture writing a range of criteria, from environmental to technological, economic to political. Critics might then develop specialties, zones of real expertise, which suggests that "local" needn't be defined just as a specific place. It could also be a particular topic or slant — certain building types, say, or the politics of urban development, or the relationship of architecture to infrastructure, or the connections between design and science and between urbanism and energy, to name just a few promising interdisciplinary paths.

It's exciting to think about new and expanded models for architecture criticism. But of course the immediate test of survivability — of whether the job is doomed — won't be conceptual but economic. How will criticism, either existing models or new ones, fit within whatever editorial and business structures emerge from the messy confusion of these early days of the digital revolution? Too soon to tell. But I agree with Alexandra Lange. We've got to be making the best case for keeping the breed. Doing that might mean expanding the gene pool of critical possibilities.