The Design Observer Group

Posted 12.01.11

Thomas Fisher

The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs.

All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.
— Walt Whitman, Book XV, Leaves of Grass

In an interview in 2005 the painter Chuck Close described an unexpected source of inspiration. "I remember Clement Greenberg said to de Kooning that the only thing you can't do in art anymore is make a portrait. I thought, well, if Greenberg thinks [you] can't do it, then I am going to have a lot of operating room all to myself." Close devoted his career to portraits, often of himself, and in the process he brilliantly reinvented the genre. [1]

Today architecture criticism needs that kind of bold reinvention. With most major U.S. newspapers having laid off their architecture critics in recent years — effectively eliminating the position — it has increasingly become a journalistic form — or an essayistic art — nearly impossible to practice. This development hasn't gone unnoticed, or unlamented, and last year Design Observer critic Alexandra Lange and editor Nancy Levinson laid out some of the reasons in two widely read pieces. In "Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough," Lange argues that Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of The New York Times from 2004 until this past summer, diminished the position. "His approach — little history, less politics, occasional urbanism — shrinks the critic's role to commenting only on the appearance of the architecture," she wrote. And she speculated that Ouroussoff, by "not making a case for keeping the breed," might "turn out to be the last architecture critic." Lange's lament has proven prescient, for Ouroussoff may well have been the last architecture critic at the Times — or at least its last full-time critic dedicated to architecture; it's telling that the Times, rather than hiring a replacement, has given the architecture beat to its art critic, Michael Kimmelman. [2] While Lange's obituary for the field seems somewhat New York-centric — after all, a few American papers still retain notable architecture critics, including Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune and Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times — she rightly argues that we may be witnessing a professional extinction: the architecture critic writing regularly for a major newspaper.

Lange not only highlights the inadequacy of Ouroussoff's writing; she also makes an impassioned plea for the kind of criticism that architecture deserves. "What we need is criticism that treats renderings and buildings as different," she says. "We need criticism that connects us to a building's references, emotions and texture, not only its news value. We need criticism moored to place, and to the history of that place. ... Ouroussoff is not good enough because he reinforces the worst trends in architectural culture, never explains where he comes from and never explores the many different places we might go."

Nancy Levinson, the editor of Places, expands on Lange's argument in her essay "Critical Beats." Levinson sees the decline of architecture criticism as the result not only of the highly reductive "art-critique" approach of critics like Ouroussoff, but also of the intensifying internationalization of the field. "The accelerating globalization of architecture culture," she writes, "has created for architecture criticism an unintentional conundrum, which is that it's practically impossible to produce good criticism on a global scale." Add to that the "messy confusion of the early days of the digital revolution," as Levinson puts it, which is challenging journalism to develop new business and editorial models, and we can see why newspapers have jettisoned everyone not considered essential — with architecture critics among the first to go.

The globalization of the discipline, Levinson aptly observes, has not only made the beat too big, too far-flung, for any one critic to cover in any depth; it's also made the criticism that results less relevant or at least more distant to many newspaper readers. Levinson compares buildings to film and music — media whose easy transportability makes them accessible and affordable to audiences and critics alike, and thus empowers knowledgeable and engaged criticism. In contrast, the sheer immobility of architecture makes it among the least accessible of the arts; and its criticism, especially when practiced on a global scale — with U.S. critics making quick junkets to review new projects in Dubai or Shanghai, Milan or Basel —can become shallow and unconvincing. As Levinson says: "How can architecture criticism compete [with film and literature criticism]? 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."

Lange and Levinson argue persuasively that we need better architecture criticism: more locally connected, passionately argued, disciplinarily expansive and intellectually focused. Their prescriptions would go a long way toward improving the quality of criticism. But they don't say much about where such newly vigorous criticism might actually occur, especially given the revolutionary disruptions that are upending traditional publishing, including the collapse of the old business models that once supported careers in critical writing. Nor do they explore what the increasingly rapid transition from print to digital might mean for criticism in the future. So, to paraphrase Chuck Close: if the rapidly shifting media culture is making it almost impossible to practice conventional architecture criticism anymore, then aspiring critics will have a lot of operating room all to themselves.

Lewis Mumford
Lewis Mumford.

Think Big
Aspiring architecture critics can take at least three lessons from Chuck Close's nervy reinvention of portraiture. The first: think big. Not only did Close physically — literally — enlarge his portraits to be much larger than the human head; he has also pursued what he calls "all-over-ness," which he defines as a "commitment to the whole ... [to making] every piece as important as every other piece." In the process he forces viewers to see his portraits as "landscape-like ... stumbling over beard hair and falling into a nostril ... [as] if you were walking across a real landscape."

A similar ambition for "all-over-ness" would benefit architectural criticism, which has focused for far too long on too few architects. Just as the practice of making flattering portraits of famous people seemed dead to Greenberg (and to Close), so too has the tradition of critics writing pandering pieces about famous architects' custom buildings for privileged clients begun to collapse under its own tired weight. That is precisely "why Nicolai Ouroussoff is not good enough," to quote Lange's title. [3] We do not need just a better critic along the lines of Ouroussoff; we need different kinds of critics — critics willing to abandon the whole moribund tradition he represents.

Both Lange and Levinson mention Lewis Mumford, the architecture critic for The New Yorker from the early 1930s until the early '60s, as an important model of a locally engaged critic. Mumford, writes Levinson, was "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." What Mumford also did, though — and what few architecture critics have done since — was to enlarge the scope of the endeavor; he saw architecture not simply as the art of building but more broadly as a lens through which we can view and understand our culture and ourselves. I speak here from personal experience. In the mid 1970s, when I was still in architecture school, I wrote to Lewis Mumford — then 80 years old— and with the naïve chutzpah that only students seem able to muster anymore, I asked him what I needed to do to become an architecture critic like him. To my delight, he wrote back, emphasizing — with typical Mumfordian aplomb — that in addition to knowing something about architecture, I needed to know something about almost everything else. By way of getting me going, he sent a list of "great books" that I needed to read if I were to write about the field with the breadth he thought it deserved. [4]

Mumford set an impossibly high bar, and to be sure, he practiced the craft in a less hurried and more culturally cohesive era. But still, a more intellectually expansive architecture criticism would not only do justice to the increasing range of architects' projects and interests — which far exceed what Lange nicely dismisses as the "the globe-trotting, star-gazing, architecture-as-sculpture approach" — but would also make architecture a more compelling topic for readers who otherwise don't think much about the field. Mumford didn't write about buildings as ends in themselves, but instead as reflections of ourselves. Because of its sheer complexity — the intricate collaboration and shared responsibility needed to design and construct a building — architecture can tell us more about the compromises and confusions that constitute the human condition than most other arts. Unlike art forms that express the vision of the individual creator — books, paintings, symphonies, etc. — architecture requires many contributors, and nobody can truly control the final result or the diverse messages it embodies. But to read those messages, we need intrepid critics willing to look beyond the façade and below the surface of projects.

For decades the discipline of architecture has been gazing at itself in the flattering mirror held up by overly obliging critics. And for this reason the demise of architecture criticism in the newspapers reflects a much larger problem: the implicit assumption, on the part of the public, that architecture is more or less decorative, even irrelevant; that in a world beset with systemic problems, architects, at least as typically presented by critics like Ouroussoff, seem to have little to offer — or at least, little beyond the kinds of expertly rendered blue-sky speculations that enhance academic reputations but have zero chance of being realized. To counter that impression, architecture critics need to think big — to reverse the mirror and show what buildings reveal about the nature of contemporary problems, and how profoundly buildings are implicated in the economic, social and environmental dilemmas we face and how they might thus contribute to effective and grounded solutions. This kind of criticism will make the discipline more relevant, and more compelling to read about. And as I have learned writing about design for the Huffington Post, the public wants to know what we have to say about the issues of the day.

Get Real
Chuck Close not only enlarged the scale of portraiture; he also looked at it (so to speak) up close, painting not faces, but photographs of faces. As he says, the photographs were "far more interesting because there was a range of focus. The tip of the nose blurred, the ears and everything else went out of focus." By looking at something familiar from a new perspective, with his eyes wide open, he began to see realities that other portrait painters had overlooked.

A similar opening-up needs to happen with architecture criticism. By focusing so intently and narrowly on a relatively few iconic buildings, old-school critics have offered a blinkered view of the field; their criticism seems blind to the larger environments — the neighborhoods, districts, cities, suburbs, landscapes — in which most of us spend our lives. (Which perhaps explains the very large percentage of "architecture" that architects play no part in designing.) Why would most newspaper readers care about criticism that seems to relate so little to their experience? The question is implicit in both the Lange and Levinson pieces, and it perhaps explains why the disappearance of architecture critics from many newspapers has elicited so little comment — and virtually no protest — outside the architectural community.

Ada Louise Huxtable, the first New York Times architecture critic and still its best, serves as a benchmark for how far the field has strayed from its former relevance. Describing Huxtable's focus at the Times and more recently at the Wall Street Journal, Levinson writes, "Huxtable … 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." Just as Close traced the stresses of modern life in the hair follicles and skin wrinkles on the giant faces he painted, so too has Huxtable drawn our attention to the multifaceted and often ugly realities behind the making of architecture, tracking, in detailed analyses of projects, the stresses and strains of developing cities and constructing buildings. Huxtable's approach balances that of Mumford. If the latter saw all of culture reflected in the glass and steel of architecture, Huxtable has focused more on the particulars of projects, how they came to be and what they mean. That she has managed to do so for almost five decades indicates not only her courage as a critic (she regularly rankles the powerful in language that's unequivocal) but also her sense of the vital role that architecture plays in people's daily lives.

Ada Louise Huxtable
Ada Louise Huxtable.

I have heard some critics dismiss Huxtable as outdated, largely because of her unwavering support for modernism and her ongoing criticism of postmodernism in its various guises, from superficially collaged historicism to digitally enabled formalism. Their dismissal, though, speaks to one of the major limitations of architecture criticism as conventionally practiced: the association of critics with particular styles or approaches, and with the architects whose work exemplifies them. This has led some critics — as Lange observes not only about Ouroussoff but also about his Times predecessor Herbert Muschamp — to become in effect purveyors of public relations for a select circle and their acolytes. When criticism is co-opted in this fashion, it's time to wring out the old and ring in the new.

Close helped to do that in portraiture by steering away from the production of flattering paintings for patrons to hang above their mantles and toward more honest and often unsettling depictions of the human face. Architecture critics need to follow an equally courageous course, writing honestly about the bruises as well as the beauty in our designed environments (and being unafraid to make enemies in the process). Rather than defining "architecture" largely — or narrowly — as expressive and expensive objects located in prosperous enclaves around the globe, critics need to recognize that architecture worth writing about is everywhere around us. "The great thing about art is that it is equal-opportunity," says Close. "You're not consigned to understanding it or not by position of birth and status and wealth." That is also the great thing about architecture, if we let it be so.

Be Arresting
The capacity of Close's portraits to grab and hold our attention suggests a third lesson. As he describes it, "The most sophisticated art-world insider and the layperson share an entrance into the work irrespective of the art-historical baggage they bring with them to the painting ... they are relating as a person to an image of just another person." Few museum-goers can pass a Close painting in a gallery without stopping, without moving in close to see the abstraction of detail and then stepping back to see the unity of the whole.

A similar quality pervades the work of another great mid-20th century critic. In her essay Levinson describes Jane Jacobs as a "passionate observer of the New York scene"; but what ultimately distinguishes Jacobs's critical writings and makes them so worthy of emulation has to do not just with her detailed and compelling evocations of life in Greenwich Village, as in her landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but also with her remarkable ability to see the details of urban life as part of the larger whole, as in her later books like The Nature of Economies and Cities and the Wealth of Nations.

Or to put it another way: Jacobs showed how critics can claim a wider territory. They needn't simply respond to the work of others, assessing it as a fait accompli; as Jacobs demonstrated time and again, critics could strive to be intellectual and political leaders, envisioning different futures, making new connections and providing insightful and unexpected explanations for seemingly mundane things. Her greatness as a critic arose from her ability not only to see the relationship between parts and wholes, but also to abstract from reality in order to develop theories that help explain a range of phenomena, best exemplified in her late book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.

As Lange tartly observes, in his defense of Frank Gehry's ill-fated Atlantic Yards project, Ouroussoff took digs at the "acolytes of the urbanist Jane Jacobs" as a "bunch of ... sentimentalists." But it's actually Ouroussoff who deserves the sentimentalist tag; he perfectly exemplifies the tendency in criticism to keep arguing the old 20th-century debates, apparently never realizing how radically different the 21st century is already proving to be. Lange pegs it when she calls Ouroussoff "the perfect critic for the boom years, when looks were the selling point," and then argues that his "formal, global approach seems incongruous in a downturn." I would go farther than incongruous, and call it downright clueless in the midst of what the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff has called the “the second great contraction." Given the likelihood that the U.S. and global economies will spend years, maybe decades, deleveraging from the public and private debt accrued before 2008, so too it seems inevitable that the field of architecture will have to make profound adjustments. Any architecture critic worthy of the beat will confront this head-on.

What will architecture in the deleveraging world of the new millennium look like? What part will it play in defining the new normal? Jane Jacobs, who moved fluidly between architecture and economics, would have been in her glory in this difficult new era, and would have formulated answers not necessarily comforting to either architects or their clients. She approached architecture as part of what she termed "dynamically stable systems," that serve to link the field to both ecosystems and economies, and she showed that the more we construe architecture — or any discipline, for that matter — as somehow separate, or autonomous, the more untenable and ineffectual it will become. [5] Indeed, our current economic crisis illustrates this danger all too well. The underwater mortgages and overleveraged loans that underlie this latest great contraction result in significant part from valuing both residential and commercial buildings merely as investment vehicles rather than as complex and consequential things-in-the-world. And on this urgent issue, which places buildings at the very center of key political and economic debates, architecture critics have been mostly missing in action.

The irony is plain. Architecture criticism is in danger of disappearing at the very moment when we need, more than ever, a searching and sustained critical conversation about the built world. That conversation should try to help the larger public understand the designed environment not simply as an economic abstraction or tourist attraction, not merely as a matter of privileged amenities or rarefied aesthetics, but more fully as a continuous and immersive environment vital to social well-being and national identity. Demystifying architecture, and powerfully articulating its extensive impact, will ultimately help us understand how to deleverage it.

A revitalized and expansive architecture criticism should — like the paintings of Chuck Close — command the public's attention almost despite itself. That seems especially likely given the changing media world. As print newspapers and periodicals give way to their online counterparts, the arena for the new debate will be the intellectual free market of the Internet, where ideas capable of seizing attention, of going viral, will create a new space for criticism. This is where great architecture criticism will happen in the future. [6] But it's essential that we move beyond the obsolete models and, as Levinson puts it at the end of her essay, "expand ... the gene pool of critical possibilities." If we think big enough, get real enough, and command enough attention, the critical possibilities are, as Chuck Close showed with portraiture, almost endless.