Joseph Rykwert

Does architecture criticism matter?

Criticism may seem somewhat irrelevant to any talk about “starchitecture”, however architecture critics might ever so gradually help to form and reform the public opinion.

Criticism may seem somewhat irrelevant to any talk about building now that “starchitecture” is at its acme.

After all, the business of a critic is to discriminate the better from the worse, or – if you like – the more beautiful from the uglier, the more valuable from the less. The word implies it. In ancient Greek, it pertains to winnowing or sieving; separating the wheat from the chaff. But starchitecture doesn’t make such distinctions. It is content just to be, and rises above the carping of discriminators.

Criticising celebrity  architects may therefore be like making disparaging comments at a pop concert. Unlike flamboyant architecture, pop music seems to have bred a culture of shrewd, articulate critics, but their words, however sharp, cannot pierce even the most inflated bubbles of reputation. What is true of pop music and star buildings is also true of more muted high-rises.

What can be said in terms of architecture criticism of their sheer walls of standard glassand- steel elements, enclosing floors of almost identical plans? Perhaps some comment on the foyer or on the finial of the skyscraper may count as such. But for the most part, any talk about such buildings is limited to deferential commendations.

The critic must take stock of what appear to be the banal features of overwhelming buildings
Criticism is even less relevant regarding those buildings whose extravagant bulk now litters architectural publications – especially the advertising pages. Vastly inflated sails, giant coffeepots or yet gherkins and hedgehogs seem to present the critic with formal entities that challenge him or her to disentangle hopelessly matted strands. Exteriorised plumbing, cross-bracing and huge structural joints look as if they were designed to reduce the approaching visitor or inhabitant to insignificance before the wonders of the machine.
When faced with such conundrums, the perplexed critic must not doff his thinking cap, but press it firmly down on his head and take stock of what appear to be the banal features of overwhelming buildings. How, for instance, does the building meet the ground? How are pedestrian entries managed, and how are they separated from vehicles? How, on entry, does the visitor proceed to the upper floors and how are all these bits of circulation related to the declension from public to semipublic spaces? A true architecture critic must be a dogged plan-reader.
How is the structure related to the materiality of the building, and how  does even the fanciest configuration relate to the way the building sits in its environment? What (if any) is the contribution it makes to the composite image of the city of which it is a constituent? Further, the critic is justified in enquiring about how the building is perceived both by users and the general public, since all such reactions do form part of any critical arsenal.
Perhaps my military metaphor is not quite apposite. The English are not used to it, but the French respect  what they call critique militante, which we might more gently translate as “engaged criticism”. The term could almost qualify as an oxymoron since we often see the critic as detached, above the fray, calmly formulating judgements and not engaging in jousts or disputes. Yet dispassionate criticism does not seem to be the kind that really matters.
The critic is justified in enquiring about how the building is perceived
I have always believed that the critic must be a fighter. To do so, they must of course have a base from which to operate – not only the obvious one of a newspaper, periodical, radio or television programme or even a blog that will make their views public, but they must, more intimately, have a clearly articulated notion of what they think society must expect of its builders, meaning not only architects, but also building speculators, developers, local and central government – in fact all those who frame the programmes by which the architect must operate.
The critic must have a distinct notion of what  the architect may or may not be contributing to the common good. Which is all very fine, but why will it all matter, and to whom? In the short term, the effect of a critic’s words may not be all that obvious – certainly not to high architects, who, like pop stars, are impervious to them – yet it is no secret that some architects can be sensitive to them, even oversensitive sometimes to the point  of threatening libel action.
I have always believed that the critic must be a fighter

Perhaps more important is the effect on those  commissioning buildings, who tend to think of themselves as patrons or even public benefactors, and so find any complaining about the products of their benevolence as impugning their good name. Such consequences suggest that the engaged critic’s words are not at all vain, and that beyond any resentment they may well promote reflection and even lead participants in the building process to modify their ways.

More actively, critics sometimes take part in competition and prize juries, which invites their involvement in design decisions. Considered at their lowest valuation, architecture critics might ever so gradually help to form and reform the public opinion, which is the uneven but fertile ground from – or against  which – all those involved in building  inevitably act. But of course, operative criticism at its highest valuation might establish a fruitful dialogue between critics and those who are actively involved in the creation of our environment. 

This article was originally published in Domus 979 / April 2014
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