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Posted by  Richard Haut 


Does architecture need architectural critics (journalists, etc. whatever title they have) ? - and do they serve a function ?

Paul has in the past reasonably pointed out that many are not themselves professionally qualified. Obviously an architect, or perhaps an engineer, giving their view of a building understands the way that the building has been designed and built . It is therefore an informed professional critique. They may have their own views on the design, their likes and dislikes, but nonetheless their view is given with an in-depth knowledge of the processes that have created what it is that they are observing.

The unqualified critic does not have that kind of knowledge - even if they have lengthy experience of architecture, it is unlikely that they would be able to give the same informed opinion.

So what function do these unqualified critics serve ? Does a food critic need to be able to cook ? Does a music critic need to be able to themselves play the instrument, or sing or conduct ? Does a film critic need to be able to make a film ?

I believe that they do have a function but that it is quite distinct from the professional critique. The reason is that the people who use the building, those for whom it becomes part of their world, are themselves of course not qualified as architects or engineers either. The function of the critic is therefore to consider how the building performs - just as the food, music or film critic considers their subject - from the point of view of ordinary people. It is for this, better that the critic is not qualified.

As is often said, some architects design for other architects. This kind of self-referential design can result in buildings that do not perform well for their location. It can take design in a direction which is neither good for the public or the profession.

The unqualified, "Joe-public" type of critic is more likely to see and unmask the emperor's new clothes style of architecture than someone who is themselves too close to it, as may be the case with the professional acting as critic.

The unqualified critic also has the advantage of being able to show the ordinary public buildings that they themselves find interesting or exciting or successful. It is better PR for the profession and much easier for the public to assimilate.

Nervous though many architects are of critics, they should encourage them in order to open up a wider less exclusive form of debate of architecture and the urban environment.

The least successful example has been the range of surveys of the 'ugliest', 'worst', 'most-disliked' buildings. This stifles discussion and has no real purpose. Surely it would be better to have more general coverage of the stories of projects, their backgrounds, and the critics themselves in effect talking the public through the buildings.

Enthusiasm may be more valuable than qualifications in promoting architecture to the general public.

Posted by  Paul Malo

In Reply to:  the function of the critic posted by Richard Haut

Probably we should make a distinction between criticism and journalism. Criticism may be facet of journalism (if a critique is published--but more professional architectural critics teach than write).

Journalism may usefully report what is happening. That's news. When a report becomes judgmental or normative, if becomes criticism.

Of course there's the problem than seemingly non-judgmental journals do have editorial policies and are in fact selective about what they publish, even if reports are presented uncritically. There may hidden criticism at work in much journalism. We all know journals directed by editorial policies, prefering certain modes of work and favoring certain artists or architects.

What is the function of criticism, beyond journalistic reporting?
Ask most people what a critic does, and they will probably suggest that the critic decides what is good or what is bad. Ask critics what they do, however, and you'll get a different answer. The critic will say he tries to increase understanding and appreciation of a work. Critics (those worth their inadequate recompense) don't see themselves giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down, as if they had some valid test to distinguish good from bad. In truth, usually what is good as attained at a price, so generally there's some compensating problem or weakness. Any critic can find fault with any work (as students know). It's easy . What's more difficult is to convey values of a work that others may not appreciate.

Values, however, are not universal. I recall delivering a paper on Jackson Pollock in a graduate seminar, back when he was just becoming noticed by the media. My professor, a distinguished historian, couldn't believe that I really saw anything in what seemed to him aimless dripping and dribbling of paint. The professor was intelligent and learned, but had no sense of what painters do, or the painterly problem, as the painter sees it.

Clement Greenberg was a brilliant critic, who recognized what Pollock and other abstract expressionist painters were trying to do, and managed to convey this in his critiques. Greenberg provides an interesting instance of the important role the critic can play. It may be no exageration to say that Greenberg defined, inspired, and sustained an important school of painting (the "New York School") although he painting nothing himself (to my knowledge).

Architecture has rarely benefited from such a critic. Giedion was a major interpretor of Modern architecture around the mid-twentieth century, and similarly did much to define, inspire, and sustain the movement. Of course, some architects such as Wright, Corb, and Venturi were polemical--but architects themselves naturally have a stake in a particular approach to architecture, always idiosyncratic. We like to think that critics may be less committed to a restricted paradigm, but of course critics do have particular orientations. We're all products of our experiences in a particular place and time.

Far more influential during the past half century than architectural critics have been urban critics such as Louis Mumford and Joan Jacobs here in the US. Their influence has been less on architectural design, of course, than on public opinion and policy regarding urban development.

Probably we should distinguish user preferance--or post-construction assessment of building performance--from criticism. Feedback is woefully missing, recalling that saying to the effect that those who ignore history are destined to repreat the mistakes of the past.

Although user preference, in terms of response to a work, is informative, it's no substitute for appreciation of what the designer was trying to do. The history of music provides a continual, amusing chronicle of "first performance" reactions, when audiences detested new music--music that subsequent became popular standards of the classical repertory.

A critic like Greenberg doesn't poll the public to determine value of a work; rather, he creates value for the public, shaping public appreciation of the work. In short, then, the critic is not a judge, but an interpretor.

 

 

 



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