THE LAST GASP OF ARCHITECTURAL CRITIQUE
There are two articles getting circulation in the architecture community right now. “How to Rebuild Architecture”, published in the New York Times and “The New York Times Versus Architecture” published in Architect Magazine. I’ll be honest, I generally try to avoid this kind of childish back and forth drivel. Architectural critique in the last few decades has been…..bad….to say the least. Lost is the quality of visionary writers and theorists of the early 20th Century like Gropius, Doesburg, Taut, Corbusier, van der Rohe, etc. But since these articles are taking opposing views, one against the other, on modern architecture and it’s value to “a broad spectrum of the population”, I thought I’d read up and offer my own two cents.
First, in “How to Rebuild Architecture” Bingler and Pedersen point out that “for too long, our profession has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work, even as we talk about making that work more relevant with worthy ideas like sustainability, smart growth and ‘resilience planning.'” Personally, I couldn’t agree more if we’re talking about what I call popular architecture – those buildings shiny enough to be published in rags like Architect Magazine, Architectural Digest and others. What this assertion doesn’t take into account is the vast majority of buildings designed by architects today are not published in the popular magazines. We have so celebratized modern starchitects and their fantastical works, which are not at all representative of real work being done, that even in our critiques we can not see beyond propaganda. In asserting that we, architects, are dismissing the general public’s take on our work the writer is dismissing the work done by the vast majority of architects in this country. The writers even prove my point by stating “High-profile work has been swallowed into the great media maw, albeit as a cultural sideshow — occasionally diverting but not relevant to the everyday lives of most people.” Pot, I’d like you to meet Kettle.
Similarly in “The New York Times Versus Architecture” Betsky postulates that the idea that architecture doesn’t in some fundamental way resonate with or reach the “general population” is irrelevant and “the fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.” Seriously? Where do I even begin? First, if a building looks strange is a matter of opinion. Style is nothing more than fashion and will always be in flux from one day to the next. But, looking through the lens of history there is a fundamental test of good design as one that relates to and reflects the proportions of the human form regardless of style. This is why historic buildings are so appreciated and why they are so easily adapted to changing human habitation throughout the life of the building. These buildings were also designed to work with natural forces rather than against them. Historic buildings do not leak, they breathe; they work with their environment to provide interior comfort with minimal use of mechanical systems. This is the essence of sustainability. And speaking for myself, if your building leaks due to a “new” detail then you obviously do not understand your building, the materials you’re using, or basic construction well enough to be engaging in the building profession. A building that leaks is not only unsafe, but unhealthy for your clients and/or the public. Design and research should be done on paper and in a laboratory setting. If you intend to push the envelope, and I believe we all should, then test your details, test your theories, build models and THEN put them into practice.
What I see in these two articles is a hypocrisy that is maddening. On one hand Bingler and Pedersen are arguing against “unsympathetic” architecture yet they arrive at their conclusion using such a limited subject pool as to be essentially meaningless. Likewise Betsky argues that this same limited subject pool is valid as exhibiting the best of architectural research and design even in the face of fundamental design failure. If we are to have a real conversation about architecture and to offer constructive and valuable critique then we have to widen our net to include a larger sample of architects and building projects that can begin to exhibit the real values and styles of our day. And the criteria for any such discussion has to be based on more substantive topics than will ever be generated by the media. So are we witnessing the last gasp of architectural critique or is there hope for real dialog?
Image credit: Jason Paris/Flickr via Creative Commons license