One of the special and primary challenges to architectural criticism is that it is addressing something with public and private, artistic and functional, attributes. The degree to which these attributes may be formulated varies, but their dualities are ever-present. What can often arise is a kind of criticism which is expressing a scopophilic relationship between author and subject wherein one fails to appreciate a bigger, public, and more interactive picture. One might pass by a housing complex each day and find it unbearably dreary, yet to speak of it as such and leave it at that does not account for how that place may function for its inhabitants, for example, or what its situational context is. To strike back at this approach by adopting a taste-omitting stance which invisibilizes oneself is equally unrevealing. Architecture is a creative venture and cannot be reduced to a question of whether it just does one thing or another, as if its problematics were fixed, or as if aesthetic concerns were all equivalent to an élite sentimentality about appropriate civic attire. I must stress the matter’s specialness: it is trickier to handle than disliking or liking a song another person likes or dislikes. Just as it is impossible to capture the totality of any one building in a photograph, it may too be impossible to express the totality of what any one building is or may be in any piece of criticism.
The fate of most buildings, in terms of our subjective experience of them, is to be ambient things we walk past or through. Ironically, the closer we are to these things, the more unaware we may become of their particularities. Time regularizes, normalizes, immunizes. That bedroom in your new apartment will never again feel the way it does during that first week or two. As with parts of our body, we tend to take note of a local building only if it is experiencing distress or maintenance. Otherwise, the noteworthy building tends to have an associational prestige: we are told that it is somehow important, or that important people live or once lived there; or the architecture is flavored by the location’s “historical” ambience. The Opéra Garnier is as remarkable to the foreigner for its richness of detailing as its siting within an arrondissement of Paris. As with so much other art, then, our awareness of exceptional or interesting buildings tends to be predefined, touristic, and spectacular. The point I mean to make relates back to the first form of scopophilic criticism: such criticism is indeed inadequate, yet it would be expressing our primary experiences of architecture, which is as dimensional facades whose interiors and qualifications we simply have no reason or time to acquaint ourselves with (and, indeed, many of these buildings’ totalities would be off-limits to us anyway). I am not sure than that it can be entirely discounted.
John Summerson makes a deft and enduring observation in his essay “The Mischievous Analogy”: “The fact is that the whole idea of formal assembly in public has withered; and with it has gone the need for an architecture reflecting that collective sentiment which goes with the love of formal assembly.” This essay is a mid-20th century publication, but points like this get closer to matters’ cores than, for instance, the appealing and persistent falsehood that what architecture has globally lacked since the World Wars is localized flavors of state- or national-level identity. More crow-stepped gables in a Belgian city’s downtown center may half-sate certain persons’ longing for a forever frozen cultural timeframe, but that is all. These falsehoods have lead to, for example, architects and developers in my city of residence, Boston, insisting such-and-such a project proposal is aesthetically and situationally substantiated through exterior use of brickwork. Whether these professionals truly believe the connection exists and is meaningful is irrelevant; it taps into and feeds a popular residential story of Boston having been built in brick.
Anyway, some of what Summerson is referring to is the ongoing primacy of the automobile as transportation (an expression of modernity’s individualism), the privileged allocation of space for that technology, and the marginalization of the biker and pedestrian (to refer to Boston again, I would note that the failure of its City Hall is not the building but the plaza, undergoing a redesign at the moment, which was imagined as a space for demonstration below eyes of governance). What we are faced with now is also the primacy of the mobile phone which occupies one’s attention. All those banal political cartoons depicting a loss of awareness and spontaneous communication as persons become more tethered to cyberspace’s beckonings are often disregarded as overreaction, but can we discount the entire criticism as mere technophobia because one can, say, find an old photo of every person on a train car reading a newspaper? If people are paying even less attention to their surroundings now (and they are), the posited crises of architecture as a craft of artful problem solving acquire a new vividness. One not only should but must ask why architecture should attempt to command visual experience of public urban space when today’s architecture exists more as a symptom of culture than as an aspiration of culture. As Summerson writes in the same essay, “…we do not really care to be reminded by the grand staircase of the majesty and greatness of Mr. Mayor. […] Architecture is no longer required to give symbolic cohesion to society. Cohesion is now maintained by new methods of communication.”
For the sake of readers who are unfamiliar, I want to give a very short, generalized overview of the architectural profession’s trajectory over the past two centuries, because it will help to establish my next points. It is inaccurate to say that the twentieth century stands alone in its cultural crises. Artforms have long been in danger of mutation, indirection, or obsolescence, and there have always been battles to protect the existence and sanctity of one thing or another as such. In the west, the most consistently transformative factor has been the march of technology; but it is only since the industrial revolution and its democratizations (some would say infrastructural impositions) that the pace of this march has accelerated so quickly that the turnover rate of things and ideas has created an anxiety of profound self-consciousness about one’s own relevance and relationship to time. Now if we turn to the practice of architecture (which only emerged as a sober and specified profession in the 1800s), a significant crisis occurred with the advent of the engineer who worked with new materials, assisted in the application of novel urban forms such as suspension bridges, railways, and industrial buildings, and whose ultimate goal was cost-efficient practicality. This crisis happened in tandem with architects’ debate over the suitability of one preexisting or composite style over another. Not one of these crises has ever quite resolved. What I want to pinpoint is that the domain of engineering diminished the architect as a copyist peddler of veneers. The forming and evolutions of what we very broadly categorize as Modern Architecture are partly explainable as the results of certain architects moving past that exact debate of styles and matching the engineer’s competence.
Of course, modern architecture has had its failures (and victories). One might say that with its overconfident rationalism it too highly venerated the engineer’s tenets, and so dehumanized not only the citizen but itself. More important to this essay than that evaluation is the implication of the profession’s post-debate fear of style. Architects today I think are all too aware that to formally label a contemporary architecture is to date it and so possibly give it premature expiration. Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid’s designs might often express identifiable looks, but neither architect ever gave these looks a name. This is in extreme contradistinction to the obsession early-20th century artists and activists had with affixing an -ism to everything they made or did. Architecture is no longer an end in itself; it is for the most part a relational capitalistic commodity, and one will invariably sooner hear keywords such as “carbon footprint”, “natural light”, or “environmental quality” than anything about what the building artistically is. This is not a personal judgment: it is a plain matter of fact. In some sense, then, the battle of styles has not disappeared but changed: the architect’s battle is a praxis-centered staving off of categorical identification; meanwhile, it is the critic (professional and unprofessional) who bandies words of blatant stylistic content with others to cast blame or approval.
The relevance, or irrelevance, of the architectural critic now somewhat parallels that 19th-century tension between architect and engineer. While the critic tends to speak in one language, the architect tends to speak in another (if at all). Given this disparity, it is understandable that some critics would find difficulty or resist bringing in the question of the aesthetics. This difficulty extends to the architectural profession’s scattered makeup. It is very rare that one has a clear picture of how an architectural firm (including its assistants, technicians, associate/senior directors, etc.), designers, engineers, developers, and the various building codes and zoning laws have interacted to realize a building. Even if the road one takes to become an architect has been codified (the free-form course of, say, Inigo Jones’ career could seem absurd to us today), its complexities have exploded, and integrating these into a coherent assessment of a building is practically impossible. The details of the coming about of a building now, no matter how mundane its appearance, could occupy the page-count of a novel. Not all data is information, though, and one could declare: damn the behind-the-doors bureaucracy — what matters is the end product! Yet we could just as well retort: matters how? and to whom? It is one thing to declare architecture’s basic provisional import; it is another to say that it need be important in the ways we wish for it to be, and to make this the argumentative totality.
Further complicating everything is the reality that architectural criticism, like any other critical tradition, has been undermined by those aforementioned democratizations. With the Internet, anyone can (and is encouraged to) be a critic with an equal shot at a platform and audience. Such criticism tends to spread by the infectious power of anger or smug sarcasm rather than the quality of its insights. This sort of criticism prefers to deal in charged language yet tells little: it is a vapid buildup to a politically convenient takeaway. Criticism is also an objectified aggregate, seen on sites such as Metacritic, making it complicit assistant to the mechanisms of consumerism. A keyword search for Stonehenge on Google will produce results including a star rating, suggesting that the ancient measured arrangement of post-and-lintel stones is reducible to a ranking applicable to anything else on earth (what makes Stonehenge “better” or “worse” than the Rothko Chapel?). Lastly, I would note the anti-monumental and anti-authoritative trends among younger leftist demographics which may stem from a horror of history, perceived as nothing more and nothing less than a thread of subjugation, and allow themselves no recourse but putting-away or demolition. The centralized building is then perhaps equatable to the centralized critic: a suspect problematic founded upon arrogance, exploitation, and hegemonic occupancy. If we agree that this is where criticism largely is, one wonders what strength it has to affect culture besides accelerating its turnover rate, already too fast for anyone to follow.