Architectural Criticism

I attended a panel discussion in New York City last night, sponsored by David Haskell's Forum for Urban Design. The attendees, as you'll see on the invitation, below, represented a number of hefty publications – meaning the combined critical and journalistic weight of the writers in the room was almost enough to redesign Manhattan...


Ultimately, the conversation was both stimulating and worth the trip – but I came away thinking two or three points still needed to be made. Although some of this did come up afterward, without controversy, whilst talking to David Haskell and the panelists, I do want to expand on and clarify some things.
First, early on, one of the panelists stated: "It's not our job to say: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks..."
But of course it is!
That's exactly your role; that's exactly the built environment as it's now experienced by the majority of the American public. "Architecture," for most Americans, means Home Depot – not Mies van der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you'd have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan – or San Francisco, or Boston's Back Bay.
You'd also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique – or celebrate – these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey – citing Le Corbusier – then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience: this was unanimously agreed upon by all of last night's panelists.
Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don't realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Waitrose, can be criticized – if people don't realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized – then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.
And no one says a thing.


To use a musical analogy: you can have a thousand and one interesting, inspired, intelligent, widely referring, enthusiastic, even opinion-changing conversations about music with almost anyone – including what that person listens to, why, what soundtracks they own, what "bip-hop" really means, whether or not "post-techno" exists, what they actually want to hear on the radio, should file-sharing be legalized, is Chris Cornell this generation's Sammy Hagar (answer: yes), etc.
But to infer from that conversation – because nobody mentioned Stravinsky or Bach – that those people are philistines who don't care about music is absurd. In other words, maybe my cousin can't cite Deleuze and maybe he has no idea who Fumihiko Maki is, or even Frank Lloyd Wright, but does that mean he doesn't care about architecture?
As it is, one critic writes for approval by another critic, who writes for another critic, who writes for some editor somewhere, or for the head of a department, and no one wants to step out of line. You want to talk about a videogame, or a Tim Burton film, or castles as described in the books of J.K. Rowling – but nope: it's all Zaha, all the time.
Meanwhile, subscription rates are plummeting.


[Image: A single issue of The Architectural Review now costs US$22.99].

Further – though this may contradict what I say above – strong and interesting architectural criticism is defined by the way you talk about architecture, not the buildings you choose to talk about.
In other words, fine: you can talk about Fumihiko Maki instead of, say, Half-Life, or Doom, or super-garages, but if you start citing Le Corbusier, or arguing about whether something is truly "parametric," then you shouldn't be surprised if anyone who's not a grad student, studying with one of your friends at Columbia, puts the article down, gets in a car – and drives to the mall, riding that knotwork of self-intersecting crosstown flyovers and neo-Roman car parks that most architecture critics are too busy to consider analyzing.
All along, your non-Adorno-reading former subscriber will be interacting with, experiencing, and probably complaining about architecture – but you've missed a perfect chance to join in.
Which brings me to two final points, and I'll try to be quick:
1) Architectural criticism means writing about architecture, not writing about buildings.
Incredibly, in the midst of the talk last night, one of the panelists mentioned Archigram – almost wistfully – commenting that, despite a lack of built projects, Archigram still managed to dynamize and re-inspire the architectural scene of its era. This was done through ridiculous ideas, cheap graphics, a sense of humor, and enthusiasm. But, wait, what was –? Oh, that panelist must have forgotten, because he immediatetly went back to discussing buildings: not ideas, not enthusiasm, not architecture.
Architecture is not limited to buildings!
Temporary Air Force bases, oil derricks, secret prisons, multi-story car parks, J.G. Ballard novels, Robocop, installation art, China Miéville, Department of Energy waste entombment sites in the mountains of southwest Nevada, Roden Crater, abandoned subway stations, Manhattan valve chambers, helicopter refueling platforms on artificial islands in the South China Sea, emergency space shuttle landing strips, particle accelerators, lunar bases, Antarctic research stations, Cape Canaveral, day-care centers on the fringes of Poughkeepsie, King of Prussia shopping malls, chippies, Fat Burger stands, Ghostbusters, mega-slums, Taco Bell, Salt Lake City multiplexes, Osakan monorail hubs, weather-research masts on the banks of the Yukon, Hadrian's Wall, Die Hard, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Akira, Franz Kafka, Gormenghast, San Diego's exurban archipelago of bad rancho housing, Denver sprawl, James Bond films, even, yes, Home Depot – not every one of those is a building, but they are all related to architecture.
Every item in that list should be considered fair game for truly exciting, dynamic, and intellectually adventurous forms of architectural criticism. (And, obviously, many people already are writing about these things – including some of the panelists from last night. I'm just making a point).
2) Finally: The Archigram of today is not studying with Bernard Tschumi and openly imitating The Manhattan Transcripts. The Archigram of today works for Electronic Arts, has no idea who Walter Gropius is, and offers more insights about the future of urban design, space, and the built environment to more people, in more age groups, in more countries, than any practicing architectural critic will ever do, writing about Toyo Ito.
Videogames are the new architectural broadsides.


Being an architectural critic means writing about architecture – even writing about Le Corbusier and Toyo Ito, sure – but that means writing about architecture in its every manifestation: whether it's built or not, designed by an architect or not, featured in a videogame or not, found anywhere other than inside a novel or not, whether it's still intact or not – even whether it's on planet Earth.
If a critic can get people to realize that the everyday architectural world of garages and malls and bad haunted house novels is worthy of architectural analysis – and that architecture is even exciting to discuss – then maybe the trade journals can get some of their subscribers back. At the very least, it's worth a try.
Even if that means saying: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks.

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Blogger KMOB said...

yes X a bajillion! this is what i think about when i think about architecture. i just wonder how this will come into play when i try to get my M. Arch. maybe they will send to me redesign the loony bin... from the inside.

May 05, 2006 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Right on, BLDG. I wish it were so exciting to be an Architect (as I sit here designing condominiums). I am proud to offer the world a few more condominiums with no garages, solar heating and rainwater catchment. But wouldn't it be cooler if I could design video games? Probably not, because I used to do something of the sort and got tired of pushing pixels all day. I'm still pushing pixels a lot, but sometimes they turn into something real and cozy and - dare I say it? - a home.

May 05, 2006 3:58 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

I was at an architect's wedding about 10 years ago, sitting at a table with a few architects.

They started a conversation about the general state of architecture criticism for a general readership. I (an architect wannabe whose chief credential is a semester in Scully's survey course and some magazine subscriptions) offered a few of my thoughts on the subject.

You would have thought I was selling vinyl siding the way they discouraged my participation.

I cherish the irony of architects rejecting a non-architect's thoughts on how to engage non-architect's.

(I'm assuming that their snub was subject-related. I might have had spilled something on my shirt or committed some other faux-paux.)

May 05, 2006 4:29 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

Sorry about the incorrect apostrophe in the penultimate paragraph.

And, can you really ever have excess closet space?

(Somebody feel free to post, "It's probably that kind of question that made the architects not want to talk with you.")

May 05, 2006 4:42 PM  
Blogger Stephen Lauf said...

Goeff, it's not true when you say, "And no one says a thing." If you would read A Quondam Banquet of Virtual Sachlichkeit: Part I and A Quondam Banquet of Virtual Sachlichkeit: Part II you would see that a whole bunch has already been said/written within the realm of architectural criticism about the built environment that you say is being ignored. I think you ignore a lot about present-day architecture criticism yourself!

And I love my local Home Depot--it's on the site of the world's largest building explosion, right in Philadelphia no less. Certainly not a place I ignore-- http://www.quondam.com/06/0537.htm
It's like read a novel too.

May 05, 2006 4:55 PM  
Blogger Stephen Lauf said...

Also, check out the book summery of A Quondam Banquet of Virtual Sachlichkeit: Part III -- http://quondamdotcom.blogspot.com/2006/05/qbvs3.html -- posted the day before yesterday.

May 05, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Sean - Misplaced apostrophes are no' problem around here. And Ethan and O'Brien, thanks for chipping in - see if you might like Cinematic Urbanism, too. Might be up your respective alleys: film as an alternative route toward expressing architectural ideas.

And Stephen, I do leave open the possibility that someone might love the architectural design of Home Depot (which is very different from loving Home Depot, mind you) in this line: "You'd also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique – or celebrate – these buildings now popping up on every corner."

Maybe I'll see you there someday.

May 05, 2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger Stephen Lauf said...

I was there yesterday, buying caulk to then patch some mortar cracks at a 1970s house on the site of the oldest Swedish settlement (1645) in Pennsylvania. Besides real and virtual architecture, I'm also very happy when I have a caulk gun in my hands. I'm a very busy guy, so any meeting will be catch as catch can, but I'll let you know the next time I'm going to my Home Depot. You might just surprised what I can teach you about architectural criticism.

May 05, 2006 6:32 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

This is pretty spectacular... more of a phenomenon here in the US than elsewhere, I think -- there's a sense that construction needs to retain an aspect of the personal, rather than this creepy "developer culture" that ensures that nothing interesting is ever built anywhere. Right on!

May 05, 2006 8:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes! I wish all my professors had read this three years ago. Yes yes yes! Exactly my thoughts. Thank you!

May 05, 2006 11:00 PM  
Anonymous Robbie said...

Die Hard, Kafka, helicopter refuelling platforms and Home Depot ... seems pretty clear we've got a fan of postmodernism taking on fans of good ol' modernism (Corbusier et al). I sympathise with the writer's democratic intentions, but I think that old distinction between postmodernism for the people and modernism for the highbrow and university educated is wearing a bit thin. Postmodernism has plenty of "theory" attached, much of it is thoroughly difficult; and plenty of university educated artistic practioners, many of whom "the people" would prefer not to be entertained by. An urban mag that takes on Kafka and James Bond on consecutive pages will be no less a high brow document, and a college boy fetish item, than Architectural Record.

May 06, 2006 3:35 AM  
Blogger awww said...

This is without a doubt the most important issue architecture has to face. Geoff, I think you are ignoring that the Mieses of the world are impotant in a zeitgeist kind of way as much as the critics are ignoring that home depot is ipmortant in a this-IS-the-built-environment kind of way.

Regardless, the discussion desperately needs to be shifted towards home depot because Mies gets plenty of talk already.

May 06, 2006 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, never look to newsrag critics to tell the public that architecture is in their home depot. That is just ridiculous. It is hard enough to convince them that Jean Nouvel is architecture. Instead, the public wants their neo-victorian McBungalow replete with faux fireplaces and such (built by a contractor, not an architect, from a catalogue). So sorry, but you gotta start with basics when its come to joe public.

As for the discipline needing to extend outside of itself, isnt that what the whole history of architecture has been about? I am lost here. Vitruvius, Alberti, Towards a new architecture, Concrete Atlantis, etc. Instead, Architecture should always look in two directions: out and in, lest the field be absorbed by uninspired generic contractors or dilletante artists who dont know how to talk to builders or waterproof a roof inventively.

So your call for video games as architecture or cinmena as architecture is a bit old hat. Architecture has always been influenced by its sister fields - arts, science. Autonomy and ideology is an age-old debate, which may explain why architects are increasingly interested in pushing the boundary of architecture within architecture itself - fast-track construction, design communication, design-build, collaboration, lighting, materiality, prefab, etc.

Anyway, all the same, keep it up, but I wouldnt hang any hope on Ourousoff or Campbell, or Goldberger to write about MMORPGs any time soon, and thats just fine that way.

May 06, 2006 11:15 AM  
Anonymous steve said...

I wouldnt hang any hope on Ourousoff or Campbell, or Goldberger to write about MMORPGs any time soon

I wd love to see them write about this, it wd be good for the profession and for design classes and for jounralism and people outside architecture should read about the debates going on. No one outside design studios even knows what architects talk about now. The more people writing about it the better.

May 06, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Hey Robbie - Sure, that's a valid interpretation; but I would nonetheless disagree. I'm not arguing, anywhere in the piece, for an upper tier and a lower tier of architectural discourse or practice. I'm saying, rather, that there are loads of unnecessary referential tics occurring today in architectural criticism, where irrelevant buildings or figures or anecdotes are brought up again and again, for no immediately obvious contextual reason; and this stifles more interesting intellectual possibilities. A lively and invigorating conversation could be held with home owners or apartment dwellers - or slum dwellers - all over the world, and you'd simply have to say, "Like your house, for instance..." or "Like that scene in Die Hard..." (or whatever) - because the shared field of references would make architecture something anyone can talk about, enlivening the overall debate.

Rock critics who write about Led Zeppelin instead of Bartok aren't postmodernists - they're rock critics.

A further point, then, is that it's not postmodern to discuss Die Hard - and it seems really strangely repressive to hold yourself back from mentioning the film if someone is talking about, say, skyscraper security systems in a new office tower by SOM. Why not mention Die Hard? It doesn't mean you haven't read Adorno. Other forms of architecture - other representations of architecture - are just as valid to discuss in a conversation about architecture.

If I talk about Gothic cathedrals, say, that doesn't make me a postmodernist - though Gothic cathedrals aren't modernist structures; similarly, if I talk about Cappadoccian troglodyte homes, I'm not inherently a postmodernist; and if I talk about highway flyovers, I don't have to be a postmodernist. Maybe I'm a priest, an archaeologist, and a civil engineer, respectively. It's the music example all over again: I could talk to most of my friends for hours and hours and hours, and in an intelligent, literate, and widely-referenced way (I tell myself) about the differences between industrial hardcore and schranz, field recordings and sound art, dark ambient and drone, microhouse and post-techno, and the importance of sub-bass - but we might not mention Schoenberg. This doesn't make us postmodernists, or intellectually unfit to discuss music; it makes us people who love music and aren't talking about Schoenberg.

Similarly, you can talk about architecture without talking about Le Corbusier; it's quite easy, in fact. There's a lot of architecture out there; it's all over the world, and everyone interacts with it. It just means you're not talking about Le Corbusier.

Having said that - and where I think your point is valid (as well as awww's point, above) - I do want to clarify that I'm not saying you should never read Adorno, or never discuss Le Corbusier (I am, after all, doing that right now), or never study Mies van der Rohe, never write an article about Fumihiko Maki - I'm simply saying that the overwhelming majority of architecturally relevant cultural references today are being overlooked by most critics. A robotic kind of ritual repetition is occurring instead, an almost sacred re-enactment: you get a bunch of architectural critics together and they repeat the same conversation over and over again, rewriting the same article, citing the same architects and the same buildings, quoting the same people in the same way, visiting the same historical conferences, ritually repeating this lost original conversation. It's boring, frankly.

Finally, if I live in a Toll Brothers house and I talk about my house architecturally, does that make me a postmodernist? I think that's a pretty dubious claim.

May 06, 2006 12:15 PM  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

It's one of many things I've always admired about bldgblog, Geoff, your eagerness to go beyond and outside the traditional boundaries of the discipline ... into the interior of the earth, out to orbit ... looking at systems like drainage and decay, infrastructure. It reminds of Corbu's "... the simple unadorned majesty of grain elevators" and how an insight like that, the recognition of architectural principles in something outside, can rejuvenate and transform design forevor.

This is an important post becuase it feels like a manifesto for that search outside. The readership of arch. mags may be declining, but I'll bet the readership of sites like this one and design observer and archinect is pushing through the roof (ever think about posting your stats?). I'm curious if you think that means there should be a print version bldgblog or if these blogs are really the new (more relevant) architecture press. Is it important to keep it online or would it work as well (more perceived legitimacay, etc.) in print?

May 06, 2006 5:43 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

The next time I'm compelled to explain why my entries are so poorly broken down into officially recognised *architectural* categories, I shall point them to this post. Beautiful, Geoff. Absolutely beautiful.

'...strong and interesting architectural criticism is defined by the *way you talk* about architecture, not the buildings you choose to talk about...'

Bravo.

May 06, 2006 6:40 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Geoff & Others-

I don't know how many people outside of the architecture world read this blog, but I am and I do. I can't comment on the specifics of the intellectual inbreeding going on in architecture criticism, but I can tell you that this is happening (and has been) in many other fields, including my field of communication.

The same researchers reference each other's work, all talking about the same items, making it as insular and uninspired as possible. The claim is that it keeps things pure and untainted, and when one suggests that perhaps a few outside influences might stir up the intellectual stew, banishment from the club ensues.

I think this is just the nature of academia. The more specialized one becomes, the less attached to the common network of ideas one becomes. The field of Communication is pragmatic and functional like architecture (though obviously in different ways), yet if any fresh young graduate student suggests we make our criticism and research usable to the general public instead of just the other 1000 or so communication critics and researchers, the response is most often, "why would we do that?" In economics, the most recent answer to this problem was "Freakonomics" and that was met with either aloofness or downright bittnerness from most in the economics community. This is what happens when one tries to make one's field relevant and accessible to outsiders.

I have to point out though that the "anti-common public" vibe is even present in some of the other comments to this post.

May 07, 2006 6:07 PM  
Anonymous J said...

well put Geoff. I'm inspired to translate BLDGBLOG into French... but i'm illiterate, so it may be awhile.

May 07, 2006 8:46 PM  
Anonymous leah said...

to piggy-back, geoff, i'd add that one of the powers of architecural criticism is its potential to tie in other real-world issues of a non-strictly-architectural type. when i took my first architecture history class freshman year of college, i sort of saw links between many disparate disciplines forming - all, in a way, stemming from architecture.

architecture is this amazing center point because, as you suggest, it means so many different things. and therefore it ties together sociology and politics with engineering and design, theory and practicality, home-life and work-life, science, technology, manufacturing.. everything.

so when "you" are setting out to write some architectural criticism, i'd venture to say that the whole world is at your disposal, in a way that may not hold true for too many other disciplines. which by no means is intended to belittle discourse in other discplines, but merely calls, then, on architectural critics to really step up to the task.

May 07, 2006 8:53 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

Geoff...

I've gathered you're US-based. In which case, you won't have caught a wonderful TV documentary by philosophy and architecture enthusiast Alain de Botton, on Channel 4 the other day, which touched on this from a slightly different angle; that being, the British public's unwillingness or inability to comment on or participate in architectural debate, and the poor, homogeneous buildings - particularly housing - that result. (Gosh that's a long sentence, sorry).

His conclusions basically implied that if you can engage the public in architectural discussion, and not leave it as something for "people who build skyscrapers", then you can actually persuade people that maybe spreading across the country with a swarm of mock-Tudor facsimiles isn't the best idea.

Or in other words: Effectively, at the (very) thin end of the wedge, you have "high" architects creating wonderful things, and everyone else has - or more importantly thinks they have - to put up with something onion-skinned by a jobbing technical illustrator for Barratt Homes. And wouldn't it be lovely if the "wealth" could be re-distributed a bit?

Oh, and this is a fantastic and inspiring blog by the way (as a musician and, once upon a very long time ago, aspiring architect).

May 07, 2006 10:49 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I posted a few questions on a BB some time ago that all of you should read the reply to http://www.butterpaper.com/talk/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=1078

May 07, 2006 11:29 PM  
Anonymous Robbie said...

Hi Geoff,

My earlier comments were a bit brief and enigmatic, so I'll try again.

Fundamentally I agree. Architectural writing today has its cliches and well-worn grooves, its great men and its great buildings. When a language is exhausted like this, it needs shock treatment. A century ago, modernism arrived as this shock, with Corbusier as prophet. Modernists were going to bring basic dignities, like light and public space, to the industrial masses. They were going to rip down the cold monuments and decorations of the bourgeois establishment. But then modernism itself turned into a bureaucratic system, it got taught in the academies, canons formed, Corbusier became a quote-a-day source book, and modernism became the offical style of entire nations, like Brazil. And yes, the modern way of seeing the world - form and function, and the celebration of the isolated and self-contained box of tricks - dominates the discourse, and underpins the ideals of magazines like Architectural Record.

What Geoff wants is a postmodern revolution, to renew the dead language of modernism. But why the hell am I a postmodenist? he protests. For a start, I'm not being pejorative. And I'm not saying you're a postmodernist when you discuss Walmart and a classicist when you discuss a temple. It's just that the central ideas in this essay are undeniably those of the postmodern revolutionaries that pimped up the scene in the 1970s - like opening up architecture to other disciplines (see the new super-discipline of "Cultural Studies"), not being bothered with terms like "high" or "low" art, and taking on commercialised mass culture as valid objects of criticism.

And what I'm saying is, this system of thought ("postmodern" or otherwise) isn't immune from becoming a bureaucratic system too, with its own tics and cliches. In the part of Australia where I live, for instance, "postmodernism" is at the centre of high school English teaching. Kids compare and critique news reports, ads, websties, Star Wars and Wuthering Heights.

Increasingly, postmodern criticism reverently repeats the moves made by its founding mothers and fathers. How many times have I seen Blade Runner, Disneyland, and the damn Bonaventure Hotel cited over and over in acadmeic criticsm of all kinds - including architectural criticsm? And were those pieces of criticsm any easier, more relevant, or widely read than the criticsm of academic modernism? How easy or widely read is Fred Jameson, though I love the man? How much of a tedious cliche is Baudrillard?

As an apprentice architecture writer myself, I support absolutely Geoff's call for sharper and more relevant writing. I try as much as I can to describe the building as it stands; take people through the space; talk about what it's made of, and who built it; talk about who funded it, who wanted it, what it represents to the community, what politics are at play; what technologies underpin the building, how environmentally friendly it is; talk about the building in the landscape or in the city. As much as possible, concrete deets, interesting anecdotes, relevant examples.

I can't do much more than that; the magazine industry is in love with shiny images of shiny buildings, transforming architecture into giganticised brand names. This is their way of selling architecture to the masses. Like porn, no one's buying these magazines for the articles.

And I don't belive a shiny image of Mel Gibson beside Gehry's latest is necessarily going to help the situation.

Best,
Robbie.

May 08, 2006 12:39 AM  
Blogger ruairi said...

Real nice article Geoff.

Keep up the good work

Ruairi
interactivearch

May 08, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

And I don't belive a shiny image of Mel Gibson beside Gehry's latest is necessarily going to help the situation.

Well, we're certainly in agreement on that - though I do have to point out that mindless celebrity worship really is the exact opposite conclusion to take from the post, written above. However, I also have to register surprise that, if an architectural critic mentions Die Hard, he or she is being "postmodern"; whereas, say, a film historian who mentions Die Hard is simply being a film historian. It seems that whoever is policing these disciplinary boundaries, in other words, telling each camp what they can or cannot talk about - whoever is calling all these names, and periodizing all these histories - must not have very much else to do with their time. I'm also somewhat stunned to learn that I want a "postmodern revolution." As it's now written, the rhetorical logic of the above post calls for "postmodern revolution" - or I want a postmodern revolution? Those are two very different subjects. In any case, are published collections of Norman Foster's sketches postmodern - because sketches aren't buildings? What about sketches by Wittgenstein?

Or sketches by carpentry assistants who worked on the set of Die Hard?

You can write about individual masterpieces - buildings - as if they are symphonies, clearly framed on their site, and you can focus on starchitects, like Frank Gehry; you can also write about architecture. The latter claim is neigher postmodern nor revolutionary - nor is it anti-modern. Frankly, it may not even be interesting! As anonymous points out, for instance, it isn't new and it isn't original. But army bases are architectural, nonetheless; the international space station is a work of architecture; Vatican City is architectural; Caltech's seismology lab is architectural; the siege of Grozny was architectural; architecture pops up all the time in the novels of Franz Kafka and William Burroughs both - as well as in the Upanishads and in The Bible and in the diaries of Louis Kahn. Writing about and describing any of those examples, from an architectural standpoint, has nothing to do with an intellectual fad that burnt itself out in the 1990s - which is presumably why the above post recommends reading neither Jameson nor Adorno.

Sorry to harangue everyone here, but one more example: if an English professor at some university somewhere writes a book about architectural symbolism in the novels of Henry James, he or she is simply being an English professor. However, if an architect were to write that book - apparently he or she would be a postmodernist. Which is a distinction I find maddeningly unclear. If a priest refers to the "house of God" - is he or she a postmodernist? Conversely, if an architect refers to the "house of God" - is he or she a postmodernist? What if a DJ spins the track "House of God" by DHS? What if that DJ is also an architectural student? The rules for deciding who or what is "postmodern" - the contexts, the intentions, the references - are so byzantine, arbitrary, intellectually unrigorous, and even uninspiring that I've gone on far too long already. Apologies. Feel free to disagree.

Meanwhile: Robbie, as to your point on strong writing in the context of architectural criticism, we are in 100% agreement. Also, Tim, Leah, and Nick, both agreed and thanks! Architecture, by its very nature, is trans-disciplinary, and so just about everything in the universe is fair game in an architectural discussion. Gravity, physics, globalization, plate tectonics, war, utopia, cloning... etc. etc. Thus the excitement.

May 08, 2006 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the above comment that its about images - you can write about Kafka, but people will have to read your article! People want images of buildings, even if its a CAD render. No matter how good an article is about cityscapes in Kafka, it probably belongs in a literary studies magazine, not Architectural Record. Its literary criticism not architectural criticism. That doesn't mean an architect can't read it, but its nt architectural. Do you agree?

May 08, 2006 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

Geoff, Nick

The rather wonderful programme broadcast last week on this theme hosted by Alain de Botton was "The Perfect Home":

http://www.channel4.com/4homes/ontv/the_perfect_home/

Much of what he was proposing is on that site.

May 08, 2006 2:30 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Jeremy, thanks! And anonymous... that's a good point, but I would hope that strong and entertaining writing could keep readers in place (though such a hope is clearly naive). You could always produce your own images for an article about Franz Kafka and architecture; there's a great illustrated edition of "The Library of Babel" by Borges, for instance, and the images, if they appeared in Architectural Record, would not necessarily be out of place. But would it be literary criticism...? Sure. But it would also be architectural criticism. Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard is a novel - but it's also a work of architectural criticism. Etc. etc. But point taken; I do agree that architectural magazines are almost entirely image-driven, and that this fact alone affects what writing appears within them. That can change, however.

May 08, 2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger brand ave said...

"Why not mention Die Hard? It doesn't mean you haven't read Adorno."

Exactly! I think you've hit on something major there.

Leah makes a very good point too: that really, the whole world is at an architectural critic's disposal, that criticism can be about *more*, and that that is very positive. I wholeheartedly agree.

May 08, 2006 6:47 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Hey Chris/Brand Avenue - Agreed.

Everyone else: It's worth pointing out several entries on Brand Avenue itself – a consistently impressive and highly recommended site about contemporary urbanism – in the present context (of architectural criticism). So: at the very least, check out this post about an insane questionnaire home buyers were asked to fill out before moving into a new subdivision in California; then there's this post on so-called McLofts, and this post on Daybreak, Utah. But click around; it's a good site to explore.

And, for what it's worth, I actually agree with most of Robbie's points, above, though my earlier response doesn't seem to indicate that. What I do disagree with - quite strongly - is that any writing about non-buildings in the context of architectural criticism should be considered "postmodern." However, I don't want to come across as overly combative on this point...

May 09, 2006 2:44 PM  
Blogger Michiel said...

Three hooray's for Geoff! :)

May 09, 2006 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Onroda said...

I wonder though if any of you besides Geoff have actually read Adorno? Its not a matter of Die Hard or Adorno its placing things in a space where we can make valuable judgments which lead to a critique. If that’s through Adorno fine, if it's through Die Hard fine…

However, I think Zizek's analysis of Lacan through Hitchcock or Fredric Jameson's lens of the movie Speed as critique of temporality are a prime examples for all of us as a method to position critique into a space that can be accessible to a wider audience, but doesn't leave out the boarder scope of that project.

May 09, 2006 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Robbie said...

Cheers Geoff, overly combative you aint. I retire hurt on the my calling you a postmodern point. It's a bit rude to try and categorise a stranger.

My only concern (maybe it's too pessimistic) was that using examples from mass culture in criticism won't necessarily lead to a mass audience, and won't necessarily simplify the discourse. I agree Fred Jameson is great; I disagree he's a pushover or a bestseller. That's my real gripe. The other one concerns the sort of constant battle required to keep a language fresh in a conservative, image driven industry like architectural criticism. Cliches are so much easier to sell than revelations.

You're nonetheless a warrior for the cause. Keep up the good work.

May 10, 2006 2:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of the reasons architecturel magazines cost so much now is THE IMAGES. you can dig your own grave with too many images. you have to charge more, less people buy your magazine, you raise the price to make up for falling revenue, less people buy it, and then each issue is $25. then no one buys it. i hate to say it but writers are cheap. they'e also more interesting. it's NOT all about the images.

May 12, 2006 12:35 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

[NOTE: Due to technical difficulties, I am actually posting this comment for John Massengale - so the below comment is from, and by, John]

New Urbanists talk about Home Depot and the Houses of 27 Gables, and take a lot of flak from architects as a result. We get out in the muck where 80% of America is being built, and architects act as though we created the muck.

If architects want to affect most of what is being built in America, they're going to have to get over style issues like modernism and postmodernism, because the people building America will drop them like a hot potato if they don't. Take a look at this blog post on patrons, clients, developers and consumers. Ninety percent of the issues you're talking about are built by patrons and clients, and they're only building 2% of America, if that.

May 15, 2006 10:32 AM  
Anonymous divya said...

hey geoff, i know im so many years late to comment.. i was just searching about architectural criticism and journalism and i came across your blog.. i thoroughly enjoyed reading it. and i agree with you on several points. criticizing architecture is very subjective. but, yeah its always talking about buildings and not the architects personally. most people rush into criticizing the architect when that should not be the case everytime..!

May 20, 2013 2:16 PM  

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