More than ever, architecture is in need of provocative, engaging and entertaining critics
Ambrose Bierce, the great 19th-century satirist and author of the The Devil’s Dictionary, once defined a critic as ‘a person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him’. Critics occupy a curiously parasitical position in the modern cultural milieu, and an architecture critic perhaps especially so. But in an age when architects can easily find obliging PR minions to dispense their gospel and biddable publishers to churn out infinite, anodyne oeuvres complètes, who still needs critics and criticism?
With a roster of alumni from Nikolaus Pevsner to Charles Jencks, the AR long ago cemented its place in the pantheon of influential critical writing. And continues to do so with our new Critic-at-Large, Ellis Woodman, who makes his debut in this issue. But as ever, the landscape has shifted. The internet and digital media have democratised the former freemasonry of architectural criticism and opened it up to a much wider constituency. The titans of yore still endure, but around these fixed colossi swirls a vast miasma of online blogs, forums, comments and chat. At its best, this catalyses debate beyond the high priesthood, but as well as a sense of inclusivity and openness, it also has a disturbingly atomising effect, in which architecture becomes devoid of its context and purpose, a complex subject reduced to a rolling news feed of images and Facebook likes.
What then, is the function of the critic? ‘I see criticism as a service profession,’ writes Michael Sorkin, in his densely argued thesis on the role of criticism. ‘My perspective is increasingly both quantum and moral and that criticism must be truly practical.’ Sorkin’s point is that criticism must see beyond the beguiling novelty of form and promote the positive effects architecture can bring to society and the wider world. He is aware of the paradox of the critic always arriving after the event to pronounce on ‘some zillion-dollar pile on which their opinions will have not the slightest impact’, but maintains that criticism, like architecture, must be judged by its impact and by its ‘useful consequences for the general conditions of culture, for the city, for the refinement of terms of discussion’.
It’s a depressing truth that most architects cannot write about architecture. Or they can, but it usually ends up as incomprehensible, self-serving gibberish. More than ever, architecture needs critics who can make buildings live in the minds of their audience, situate architecture in its wider context, provoke, entertain and engage, and crucially, speak truth to power.
When Ada Louise Huxtable, the doyenne of architectural criticism (and the first-full time architectural critic on an American daily paper), died last year at the age of 91, Sorkin described her final campaign against the interior remodelling of New York’s public library by an insipid scheme from Foster + Partners. This was, he wrote ‘the critic at her best: impassioned, learned, acute, rising powerfully in defence of an architecture of real value and real values’.