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Critical Mass: Committee of Architectural Critics Conference Critiqued

CICA’s Critical Juncture symposium fails to do justice to the rich career of Joseph Rykwert

I doubt if anyone came away from the V&A day of the symposium Critical Juncture with more profound or satisfying insights about criticism than they already had. Criticism is notoriously difficult to define, a complex practice whose interest and elusiveness both reside in its epistemological fluidity. We can, and should, meaningfully, debate the methods, techniques and practices of history, for example, but to do the same with criticism risks pushing the subject into any of the disciplines over which criticism sits like one of those circles in a Venn diagram – fragmenting its wonderful elasticity into a series of separate disciplinary cells.

Much can be forgiven, though if any organisation might be expected to throw light on this, the grandiosely named International Committee of Architectural Critics (CICA in its French acronym and which took the lead in organising the event) must be a candidate. It has a structure which it thinks gives it a clear purpose, but this purpose turns out not to be entirely clear or especially helpful in advancing the cause of criticism. We shall take a closer look at that later; first it’s important to explain why many attendees will have left with greater insight into the work of Joseph Rykwert, CICA president and RIBA Gold Medal Laureate, even though using his oeuvre as the prism through which the symposium was meant to explore criticism more widely did not succeed.

Over a very long career, Rykwert has touched on many aspects of architectural thought. It would be as pretentious to assume that a short review can cover everything that was mentioned over the day, as it is to hope that each of them can be covered in a single symposium. Highlights included Phyllis Lambert’s plea, via The Idea of a Town, to find forms of contemporary urbanism that represent the ideas and aspirations of their citizens, and especially Czeslaw Bielecki’s compelling analysis of the politics of public space in Warsaw (where Rykwert lived as a child), characterised by a diagram of three Zeilenbau-like blocks labelled Hegel, Marx and Lenin, against a two-dimensional plan with empty grid squares and roads called Arendt, Berlin and Hayek. Such were the self-defeating complexities of Soviet-era institutions that the Palace of Culture could conceal the underground publishing operation even as the government was cracking down on Solidarity.


Zeilenbau flats

Through four sessions – two specifically on particular works, and the other two on ‘critique of buildings’ and ‘critical juncture’ – and 14 speakers, one unifying theme did emerge: from On Adam’s House in Paradise (published as the second in a MoMA series which started with Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction) through The First Moderns, The Dancing Column and the pair of books on urbanism, The Idea of a Town and The Seduction of Place, Rykwert’s uncanny, perceptive and stimulating ability to use mythological concepts to illuminate both the creative forces that brought buildings and cities into being, and our responses to them.

Through this frame we can both explore our particular reactions and perceptions to our surroundings, while feeling close to those that underlay their production. Rykwert, as Patrick Lynch pointed out, conceives of architecture as a double metaphor, both of the body and of the world, and one might add another duality in the connection of past and present. That he may sometimes play old harry with the constitutions of hard-core historiographers – Adam’s House, for example, starts with modern examples and works backwards to identify the traces the Father of Mankind’s mythical dwelling – is beside the point. Rykwert, I suspect, never really set out to write architectural history, at least in the then prevailing Pevsnerian sense. What, I suggest, he wanted, was to show the living, real relevance of what had been done and what had been thought in the past to the present day. Myth, that great demon of historians, was the way to do it. It prevented his work being dismissed as a kind of ‘factual history’ or Pevsner-manqué, and revealed the possibilities of new and creative interpretations of the past.

We are here with Tolstoy, or at least his famous characterisation of explanations for a train’s movement at the end of War and Peace – ‘Someone asks: “What makes it move?” The peasant answers, “Tis the devil moves it”. Another person says the locomotive moves because the wheels are going round. A third maintains the cause of motion lies in the smoke being carried away by the wind.’ Attributing motion to wheels raises the question of what moves the wheels, back to pressure in the boiler, while citing the movement of smoke as the cause is merely an easily refutable guess. Only the peasant’s evocation of a mythical force is a complete explanation, says Tolstoy, but even that breaks down when someone points out that it’s not the devil, but a German, and so a new and more sophisticated explanatory myth is needed. Perhaps it’s all down to a Pole …

There are, of course, many more serious themes in Rykwert’s work. Something of Jung lurks in the propensity to tie image to myth. A trace of Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie may lie in his decision to go backwards through history to locate the first and irreducible image of ‘house’. And could there have been a deliberate division of labour between him and his erstwhile colleague at the University of Essex, Michael Podro, whose Critical Historians of Art traces the implications of a very different way of thinking about the history of cultural production?


The more serious themes in Rykwert’s work, such as tracing the irreducible image of ‘house’, were left neglected by the symposium. Above: an image from ‘On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural Theory’

But these were not raised in the symposium, perhaps because Rykwert’s characterisation of myth as a way of connecting our own experiences, ambitions and intentions with those of the past helps to explain why his work seems important to CICA. Rykwert’s opening up of new ways of looking at history and how architecture conveys ideas were very important in helping architects imagine their way beyond some of the more reductivist prescriptions of Modernism, whose shortcomings were becoming ever more apparent as Rykwert’s career unfolded. This was nectar to CICA which, as board member Louise Noelle commented in opening the symposium, exists to ‘recognise, select and encourage’ better architecture, and to work alongside architects to achieve this. It even headquartered itself in Paris so it could work closely with the UIA.

This is a perfectly respectable aim, but it is at best half the obligation of criticism as a practice, and conceivably one best provided as part of education, or supply side measures such as panellist Robert Tavernor mentioned in the role of ‘friendly critics’, such as himself, whom architects hire to help them through the hurdles of planning applications. Criticism, if it has any purpose at all, must also create bridges of understanding between the processes of production and the rest of society; that is, to explain or at least introduce architecture and architectural ideas to clients, politicians and the public, and to calibrate architectural discourse within a broader mix of cultural disciplines. If criticism is merely about improving the supply side of architecture, interaction with culture and society is restricted. This interaction is difficult, demanding and the single most important reason why criticism needs to retain its epistemological fluidity. Criticism is not, nor can it be, definitive. It is personal, subjective and immediate, susceptible to attack and prone to revision. Depending on wide and eclectic knowledge that is necessarily shallower than academic disciplines demand, it helps to stake out territory for more detailed and focused analysis. This simply cannot happen purely from a supply side perspective.

But CICA knows best. With all the self-righteousness and self-importance of a UN official chastising the ‘world community’ for ‘allowing’ another atrocity to happen, Louise Noelle invited us to admire CICA for being ‘open to all persons without distinction of nationality, religion, age, sex, education or philosophical views’. Such openness, especially in an organisation devoted to improvement, invokes the foundational precept of our liberal and social democratic belief system, and acts as a defence because taking issue with it is easily characterised as being anti-openness and opposed to progress. So self-evident is the good they do, that they can have a byelaw following the one Noelle quoted, which states, ‘Every application for membership must be approved by the Executive Board and by the Board of Associate Directors by a majority of two-thirds of its members.’ Quite what the executive board of an organisation devoted to criticism is doing under such circumstances, if it is not discriminating, beggars belief. Even hypocrisy disappears before the altar of progress.

All of this would be irrelevant were it not for the symposium’s denouement. The University of Pennsylvania’s Richard Wesley, speaker in a morning session, pointed out the day had failed to explore the very basic distinction between criticism – including its part in the creative and educational process – and what critics do. Panel chair Trevor Boddy’s response was extraordinary: first surprised, then defensive, before finally offering an invitation to discuss the subject in private. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that CICA is neither open nor interested in criticism either of itself or in the broadest sense of investigating ideas. Sadly it took us a long way from the fecund suppleness, subtlety and generosity of Rykwert’s thought.

Joseph Rykwert Symposium: Critical Juncture

Where: The Architectural Association & The Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre at the V&A

When: 21 & 22 February

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