Grab Bag: Critical Pass

Herbert Muschamp’s recent death has inconveniently coincided with the opening of Beatriz Colomina’s ‘Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X’ at the Architectural Association here in London. Inconvenient, perhaps a glib adjective given a death is involved, because both serve as reminders of the disappointing state of architectural criticism at present.

I should apologize. It’s an industry of which I’m a part. I’m also longing for a days of yore to which I hold no authority or first hand experience. Yes, another upstart whining about the state of such-and-such today. Remember how good it used to be?

But there is proof! Writers like Reyner Banham, Lewis Mumford, Alan Temko, and Ada Louise Huxtable continue to inspire: they disagreed with, and in some cases intensely disliked, one another, but theirs was a generation of dialogue within the industry; of vitriolic diatribes and hold-no-punches arguments, much of which played out on page and for public consumption.

When I was at the Architect’s Newspaper in New York a few years ago, we worked on a feature about architectural criticism. A writer spoke to Alan Temko, who was a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle for much of the latter half of the 20th century, just before his death. He said, ‘The need for good criticism has never been greater, but if you look around, it seems mighty sparse’. It’s a view, as I understand it, shared by many fading giants in the  field, and one that as a young member of the profession I find disheartening.

The power of criticism hasn’t waned: ideally it can bring issues to public awareness and effect change. Rather it’s the criticism itself that has languished. A younger member of staff at my current magazine recently spoke to both Beatriz Colomina, a Princeton-based academic who specializes in architecture and the media, and art critic Hal Foster. He was excited about both interviews, but down because, according to him, the message from both was that architectural journalism has become an insipid PR machine with little in the way of criticism or analysis. Heavy blow, but point taken.

It’s important to note that those days of yore weren’t without flaw. Muschamp, for example, was an over-the-top writer prone to linguistic flights of fancy and with his own set of darlings to whom no amount of praise was excessive. But he was readable and, even further, held a platform to look forward to.

I make no claim to be a Muschamp expert: I’m too young to have followed much of his career. When I first starting reading him (I dimly recall my first exposure as a college freshman: a column on New York’s Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien) I found his rather vulgar literary antics tiresome, but soon I realized that it kept bringing me back. He was the sort of Maureen Dowd of architecture—her ‘jaw-jaw about bang bang’ was his ‘supple social fabric’. Muschamp’s was a lexicon of tactility, richness, luxury and excess. It was embarrassing, but it was determined.

Cut to today. I can’t for the life of me think of one architecture critic whose writing I feel in any way inspired or obliged to pick up.

But why?

There are countless reasons, I’m sure. Right now the one I’m trying to stay away from (out of desperate hope, obviously) is a lack of talent present in our generation of writers.

Perhaps I’m just making excuses, but looking through old New Yorker columns by Mumford and reading early Banham, Huxtable etc., there seemed to be something easier about the issues faced in the mid-20th century than now. The advent of modernism was about an easily-identifiable discourse. It was neat—it aspired to specifically laid out ideals and had a straightforward relationship to context. This is not to say that while modernism flourished there were no other architectural styles, but the modern movement was a yardstick and formulated a modernism/other binary: The numerous groups associated with the utopian movement that took off during the 1960s including the metabolists, situationists, the technocrats, the mechanists ad infinitum were still determined by their umbrella descriptor and which most authors compared to modernism.

Urban issues were demarcated by a similar dichotomy. The debates involved divided participants into equally neat schools—Jane Jacobs warred with Robert Moses, Garden City idealist Frederic Osborn with the editors of the Architectural Review (a magazine, no less!)—it was a readily contentious time in which the future of urbanism and architecture were at junctures. The critic’s job, to weigh in on these issues and ideally fall on one side, was thus fairly determined.

Conversely, now architecture and urbanism are increasingly multivalent subjects. The number of aesthetic movements and schools at any given moment is both elastic and organic. Each style addresses a host of new issues, and their cross-fertilization generates innumerable sub-categories each part of a different critical discourse. How one compares neo-modernism with blobism with the rise of digitally generated designs with sustainability has yet to be effectively reconciled. Additionally, with the rise of critical regionalism, most sensible urbanists and architects recognize the importance of bespoke design in a local context—making it harder still to assess the success of a project without intimate knowledge of its place.

There are more forms of publication, too, between countless new magazines and, of course, the internet. The multivalence of architectural types is matched by the polyphony of voices responding. So many blogs, so many sites, so many magazines, so many books. In a recent interview with Richard Meier, Brett Steele (head of the Architectural Association) introduced the topic of architectural monographs. Meier responded by bemoaning the sheer number of monographs now. As the profession wears on it takes less and less to publish your work, and the associated buzz drowns out anything of meaning. The democratization of the metaphorical soapbox has made everyone a critic. This has its benefits, as no longer are we only able to access the opinions of members of the old-boys club, but it also drowns what could be key voices in a sea of babble.

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