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Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism

Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked. (ALH's response: "I couldn't agree more.")

By Norman Weinstein
March 2, 2009


Ada Louise Huxtable has been regaled so often over the years as the doyen of architecture critics that heresy is risked by questioning her primacy. So it is about time, particularly when times are so bloody hard for architects, to ask whether she needs to absent her throne so that the deeper questions pertaining to the real utility of architecture criticism can be sharply asked.

 

“Who needs architecture critics?” is a different question than who thinks Ada Louise represents an everlasting gold standard. For example, journalist Clay Risen recently proclaimed in Architect magazine, “Architecture criticism in the popular press begins and ends [my italics] with Ada Louise Huxtable.” Risen then takes to task the generations of critics following in Huxtable’s wake for neglecting to view architecture from the perspective of civic engagement. Huxtable’s followers are apparently guilty of the sin of style over substance, aesthetics over ethics, architecture as formal aesthetic experience rather than functional, healthy, building blocks of urban society, etc., etc., etc. You’ve heard it before how many times. And since Huxtable can do no wrong in Risen’s eyes, having defined popular architecture criticism for all time, those after Huxtable have been guilty of interpreting only an arty strand of their muse’s legacy.

 

Granting enormous respect to the legacy of Ada Louise, it is preposterous and pretentious to claim that Huxtable has singly defined the spectrum of popular architecture criticism. Granted, it can seem that way if you live inside the universe of Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cartoon, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” mapping the U.S. as a quick uninterrupted hop from Manhattan to L.A. But a larger issue than New York-centrism is at stake. Grant that architecture embodies rural and urban, virtual and material, regional vernacular and international style, where is the architecture critic covering that spectrum?

 

More critically, what is the function of architecture criticism at this moment beyond opinion propping?

 

In a time of a revolutionary turn toward sustainable design and technologically-augmented design, couldn’t smart opinions, or even unfashionable opinions, count for less, and a criticism transcending opinion-dressing count for more?

 

Here’s a simple example. Whether I adore or detest the latest project from Frank Gehry’s office, I’d like, prior to dispensing my educated opinion, a better comprehension of the translation of his drawings through CATIA software into an actionable building document. I’d want to interview his CATIA “translators” as much as I’d desire a Gehry interview. This implies architecture criticism as a round-dance (or walk-through) around the entire design process in terms a layperson as well as professional can appreciate. This involves writing the story of architecture smartly before it comes into visibility and after it has been occupied, a multi-dimensional sweep embracing everything from novel sustainable building parts to integration into urban fabric. This sounds impossibly idealistic to do 1% of the time within the tortuously terse world of journalism – but any degree of this sweep – particularly focusing beyond New York and the Northeast – would begin a serious reconsideration of the utility of architecture criticism.

 

This leads to the notion of architecture criticism becoming most useful when it is most panoramic in vision, when it is most global (in every sense), most cross-disciplinary, most passionately intellectual. The (arguably) most informative U.S. jazz critic, Gary Giddins, branched into film criticism which consequently broadened and seasoned his capacity to write deeply about music. How many architecture critics have read serious literature evoking architectural realities (and we’re not talking Ayn Rand’s pulpy The Fountainhead – think of Hart Crane’s poetic ode to the Brooklyn Bridge and Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of the Lion. How many airport designers have listened carefully to Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”? How many are capable of talking intelligently to structural engineers about the art of structural engineering?

 

An even wilder possibility would be criticism that could make us laugh at ourselves. Because architecture is such a serious business, every act of thoughtful, dogma-dissolving irreverence should be treasured. For example, I harbor a secret wish to apply a slight brake on the headlong rush by most critics to resurrect Paul Rudolph’s status. Suppose I write about my challenges – absurdly laughable – navigating the 37 levels of his original (4 story) A&A Building at Yale. Though I doubt it was part of Rudolph’s conscious intention, his design, making wayfinding arduous, could be interpreted as a trenchant satire on labyrinthine academic politics. And even starchitect cost overruns might have their humor – though a recession might not reward such levity.

 

That wag Oscar Wilde wrote, “Perhaps, after all, America has never been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.” Can the same be said about architecture criticism? There is a life for architecture criticism after Ada Louise – but like 21st-century architecture, no one knows exactly what it is – yet.

 

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at nweinstein@q.com.

 



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lesather / flickr

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