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Book Review: How to be a Useful Architectural Critic: Alexandra Lange's Perspicacious Primer Points the Way

"Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities" - use it often and you'll never think of the word "critic" pejoratively again.

By Norman Weinstein
January 26, 2012


As many architects struggle to eek out a decent living in these lean times, you might well think a book about how to be an effective architectural critic a frothy irreverence. After all, the number of nationally recognized architecture critics who make even a meager living doing their calling barely exceeds a few dozen. And unlike architects who can anticipate an economic upturn, the rise of the Internet has guaranteed that future architecture critics, now informal groups of hundreds crafting blogs, will earn nothing for their labor in any economic climate. Yet I’m interrupting this bleak line of thought to assert that Alexandra Lange’s Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities arrives at a propitious moment both for that endangered species, architectural critics, and for the objects of their critical scrutiny, architects.

 

What Lange has accomplished in her book is nothing short of miraculous. She showcases six essays by Lewis Mumford, Herbert Muschamp, Michael Sorkin, Charles W. Moore, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Jane Jacobs. Each “star” critic’s essay is then astutely analyzed through incisive quotes from their peers – Ada Louise Huxtable enters stage left quite often, Paul Goldberger stage right – and then critically analyzed by Lange, who brings to her work the multiple hats of working architect, journalist, and educator. Following each of the book’s six chapters is a list of provocative questions. They were likely generated in her interactions with her graduate students, but only a fool would refuse engagement with them. Lange’s chapter headings indicate the breadth and depth of her interest in writing about architecture: Skyscrapers, Museums, Landmarks, Monuments, Parks, and Cities. Note the intensive emphasis on the public and commercial. Perhaps Lange assumes writing usefully about the mansions of the rich and famous is best left to students of feature stories in Architectural Digest? Then again, that might be the apt text.

 

So who might the audience for Lange’s book be? It would be an ideal textbook for any student worldwide in a program promising a Masters of Fine Arts in Design Writing. We may be talking a few hundred students here. Not discounting scattered bunches of MFA students, I’m claiming that working architects (that phrase lassos the unemployed also) comprise the best possible audience for Lange’s book. Alas, they might also be the least likely to read it. But here is an argument for why they need to read this. Too often architectural critics find themselves in an adversarial relationship with architects. Either that, or just as horrid, they become sycophants, fans, marketing scribes. When dozens of architecture critics were firmly fixed in the security of daily newspaper positions, their opinions carried heft with a large portion of their general public over the long haul. Naysayers or affirmation asses, architecture critics dispensed opinions about completed architectural projects, with occasional forays into architectural plans for major projects. But opinions are not necessarily vehicles carrying useful perceptions.

 

Why does any working architect need an opinion about his or her output from an architecture critic? Why, apart from the obvious need for ego expansion or contraction, bottom line profit or loss, depending on a particular critic’s prestigious position? Where Lange appears to go with her book is in the direction of architecture critic as designer’s ongoing mentor, a second discerning eye. At their best, architecture critics ask necessary questions of architects that colleagues and friends dare not ask, having too much to lose in potentially embarrassing confrontations. As Lange brilliantly demonstrates in her cogent analysis of Michael Sorkin’s “Save the Whitney,” rather then opinion dispensing, she recognizes the political, ethical, and pedagogical imperatives, and need for compelling narrative, driving Sorkin’s perceptively useful criticism:

 

“Sorkin saw architecture as much as a game as an art form, a position bolstered by the fact that he began writing during a recession. Many of his Voice reviews. . .discuss buildings unbuilt, exhibitions shown, controversies engaged, rather than specific three-dimensional works of architecture. Yet Sorkin was and is a practicing architect, and when he turned to the building form, he could be lyrical and highly specific about the experience and effects of being there.”

 

Sorkin’s criticism, as Lange illuminates it, works simultaneously as imaginative play akin to preliminary design sketching, problem-seeking, and as a precise engagement with a specific site, materials, program, and design plan, synthesized to offer an architectural experience, an engagingly imaginative story aligned with client desires and occasionally public need.

 

One major irony of architecture education? Faculties don’t regularly undergo rigorous crits of their own designs and writing by their colleagues and students. If they did – and I don’t anticipate this democratic revolution in the near future – they would learn to recognize and cultivate their inner architecture critic. They would write perceptively about the rationale for their designs in a parlance other than hermetic theory-speak or self-aggrandizing marketing jargon. Lange’s book goes into the “nuts-and bolts” level of wordsmithing architectural experiences with a poetic lyricism and technical precision as no book before it. Use it often and you’ll never think of the word “critic” pejoratively again.

 

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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