Public Space and Architectural Criticism

This month's issue of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) newsletter, Making Places, takes aim at celebrity architects and architectural criticism.

July's feature on the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas not so much critiques the buildings as it critiques critiques of the building, from Herbert Muschamp to Paul Goldberger and online bloggers. Benjamin Fried's article talks about architecture "critics' unbridled enthusiasm for elite designers," contending that "readers must sift through the hype and hyperbole that saturate the bulk of today's criticism," eventually coming to the conclusion that "critics...are failing to hold architects accountable for the impact of their designs on the public realm," and that there exists a need "to introduce new standards for excellence in public architecture."

As you can surmise, the author doesn't believe that the Library is a positive addition to downtown Seattle, particularly in the way it interacts with the public at the street level. But the positive praise levied upon the building by many architecture critics, including Muschamp and Goldberger, is the real issue.

Fried's article references the 2001 survey "The Architecture Critic: A Survey of Newspaper Architecture Critics in America" (pdf link) which seems to confuse matters with the following:
Many architecture critics go beyond opinion about the aesthetics of individual buildings, including reporting on sprawl and urban development. At the same time, they express regret that the field pays too much attention to the work of popular architects.

What seems to be happening is an awareness, on the critics part, that architecture exists as a part of urban - and other - fabrics, but their coverage tends to focus on the individual works of architecture instead, typically by well-known architects like Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas. But this quote indicates that there already exists a constituent of critics that can "give deeper consideration to the ways architecture affects public space," as PPS would like to see. So what's holding them back? Their editors? A mis-perception of what the public wants? The appeal of sensual photographs and buildings? All of these, and more, contribute in some way.

I think part of the problem lies in the treatment of architecture both as a singular object within its context and the critique of architecture on purely formal terms, as opposed to focusing on a building's relationships, with its surroundings, its internal spaces, with the user, etc. Of course, not all critics do these things, but neither do they all do what PPS is rallying against. But if architecture criticism had one approach, it wouldn't be very democratic. My definition of criticism is more about ways of looking at, and thinking about, things, as opposed to judgments along the lines of this is good/this is bad. By providing the reader with another point of view, hopefully a well-informed and relatively expert one, the reader can apply this thinking to other parts of the environments and see things in a different way.

So as much as I'll admit that PPS has some good points, their goal will only be realized by people with similar ideas expressing their views, not by silencing critics who don't agree with their perspective. If anything, we need more, varied voices so a dialogue about architecture and the environment can grow and expand.


On a side note, PPS is doing its part in improving the role of the critic with sidebars on the feature page. These include:
Tips on being a do-it-yourself critic

Five things you can do to influence your local critic

Tell us about your favorite new architecture

Tips on the first two sensible, while your vote on the last should meet PPS's criteria for being a successful public spaces, sensible criteria but limitations nonetheless.

(Thanks to El for sending me a link to this page on the public spaces of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that lead me to read PPS's newsletter)