Wednesday, March 23, 2011


In the last couple of weeks I've attended more lectures and discussions than in about the last six months. I thought I'd post my notes on them here. I've never been a huge fan of lecture recaps, so these will be short (minus Critical Futures) and (hopefully) to the point.

Critical Futures #3
Tuesday, March 8
At the Storefront for Art and Architecture
Organized by Domus
Discussion with Joseph Grima (Domus), Mimi Zeiger (loudpaper), Alexandra Lange (Design Observer), Shannon Mattern (Words in Space), Roberto Zancan, and Eva Franch i Gilabert (Storefront)
This was the third and last of Domus Magazine's Critical Futures discussions; the first two took place in London and Milan. The series looked at architectural criticism in the age of blogs, asserting that "architecture criticism in the traditional sense appears to have all but vanished – not only from the Internet but from magazines themselves." Diana Lind has a recap at Urban Omnibus, and Kazys Varnelis, who was slated to be on the panel but didn't make it (neither did Justin Davidson and Lebbeus Woods), posted some thoughts on the topic. From my point of view out of direct earshot at the narrow end of the Storefront, each person's comments basically followed from their interests (magazine editor, journalist/blogger, writer/educator, professor in media studies, editor, curator). Grima fondly recalled the supposed glory days of criticism in the 70s when critics pointed out negative things even about buildings they liked; Zeiger's comments embrace Twitter for enabling her and others to contribute to discourse with a mainstream (print) critic on a piece; Lange doesn't like the glut of renderings and photos that don't take into account the actual experience of the building; Mattern situated this crisis of criticism in a larger context, pointing out that other fields are undergoing the same unsettling shifts; Franch asserted that curating is a form of criticism and that blogs favor obsession over position. (Video of the discussion (watch out for the mic feedback!) is available via the link at top.) Needless to say it was an evening without any agreeable consensus, but I doubt this issue would result in one, even after three discussions.

Not once did I hear somebody define criticism (I was a little late, so maybe I missed somebody do such). I think many people (not necessarily these panelists) think of criticism as "this is good, this is bad" writing, but I like to define it as expressing a point of view towards understanding and/or questioning something. Maybe it's a bit too nuanced to be meaningful, but I see that this definition opens up criticism to more people and more perspectives. Traditionally critics in various fields are expected to give good/bad reviews based on their position; film criticism comes to mind first. Yet read a film review by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of my all-time favorite critics in any field, and one is hard-pressed to determine if he liked the movie or not. Sometimes making the connection between his words and his star rating was perplexing, but every time I read one of his reviews I learned something about film and how it conveys meaning, relates to its subject, etc. (Of course they take some patience and time, something many people might not want to invest, which gets at one of the problems criticism needs to confront.) I feel like the same for type of criticism for architecture is not too much to ask for; it's actually out there (Elizabeth Farrelly immediately comes to mind) but it is overlooked by the few popular critics and web pages discussed, directly and indirectly, at the Storefront two weeks ago.

Say It Write
Monday, March 14
At the Center for Architecture
Organized by the AIANY Marketing and PR Committee
Discussion with Charles Linn, Maxinne Leighton, Jay Rubin
This discussion with presentations was geared to marketing and business development folk at architecture firms. Much of the material dealt with internal and external communication, giving guidelines on how to (and not to) write emails and other correspondences with fellow employees, consultants, clients, and so forth. The inclusion of ex-Architectural Record writer/editor Charles Linn broadened the spectrum to include journalism. He recited his humorous blog post on Architect Barbie losing out to Computer Engineer Barbie (at left in the image above) in a poll about a year ago. Seems like the poll didn't matter -- and Mattel didn't take Linn's advice either -- as Barbie became an architect last month. For those interested in this sort of discussion, AIANY's Marketing and PR Committee has a few more events planned this year, including another installment of the Changing State of the Design Press.

The Structure of Light
Tuesday, March 15
At the Knoll showroom
Organized by DOCOMOMO_US/New York Tri-State
Lecture by Dietrich Neumann
After listening to Dietrich Neumann's fascinating anecdotal lecture on lighting designer Richard Kelly (Neumann edited the recent book on Kelly after curating an exhibition on him at Yale; a review of the book is forthcoming), I'm ashamed I didn't really know anything about Kelly. In his role he was responsible for a good deal of the appeal of iconic buildings like Philip Johnson's Glass House, Mies van der Rohe and Johnson's Seagrams Building, and Louis I. Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum. Neumann traced exterior architectural lighting to the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower in Chicago, situating Kelly's contributions to Modern architecture in a historical context. Stories by Neumann were humorous, such as how Jacques Tatis was influenced by the lobby Seagrams, where Kelly's lighting (and push for travertine over green marble, Mies's first choice) is clearly apparent.

Emerging Voices
Wednesday, March 16
At the New Museum
Organized by the Architectural League of New York
Lecture by de leon & primmer architecture workshop and WXY architecture + urban design
This year's crop of Emerging Voices is a particularly good one, a diverse mix of architects from various places doing various things. Installations, urban design, buildings, the gamut. Last week's lecture included Kentucky-based de leon & primmer and New York City's WXY. The former presented four projects around Louisville, all reconsidering the vernacular barn of the region. Their fairly low-budget buildings are carefully considered in terms of space, tectonics, and materials; contemporary yet local in feel. WXY also focuses on the local, and they presented projects in four neighborhoods, from Battery Park to the Bronx. Their output defies any oversimplification or recognition of a style, appropriate given the varied commissions they've received since forming in 1998. These two practices couldn't be more different, yet they share a local focus and a desire to find the appropriate solution to each project.


  1. Great synopsis. I also noticed how many events were going on in the city since last month or so. All interesting, and well organized. Thanks for sharing. Like your point of view from the discussion at Storefront. Also have to agree with Alexandra Lange, about the overflow of images awe in the media, without considering the actual experience within the space. Thanks again.

  2. Note: The following comment is by GMichaud, posted to an unrelated post on this blog; hence I'm moving it here.

    Architectural criticism has not vanished; it was never a large culture to start with. Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture is a form of criticism, the other two lectures, not as much. ("Paper Palaces, the Rise of the Renaissance Architectural Treatise" (Hart and Hicks, Yale Press 1998, covers early architectural criticism)
    I generally agree the greater the architectural conversation the better. The internet can only broaden knowledge of the built environment. For the most part Americans generally have little education in the area of the built environment unless they specialize in architecture or some other art. Even many engineers, who can make something stand up, have no idea of how to build a good city or an artful building.
    I think a definition of criticism is harder. Criticism by definition must mean an analysis. The possibilities are endless. Architecture and its forms have relationships with the city, with transport, with adjacent buildings, as well as building characteristics on the individual level, including light (as Kelly above), color, space all confusing the goals of the criticism.
    To quote from your link to Ms Farrelly (she is speaking about homelessness and Tony Clark’s design for a backpack bed). “Never mind that sprawl, with its mammoth hidden infrastructure subsidies, is the most expensive form of housing known to man. Never mind that suburbia is not the solution but the problem.”
    Clearly she speaks to a social aspect of architecture. It is another area of criticism to consider.
    The subject of architecture is finite, but broad. The definition probably looks the same.

  3. Note: Here is another comment by GMichaud, posted to an unrelated post on this blog; hence I'm moving it here.

    I've been reading Farrelly at your link and came across her view of criticism in an article about Gehry and a new building for Sydney.
    To quote
    "We are all critics. We all use, pay for, live in, walk around, drive past, smell and feel the buildings that comprise our city. Add thinking, and you have criticism."
    and then
    "So, how to tell a great building?

    This is criticism's role. Critiquing a building involves measuring it against three sets of criteria. First, does it fulfil its own intentions? Second, are these intentions valid? Third, does it synthesise these with the demands of structure, economy, use and context to form a single, coherent creation? Does it do the magic? This is resolution."


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