by Herbert Wright
In 2018, architectural writing, mainly for Blueprint magazine, took me to 10 countries beyond the UK. In 2019, the same again. I sometimes reached Paris or Berlin by rail or bus, but usually the trips were by air. Since covid-19, such travel is history, and Blueprint ceased publication. But a year grounded in London has exposed more than just the arrogance of giving lip-service to sustainability while flying to Seoul, Singapore or Chicago. Floating up from murky water is another long-submerged question: What is it to be an architecture critic?
I asked myself, who was reading my stuff, and why? Could anything I write change the world? Or was I merely a specialised travel writer reporting about architectural specificities, like a jet-setting gastronomic critic may report on exotic cuisines? And then there’s this haunting question: Am I just a servant of an architectural establishment with a self-serving agenda, because I amplify the spectacle they present to society? The propaganda of the spectacle is that the world is better because architects design it. Well, maybe…
The dilemma is clear when architects and their PR agents are generous with tickets and hospitality. Of course, any business should be proud of good work, and publicising it may bring more. But can the lucky invited journalist be truly critical? If he or she is too critical, they may be left out of future jamborees which may actually produce important stories. But critical is also different from constantly cynical. Sometimes a writer’s tone can be so negative, it sounds like an angsty ‘emo’ teenager. Yes, expose the faults, be skeptical. But there’s an old Groucho Marx song called Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and that’s no stance for unbiased critiques.
In the UK, there are seven subscription architecture magazines in print, and even more titles covering wider design fields. What architect has the time to even skim more than one? What non-architect can navigate the language laden with architectural jargon and our baggage of pre-conceptions? If the content is critical, it likely touches on the familiar mantras of sustainability, community, place-making, social justice etc. These are paramount issues, but endlessly repeated within the echo-chamber of specialist media, they become politically-correct routine. Take sustainability, for example. Nowadays, it’s a tick-box in a critic’s review — just like in many an architect’s office, where the prize of a rating certification like HQE, BREEAM or LEED becomes a surrogate for fresh thinking in the face of the climate emergency’s existential threat.
Of course, architects write their own project texts. Unedited and ranging from brazen hype to arcane meanderings, they flood online agglomeration sites such as archdaily.com (which has plenty of good editorial content too!). Project text becomes padding for the images, sometimes by photographers with bigger names than the architects. Our focus dissipates in the churning cornucopia of images in which a building anywhere on the planet may hold us for a few seconds until we move on. Maybe they need a thumbs-up ‘like’ icon, like Instagram.
What can a critic do to make the words worthwhile? Honesty is vital, but so is speaking up. Too often, I have indulged in intellectual musings about a project’s aesthetics and references, but muted deeper critical issues. That’s cowardly. We critics need to shout about issues in a way that will be heard. In 2020, I questioned Germany’s green building agenda in Baumeister magazine with a reminder that Germans eat on average 90kg of meat annually. In Abitare (Italy), my report on ZHA’s new Beijing airport asked, why are we building new airports in a climate emergency? In Korea’s C3 magazine, I argued (again) that we are sleepwalking into an immersive digital future, and architecture must declare war on its erosion of authenticity and devaluation of craft and creativity.
Let the critic be neither architect’s dupe nor disconsolate whiner, but a voice to wake us up.
London, January 2021
This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture February 2021 as Qu’est-ce que d’être un critique d’architecture? (What is it to be an architecture critic?)
Another Chroniques d’Architecture blog, original English version – Not Being There… Venice and the Architecture Biennale