Words and Buildings – A meandering review

On March 10 at the MCA, Make Space for Architecture, in association with the University of Sydney and AR hosted a roundtable discussion on the future of architectural criticism called ‘Words and Buildings’. The panel was comprised of American critic Alexandra Lange, local architect John de Manincor (of DRAW), Michael Holt (AR editor), University of Sydney lecturer Lee Stickells and local architecture critic and opinion writer Elizabeth Farrelly.

Having avidly followed the twitter feed of the preceding Melbourne event ‘More that one way to skin a building’ (at which Lange and Holt also spoke), I was interested to see how the Sydney event would both echo and differ from the Melbourne event. [The Melbourne event has been covered very ably by Warwick Mihaly at the Panfilocastaldi blog and Michael Smith’s Red and Black Architect blog. For a discussion of differences between the two events, see Tania Davidge’s review in ADR  and panelist and AR editor Michael Holt’s Melbourne presentation and Sydney notes].

The event was framed as an interrogation of the present and evolving role of the architecture critic. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the title and panel composition, the discussion of ‘criticism’ was framed around fairly conventional paradigms. By this, I mean that discussion barely considered forms of architectural criticism outside the written review.  Historically, reviews appeared without illustration in general interest publications (eg newspapers) or in architectural media accompanied by commissioned photographs. Even when the discussion moved to newer media modes (such as personal and commercial blogs, tumblr and twitter accounts maintained and frequented by the panelists), the influence of the traditional review was still evident, revealed through comments about online critiques being freed from ‘word counts’, space limitations and the mixed blessing of freedom from editors.

For a discipline that champions and focuses on the new and original in the built form, that prides itself on visual communication skills and actively challenges the research conventions of the tertiary education system, it is striking how narrow our concepts of critique are. There was a limited discussion of the increasing role of photography and rendering in reviews (mostly encapsulated by de Manincor’s observation on the gradual replacement of geographical communities of critique with online communities of dissemination) and no discussion around the idea that paintings, music, physical models and witty drawings can also be forms of criticism. One of the pithiest responses I have ever seen is the so-called ‘conga line of mating turtles’, a much reproduced cartoon on the Sydney Opera House, credited to ‘Sydney Architecture Students’ and yet this mode of criticism was ignored. 

A conga line of mating turtles: student cartoon on the Sydney Opera House. Source: http://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/TurtleLove2.jpg

The role of the real world exhibition and curator as a form of architectural criticism was also skipped, as was the scope for using online resources to share time-lapse construction photos, publish alternative designs using SketchUp and Google maps, use render engines and sandbox tools to make buildings explorable or playable using video game interfaces, or create mind-blowing mashups (of music, film, photos and data). Michael Holt did flag the emergence of an ‘Under Construction’ segment of AR, which is encouraging. Although understandable given the composition of the panel, which skewed heavily towards published writers, I found this tunnel vision to be slightly disappointing.

In addition to the fixation on the written form, the subject of architectural criticism went largely unmentioned, but was implicitly a single building (as opposed to parts of several buildings or a building over time or an urban precinct or aspects of architectural culture).  Given that some of the most vocal and vibrant discussions and critiques I have seen recently have been on competitions and procurement processes (*cough* Venice pavilion, Barangaroo *cough, cough*), this limitation was somewhat surprising. In my reading of the reviews and responses to the Melbourne event (and possibly discussed in passing in Sydney: my notes are unclear) it does seem that Michael Holt and Marissa Looby may be addressing this in their ‘Elements’ work for Domus, where an architect’s use of a single element is critically interrogated over multiple buildings.

Moving discussion away from the how and what of criticism and towards the why was Elizabeth Farrelly’s tart observation that the reason that there is no architectural criticism is that there is no one willing to pay for it. This approaches what I think is one of the most interesting and fraught issues of architectural criticism: who is the audience? Is it the public with a general interest, the architectural profession or is it more complicated? Can (should?) we separate the role of advocacy from that of critic? Does the low pay rate condemn us to part time or independently wealthy critics? Does the financial necessity of undertaking other work strengthen or weaken the criticism? Have blogs rent asunder the divide between audience and author(ity)? Do we have critics as mediators because architects are so bad at written communication? Is it only architecture if it engages with ideas? Do editorial gatekeepers matter? Has Grand Designs given the public with a skewed understanding of where the responsibilities of the architect and the client begin and end? Does it show an appetite for more nuanced discussion of building projects?  How do we walk the line between cheer leading, education and professional engagement? None of these questions can be resolved in a two hour discussion panel, but they show just how contentious and uncertain the current role and purpose of the architecture critic has become.

To be totally honest, as a recent returnee to Sydney from regional Tasmania, the ability to spend a happy afternoon reflecting on architecture and criticism in a room of like minded individuals was quite simply wonderful. The panel and crowd were lively without being confrontational and showed a deep appreciation of the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties and transformations occurring in architectural criticism. The good humour and frank discussion of the challenges were entertaining and thought provoking. Although I remain mildly disappointed that the event didn’t cover slightly more unconventional forms of critique, it certainly delivered as billed (words and buildings) and provided plenty of food for thought.

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