Butler University, Indianapolis, IN
November 12th, 2003
Good evening. I am very happy to be here, and I want to thank the dean for conceiving of this event in which critics get a chance to say some things that we might not, perhaps, say in print, and to think in public for a little while about the whole purpose of criticism. Critics, like so many professionals, not only in journalism but in every field, often do what they do by rote, without spending enough time examining exactly what it is and why they are doing it, and the fact that I have had to travel to Indianapolis to think hard about what I do in New York – well, I’m not sure what that means, but I’m glad I’m here, as I said.
Actually, the only other time recently I’ve had occasion to talk about the meaning of criticism it was to a group of architects, and I felt I had to start out by telling them that while it is all well and good to talk about the relationship of architecture criticism in the media to the architecture profession itself, it is not written for them, that they are not the audience. The people who walk past buildings in the city, and the politicians who deal in appropriations and budgets and planning and preservation, and the people who figure out how to finance things, and the people who yearn to have things – they are all the audience, not the architects themselves.
But now, of course, I can’t say that, since you are the group that I was referring to when I talked to the architects – you are the consumers of architecture, not the creators of it.
That is not to say that is merely a consumer guide – quite the contrary. Criticism that positions itself that way has no ambition, and ultimately very little meaning. It has no reach, it has no resonance in the culture, and it will not last. But if criticism is not wholly a consumer guide, and should never be thought of as having that as its primary mission, it is equally true that it is not not a consumer guide. Helping people to understand whether something is worth their while – and worth their time, and their money – is part of the mission of the critic. It is just that, for me, that is only the most limited, narrow part of the critic’s function, and any critic who is not able to go beyond it will not produce any work of any real value.
Criticism is writing, and at its best it is enlightening. I want to read the best film critics whether or not I have any intention of going to the movies; I want to read book reviews whether or not I am looking for something to read; I want to read my favourite art critics even if I have no time to go to the museum. Indeed, sometimes I read them especially because I have no time to go to the museum – not because I believe that the critic’s writing is a substitute for the experience of looking at art, but because I believe it will teach me something that I need to know and want to know and that will enrich my sense of connection to art, or film, or music, or whatever.
I spent several years as the culture editor of The New York Times, where I supervised all of the critics in each area of the arts, and I am pretty aware, I think, of the issues that come to the fore in criticism in each area, and also of the differences from one discipline to the other. The impact of criticism and its connection to both the people who create and the people who consume is not quite the same in each field. For tonight, however, I’d prefer to stick mostly to my own subject, architecture, even though I know architecture isn’t fully typical. One reason is that there have been theatre critics and book critics since time immemorial, but there haven’t been architecture critics on daily newspapers since Ada Louise Huxtable was appointed the first full-time architecture critic on the staff of The Times in 1963, forty years ago – although I feel I should point out that Lewis Mumford, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest architecture critic, wrote for The New Yorker for much of the nineteen-thirties, forties and fifties, long before Ada Louise went to The Times. So we have a longer tradition at The New Yorker, where I now am, than The Times does. Not, of course, that I would ever keep score with my former employer.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the great contribution that The New York Times made was not merely in hiring Ada Louise Huxtable, it was in asserting that architecture was to be considered one of the arts.
That doesn’t make it only an art, of course – it is the particular, and peculiar, nature of architecture that it is so many subjects, all at once, and I will get back to that in a moment. For now, let me say only that if architecture criticism in the general media – that is, newspapers, magazines, and occasionally television – has any purpose, it is to communicate between the profession and a public that, for all its fascination, even passion, for design, seems never quite to understand what it is and how it works. That is pretty obvious, and basic. If it didn’t sound hopelessly pompous, I would elaborate on that and make the equally obvious statement that the purpose of architecture criticism in the general media is to create a better educated, more critically aware, more visually literate constituency for architecture, and thus, presumably, increase society’s demand for good design. Since I don’t want to sound hopelessly pompous, I won’t say that. I am not here to advocate for architecture critics who parade around as missionaries, believing that they are saving the world, or rescuing it from the sins of ignorance. Still, at the end of the day, this whole notion isn’t so far from the truth. It isn’t the only reason people like me do what we do, but it is a big part of it, and while it is important not to get carried away with your importance, and to believe that you are there to provide enlightenment for the unenlightened masses, it is equally important not to forget that a substantial part of what a critic does is to educate.
If a large part of our jobs is to provide a kind of bridge, you might call it, between the profession and the public, I think it is worth talking about what goes across that bridge, and what role a critic should have in policing it. Maybe a bridge is actually the worst possible analogy, because the last thing a critic should be providing is open, unfettered passage in both directions. A critic isn’t just the bridge itself; he or she is also the traffic cop in front of the bridge, selecting and limiting what gets across, or there is no point to his or her existence. While it is important for a critic to demonstrate enthusiasm and convey his or her enthusiasm to readers – I do not think we have ever done better than Matthew Arnold’s definition of criticism as “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” – we all know that everything is not worthy of advocacy, of propagation, and that the critic has to be a filter of ideas. He or she has to determine what goes across that bridge and how, since the most important quality a critic provides, in the end, is judgment. In a wise critic that judgment is tempered by enthusiasm, although surely many critics could be described more in terms of having enthusiasm tempered by judgment – and I think the difference between those two speaks more to the personality of individual critics rather than to any critical or journalistic imperative – anyway, whether it is judgment tempered by enthusiasm or enthusiasm tempered by judgment, a critic needs both of these qualities to be of any value.
Both judgment and enthusiasm are ways of expressing love, and a critic who does not love his field cannot last long in it. To love the thing – whatever it is, and as I say this I realize that even though I said I would be talking mainly about architecture, this point extends to every critical field – in any event, to love the thing and also to love what it means in other people’s lives, and not only your own is, I think it is fair to say, a further prerequisite to functioning well as a journalistic critic. I don’t mean to be drifting toward the missionary’s identity here; maybe what I am really trying to say is that a critic’s role, among other things, is to be a kind of interpreter, to communicate his love of things and in so doing, instil love in others.
Now, I realize that all of this sounds a little touchy-feely, or maybe a little soft in the head. It definitely feels distant from the notion that the point of this realm of journalism is to be tough, and judgmental, and to expose the wretchedness of ninety-nine per cent of what gets built in this country, or the ridiculous lack of quality in most books or movies or television shows. Okay. This is all true.
But the fact of the matter as all of you know is that only a handful of what critics encounter can truly be called masterpieces, and so it is a rare piece of criticism in which the poetic expression of enthusiasm is sufficient. I suppose I was guilty of trying to do that just a week or two ago when I wrote about Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which I genuinely believe is the great building of our time and one that surpasses Bilbao. My own response to it was overwhelmingly positive, although I found myself there doing a couple of things that surprised me a bit. As I wrote I began to answer some of the criticisms that you hear around about Frank Gehry – that the buildings are too much the same, that they are all of a type, that it doesn’t do enough to connect to the surroundings, that it is elitist, etc. etc. In the case of this building, these arguments could not be more wrong, and my first instinct was to ignore them, but then I realized that some people actually believe this nonsense and that perhaps I could perform a service if I crafted a response. That would also, I might add, give me a chance to say something a bit different, since even last month when I wrote that piece, five weeks before Disney Hall even opened, the chorus of ecstatic praise was beginning to seem a little much. I didn’t want to contradict it just for the sake of being different, which would have been ridiculous; it would have involved denying how good the building truly is. But neither did I want to disappear into the din of adoration. For me, the issue of responding to the wrongheaded criticisms that some have expressed was a way to do that. I also wanted to think about the building as a part of the public realm, to think about what it means as a public space – after all, we live in an age of private experience, especially so far as music is concerned, which most people consume via electronic means. The concert hall is basically an old building form, left over from the age when it was the only way in which orchestral music could be delivered. How do you reinvent this building type so that the public experience that it represents will have meaning for an age in which private experiences of music – private experiences of almost every kind, I should say – predominate?
That is Gehry’s great achievement here, and something I tried to talk about, at least briefly, and I should say further that our decision to do this when we did in The New Yorker, on a very tight week, did not allow enough space to explore most of these issues in full detail. But I was especially happy to deal with the building in the context of downtown Los Angeles since issues of urbanism and context have always meant a great deal to me.
It goes without saying that writing about urban context and land use is an essential part of architecture and design criticism: for some people, it is the most essential part and the one that comes closest to affecting their lives. The truly important thing – and I will say this again and again – is that no building is an aesthetic object in isolation, the way a painting or a piece of sculpture is. You cannot draw a line separating out the part of what we do that covers a house or a teapot from that which covers an entire city.
But of course, no building can be viewed solely through the lens of aesthetics anyway, or at least it should not.
How much does criticism matter? That’s the question underlying everything, of course, the one most people, or at least most architecture critics, tend to be afraid to confront directly, for fear that the answer is going to be, not very much. I think this fear is perfectly reasonable. I don’t think criticism matters very much, at least not in the sense that a lot of people, including architects, want it to matter.
But that doesn’t mean that architecture and design criticism is ignored, and if you suspect I am being slightly disingenuous in suggesting that it has minimal effect, you are right. Actually, criticism in this field has a tremendous effect, though I don’t believe it is particularly tangible or quantifiable. Its effect, I think, is gradual, and subtle, and really does come down to the issue I talked about a couple of minutes ago, which is the creation of a more visually literate public that, presumably, will be a constituency for better architecture and design. It’s true that nobody tears down a building if the architecture critic doesn’t like it. But what may well happen is that the next building will be at least a little bit different, either because the developer learned something from what has been written, or because an energized public demanded it. The preservation movement, which is now hardly news and in fact is venerable enough to have instilled a kind of counter-reaction in the last couple of years, is a broad social phenomenon that was spurred on with significant help from the press; more recently, the New Urbanism, and the debates over what makes a viable suburb – over whether that is not in itself a kind of (an) oxymoron, and whether it is possible to create a civilizing community that is fully accepting of the automobile – is an issue in which press coverage has been central, if not always particularly enlightening.
Probably all of you know of the extent to which public activism on matters of design, planning and preservation has now become part and parcel of the way things are built, of the way we construct what passes in this day and age for a public realm. But it is in the nature of architecture that it cannot be wholly an act of social criticism; it is, after all, partly a matter of creating a civilizing and comforting environment. (The) Challenge is essential to the making of art, and while it is also a part of the equation of architecture, so is comfort. The critic has to balance all of this, and try to figure out where so-called smart growth is truly smart and where it is just a new-age developers’ slogan; just as it is the critic’s job to determine which difficult buildings yield pleasure and meaning, and which ones are merely difficult and hostile; and whether the natural imperative that places evolve and change over time results in a net gain or a net loss in the quality and meaning of cities and towns and villages.
A couple of years ago there was a survey about the impact of architecture criticism organized by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, which stated that while architecture is the most public art form, it is the one least subject to public debate. I’m not sure this is right. Certainly, the first premise, that architecture is the most public art form, is true and has always been so, but for the last several years the second premise, that it is the least subject to public debate, has been less and less true, at least in major cities. The debate does not always go on at the highest level, but it is happening, more and more – indeed, given the turmoil surrounding Ground Zero, which I’ll come back to in a moment, I think it is fair to say that we are seeing more public interest in land-use and planning questions than we have ever seen at any point in any of our lives. The survey also indicated an irritation on the part of critics with the star system, and while it didn’t suggest that they were particularly committed to trying to get beyond it, it is clear from some of the comments made about many star architects that there is a kind of social conscience driving a lot of architecture criticism today that critics believe, rightly or wrongly, is at odds with the priorities of both celebrity architects and theorists. I’m not sure that I buy the argument that there is a zero-sum game between (the) attention given to Bilbao and thoughtful discussion, say, of neighbourhood preservation; I’m more inclined to believe that the sexiness of Bilbao, or I guess we should now say Disney Hall, since that is the Gehry du jour, as well as the attention given to certain other pieces of high-profile architecture, actually raises the bar for everything, by the simple fact of increasing the degree of public interest in what the world they live in looks like.
So I think the star system, for all its obvious limitations and oversimplifications, for all that it panders to the worst aspects of our society, is not an entirely negative thing for architecture. It has allowed more public dialogue on real issues, and that is important. Civic activists are deeply affected by architecture and design criticism – they are spurred on by it, encouraged by it, supported by it, (and) sometimes incited by it. Journalism is a kind of lifeblood for civic activism, which is why, paradoxically, it is sometimes easier for design journalists to have an effect on the broadest strokes than on the narrowest ones – or at least easier for them to be paid attention to.
That survey by the National Arts Journalism Program on the state of architecture criticism, which dealt mainly with newspapers, as I recall, concluded that what matters most to architecture critics right now is the urban fabric, not the individual building. Most critics reject an emphasis on theory, and they seem, even as they write about individual “prima donna” or celebrity architects, to dislike them, or to feel uncomfortable about the star attention that they receive. It is the city that matters, the sense of community, the urban fabric, and they say they try to reflect this in their writing.
I think they do so because they feel that this is what their readers want – to find someplace in which architecture intersects with their own lives, and that happens generally in stories about planning and preservation and large-scale development.
Even modernists believe in streets now. Well, maybe some people don’t. There are the people crusading to rebuild the World Trade Center as it was, but let’s leave them aside for the moment. Basically, it is fair to say that if there is any sense of shared values today in our view of design, it is about certain kinds of urbanistic values, a belief in the street and in the sense that cities are complex, heterogeneous wholes, not collections of isolated sculptural objects.
All well and good, but I think critics are often most comfortable with this value system also because it doesn’t appear to be too elitist, and it doesn’t offend. Architecture critics seem most comfortable with a kind of populism, which is odd, I think, and worth exploring for a moment. If you are brought up to believe that architecture is good for everyone, that it is a virtuous thing that makes life better, then your value system is, by definition, somewhat broad-based and populist, perhaps too much so – you find yourself preaching, talking about what is good for people, and sinking into the hopelessly general. And it is difficult to engage in the sharp, often harsh, judgments that a critic must because you are thinking too much about how places make people feel good, and not about much of anything else.
Architecture is public art, and it is ever-present; we all know that. But does that mean that only what makes people feel good is worthwhile? I would hope not. I worry terribly about a kind of dumbing down of architecture criticism, about too much concern for feeling good, and not for advancing the art. But I do know that Frank Gehry’s genius is that he is the only architect who has managed to combine bold, innovative, astonishingly creative form-making with a deep, almost passionate concern for emotional and even physical comfort. It is not an accident that his popularity spans the lay public and the critical and academic professions as few other architects have ever managed to do, in our time or any other.
The profession of criticism has had some classic villains and some classic heroes.
Often, indeed, critics portray the story of the building as a kind of Western, as a cowboys-and-Indians drama between the good guys – the architects who want to build great and special things – and the bad guys, who are the developers and the politicians who get in the way and force compromises and slice budgets and ruin everything. The lack of ambiguity in this way of seeing the world I find extraordinary. If only things were so simple, and if only architecture with a capital A were such an unfettered good, such a noble thing to uplift us all – and if only everyone who makes money were such an obvious evil. A lot of writing in several critical fields proceeds from a similar kind of premise: there is Great Art or Great Literature or Great Music, and then there are the Evil Forces of Darkness – read money – that are out to get these holy and sacred things. Well, if only it were so simple.
I have read some architecture criticism that seems to suggest that, if only the evil corporate and political forces were not blocking their will at every turn, then all of the people, left to their own devices, would be screaming for more buildings by Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas and Diller & Scofidio – and that if we only had more buildings by them and by other architects, then we would all be living in paradise.
Well, I like these architects too, or at least a lot of what they do, but I don’t buy this way of seeing the world, not for a minute. To believe that the public is crying out for Zaha Hadid and most of the landscape is built at a less ambitious level only because the evil forces have foisted this awfulness on us is sort of like saying that everybody really wants to see nothing but the movies at the Angelika or the Film Forum, and the only reason we have Steven Spielberg and the films that get shown at Loews is because the studios have forced this awful stuff on an unwilling public. Popular taste isn’t really popular taste, in other words – it is the horribleness that has been forced down people’s throats by the evil forces.
Well, there is a nice faith in popular taste and popular judgment, I have to grant that. If only it were true. The reality is that popular taste is a very complex business, and it depends something on the marketplace, something on pure economics of scale, something on larger social and cultural forces, and something on individual upbringing and background. The critic has to wend his way through the complicated thickets of all of these various factors, and it is his or her obligation, I think, to be respectful of popular taste and the things that shape it while not pandering to it, either. If nothing is gained by pretending that Rem Koolhaas is the messiah or that Zaha Hadid represents the will of the people, nothing is gained by saying that Wal-Mart represents the will of the people, either – or any of the other mediocrities with which our landscape is cluttered.
Let me say again that I don’t mean to make any particular architect a target here; the fact of the matter is that I wrote with great enthusiasm about Zaha Hadid’s new Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati; although I had some reservations about it, I found it a tremendously exciting and energizing presence in the cityscape, and exactly right as a statement for the public realm, and vastly more workable as a building than I had expected it to be. I just don’t like to see buildings like this viewed uncritically, in an a priori way, by critics who are basically so in love with the notion that architecture exists to upset the equilibrium that they can see nothing wrong in it if it does this. Actually, I liked the Cincinnati building in part because it upset the equilibrium less than I had expected it to. But I also wrote recently – this week, in fact – about the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in New York, a big, mixed-use skyscraper project in which the point isn’t avant-garde architecture at all, or even anything about architectural theory, but the whole question of the public realm and public projects and urban design and how you make a city and what kind of values you embrace when you build a second-rate behemoth like this.
In any event, let me get back to something I touched on a moment ago, which is Ground Zero and the extraordinary events that have occurred there. If, as I said before, every architectural object is both an aesthetic thing and a political thing, we could not see this more clearly than in the debate going on about Lower Manhattan, and we also see there the overwhelmingly powerful public passion about larger urbanistic issues and their connection to the work of individual architects. This is not the moment to re-tell this entire complicated story, which would fill an entire separate evening anyway. But I would like to think for a moment about the role of the press here, and how it has played out.
It is a striking thing in the history of architectural writing, and I say writing rather than criticism here because there has been relatively little criticism and quite a lot of writing. Never has architecture been more in the public eye. When the New York Post puts pictures of buildings and plans on the front page and pushes one design over another one, and when an architectural competition, or pseudo-competition exercise, becomes a public event that people seem to watch with the passion of the World Series, as they did earlier this year, something extraordinary has happened. As someone who has written about architecture for his entire life and often felt like a sports writer who is assigned to the lacrosse beat, I was suddenly covering the Super Bowl. It was a most remarkable thing.
Was it good or bad for architecture, or good or bad for architecture criticism? Well, you have to believe it was good for architecture unless you truly think that the public should have nothing to do with the ultimate public art, and that would be a position of the ultimate hypocrisy, at least for a critic to take. But of course, there is no free lunch, and in this wild orgy of public interest in Ground Zero has come (to) some wretched journalism, some insane celebrity pandering, lots of politicking, and plenty of disingenuous and sometimes outright dishonest criticism. There is also, of course, plenty of deeper risk.
Along the same lines is the question of process. In our current value system of public policy, when we have tried to go in the opposite direction from the dictatorial and closed process by which the original World Trade Center was planned, we risk indulging in the fallacy that an open and totally inclusive process will automatically yield the best result. Planning may be a democratic act, but it is not only democracy, and you do not design by referendum. It is wonderful to see that people care enough to want to indicate a preferential design, and of course, it was a good thing when, in the middle of 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was forced to retreat and withdraw its six widely reviled schemes for Ground Zero – actually, six variations on a single scheme – and invite architects of more imagination to propose master plans, instead. But once that happened, it is dangerous indeed to see the whole thing become a popularity contest, as it often seemed to be.
The architects, of course, played along with this – what else could they do? They were stuck in a strange system not of their making, and they had to play the cards in their hands. What bothered me far more than anything any of the architects did was the way some of the press promoted shamelessly, and often with strange agendas. There were leaks and innuendos and reports about certain architects’ questionable pasts as if they were political figures. It was a time – and I am speaking of last February – when there was a desperate need for real architecture criticism, to get the focus onto the work itself and away from the mudslinging. Unfortunately, we got very little of that from critics, some of whom were quite busy slinging mud themselves.
I have to say that I was glad at that point that I was no longer working for a daily newspaper since the pressure to keep generating copy was often antithetical to the goals of criticism, which requires some degree of thoughtful distance and perspective. It was also troubling that most of the daily press covered the Ground Zero story in bits and pieces, with someone writing about the politics and someone else about the money and someone else about the architecture, as if you could really separate any of these things. Never, as I said a moment ago, has there been a more vivid demonstration of how these things are inevitably intertwined and interdependent, for better or for worse, and to deny this by writing only about politics or only about aesthetics is to miss an opportunity to explain how the world really works, if in (the) more exaggerated form here than usual.
I am perhaps a little naive here and don’t take what I am about to say as any kind of capitulation to the forces of evil here, but the fact of the matter is that idealism and architecture have had a seat at the table, so to speak, in this complex drama, and that in itself is remarkable. Architecture doesn’t count for everything – it never has, and it never will. But there has been a kind of architecture card that has gotten played here, first by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the middle of 2002 when it issued its call to architects, and later by Vinoly and Libeskind during the shootout month of February, and since then by Libeskind himself as he has tried, sometimes in vain, to save aspects of his design and to keep himself actively involved in it. As I have worked on a series of long pieces about this whole process for The New Yorker, I think I have gotten closer to this business than almost anyone who is not a participant in it, but I still cannot tell you how it is going to end up, or whether the architecture card is ultimately an ace of spades or just a three of diamonds. I just know that there is more public engagement in architectural questions here than I have ever seen in New York, and I have to believe that this is ultimately a positive thing.
I hope that the public passion about Ground Zero will yield a great work of architecture, although it is far too soon to be sure, as I said, and I could construct a scenario in which it would seem sure to happen, and another one, equally believable, that would show you that it is impossible. But whatever the outcome at Ground Zero, the key lesson of architecture at the beginning of the 21st century is simply that it is there, more conspicuous, more central, more essential and more a part of our culture than it has ever been before.
Now the question is what architecture critics can do with that victory, and how they can make sure that the legacy of this is neither complacency nor cynicism, and that architecture remains a creative, potent and challenging force in our culture.
As published on paulgoldberger.com, this article is a transcription of Paul Goldberger’s lecture at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, on November 12th, 2003.
Featured image: paulgoldberger.com