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Critical Futures at the Gopher Hole

(This is a longer iteration of an article which appeared in this week’s magazine:  AJ20.01.11)

The genteel graphics of the invite fooled no one. This panel of bruisers had history, and the two hundred plus people packed into an east-London basement had the smell of blood in its nostrils

The occasion was ‘Critical Futures’, a debate into today’s architectural criticism in its offline and online guises.

Somewhat lonely, in the red corner, was Peter Kelly, editor of Blueprint. And in the blue: everyone else. Charles Holland, director at FAT and writer at Fantastic Journal; Kieran Long, Evening Standard critic and former AJ-editor.

Also on the panel was Beatrice Galilee, curator of the Gopher Hole which hosted the event, and star-blogger Geoff Manaugh of the massively popular BLDGBLG site clocked in via video link. Shumi Bose (another ex-AJ staffer) was there to shed a bit of academic light on the subject, having written her MA thesis based on the rise of  architectural blogging.

THE BEEF

In case you missed it (and, given its niche-within-a-niche nature, you probably did) the beef’s back-story came from an article published in the December Issue of Blueprint.

In it, Kelly recorded the rise in influence of a generation of architectural bloggers which, worryingly, were extremely self-referential and had low standards of critical engagement with ‘Proper Architecture’.

They weren’t entirely written by what Andrew Marr described as ’socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements’, but it wasn’t far off.

THE BACKLASH

A furious response from Managh followed and several other of the bloggers mentioned rounded on Kelly in a storm of tweets, emails and comment posts. Kelly was subject to the maulings of what he’d  (correctly, but unsurprisingly – it’s not called the web for nothing) identified as a very interconnected and self-referential group.

The debate was first mooted last year. One of the participants was so livid that they couldn’t countenance being in the same room as Kelly, never mind debating with him. Clearly, given the opportunity, their offline presences would relish the opportunity to rip into each other with gusto.  

PISTOLS AT DAWN?

Err, not quite. What followed was all very polite: a wide-ranging and diffuse discussion of the relative power of print versus blogs, punctuated by the occasional perceptive observation from one of the contributors.

Long gave a compelling defence of the enduring power trade journals can have, but bemoaned a stewardship of them which had recently ensured that their roles were more cheerleaders than critics.

‘WILL YOU GO ON RECORD WITH THAT?’ ‘CERTAINLY NOT’

From the audience ex-Blueprint editor Vicky Richardson pointed out that architects will very often come out with contentious political views but when asked to go on record and in print they rarely have the bottle to do so. This is right on the money. Often it seems that architects like the idea of robust and critical debate, as long as their buildings are never involved.

To paraphrase Holland’s wry acknowledgement of this; he likes it when FAT are in the magazines and is furious when they get a bad review. As Long said in a leader while still at the AJ, architects get the quality of criticism they deserve.

And in addition, Long pointed out, since Jim Stirling’s death the profession has suffered from a dearth of high-profile intellectuals willing to contribute to discourse: Foster and Rogers have barely taught or published anything, bar policy.

Geoff Manaugh disappointingly didn’t get much of a look in via his webcam, though he mounted a spirited defence for pluralism of coverage and finidng architecture in the everyday, backing up Holland’s observations about finding a community online ‘exhilirating’. Long observed that the debate was tricky to direct because ‘we’re all into different things’.

STOP BANGING ON ABOUT CORBUSIER

Holland argued against a misplaced nostalgia in manifestos of the past which could blind people to the manifestos of today. There was much talk about relative legitimacy of individual bloggers versus print magazines versus PR-led aggregator sites.

What might be interesting to explore (though it’s probably more a social theory dissertation than an architectural one) is how the economic positioning of how the individual critic (as much as their publishing outfit) effects how they write and what they are willing to say and not say: critics have to position themselves within the marketplace just as much as architects do.

And while we’re on legitimacy, there’s also the irony, that in a post-paywall world, that many bloggers have an audience which a print journalist would kill for. But then there’s also that crucial lack of salary, which can be off-putting…

THE DRINKER’S VERDICT

Reaction in the bar afterwards was mixed, some thought it was thrilling, others a tired rehash  of topics (web Vs print) that should have been put to bed a decade ago. Everyone seemed to enjoy the new Gopher Hole hangout.

Writer Douglas Murphy, nailed the evening as ‘a bunch of very interesting people who didn’t have the chance to say very interesting things’.

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