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Where are all the critics?

Coverage of architecture in the media has grown, but through the noise it is difficult to find anything that communicates intelligibly, says Stephen Games

I failed. When I started writing about architecture for The Guardian in 1979, architectural criticism had little public presence. Writers on architectural journals kept to their patch. Journalists on other beats occasionally strayed into architecture, but the only regular coverage came from Tony Aldous at The Times, the architect Stephen Gardiner, who wrote a weekly column for The Observer, and Colin Amery, who had also just started at The Financial Times. That was it; so there seemed to be a job to do.

The urgency of that job – helping the public understand new architecture and moving public policy forwards – was as great then as it had been 50 years earlier, when John Betjeman was banging on the BBC’s door, begging to give talks to raise the profile of the profession and help architects win commissions from government. The door stayed closed for as long as Betjeman pursued the goals of The Architectural Review, where he was assistant editor until 1935. ‘What is all this bilge?’ wrote a producer after reading one of his more hysterical pleas. ‘We had a whole thumping series on architecture a year ago and it bored listeners excessively.’

As a culture we lack the mechanisms of public discourse

The need to explain architecture continues. In spite of the sophistication of our media in Britain, as a culture we lack the mechanisms of public discourse. Americans discuss quite complicated abstractions with more agility, commonly taking rhetoric and logic courses at high school. Ideas get boiled down to trite slogans – ‘Second Amendment rights’, ‘Church and state’, ‘Three strikes and you’re out’ – but these slogans carry meanings that Americans are skilled at unpacking.

Not so in the UK, where abstract argument remains insecure. Political dialogue, as experienced by the public, invariably takes the form of confrontation – not that confrontation, as practised by Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight and John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today, doesn’t sometimes elicit results – but the default manner is one of accusation, not engagement.

We notice this less in the context of politics, where we’d all like to have a go at our elected representatives, but it is very evident when the same techniques are used elsewhere. One egregious example was the recent grilling of Renzo Piano by Sarah Montague (one of the anchors with Humphrys on the Today programme) on the BBC World Service programme HARDtalk. Their subject was the Shard.

HARDtalk is a classic example of TV as accusation, a lightweight attempt to make the BBC look heavyweight before a global audience – something it already is, without needing such posturing. True to format, Montague spent the programme parading complaints trawled by the programme’s researchers from other sources. Why was the Shard so tall, she demanded, so hard to live in, so out of proportion, so anarchic (Simon Jenkins), so underlet, such a monument to wealth and power (Owen Hatherley), so lacking in any personal style, so unlikely to survive changes of taste and such an energy-guzzler (Prince of Wales). When Piano doubted the Prince’s judgement in all matters, she seemed so astonished that she had to ask him twice whether he’d really meant what he’d said. Her challenges implied there was a serious case to answer, without stating what that case was. High buildings may indeed be ‘bad’ or ‘inappropriate’, but it is not a foregone conclusion, and no neutral party should even be hinting at guilt without a little substantiation.

Piano absorbed the onslaught, explaining, gently and genially that architecture involves many more issues, and rather more complexity, than were dreamed of in Montague’s philosophy. Inwardly, he must have marvelled that a news anchor, used to interviewing people from every walk of life on a daily basis, so lacked a route into architectural discussion. Hard questions needed to be asked about the Shard, and about Piano’s responsibility for it, but they were not evident from the broadcast. Whatever Piano deserved to be called to account over, it wasn’t occupancy rates or the cost of admission to the Shard’s viewing platform.

The standard Media Studies explanation for this type of incapacity is that it’s the fault of our post-literate society, but this is lazy ideology. The truth is that architecture is indeed less urgent than money, law and the NHS. As such, its modes of thought are less rehearsed and less tested, and this flabbiness becomes self-perpetuating.

Architecture only gets noticed if it plays by the enemy’s rules

Design takes too long to explain; news has a faster payback and so news values dominate. Architecture only gets noticed if it plays by the enemy’s rules. That’s why we now have armies of marketing people and awards organisers: they’re there to turn architecture into an event. But this is like giving seawater to the shipwrecked: it compounds the thirst – and then kills.

Architecture did once figure in the national discourse on its own terms. Its leader was Nikolaus Pevsner, and his forum was the BBC’s Third Programme from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s. Others were also able to expand public understanding – the architectural historian John Summerson, the architect Jim Cadbury-Brown, the poet Geoffrey Grigson – but Pevsner was the master, able always to place architecture in its cultural context  in a way that made sense and seemed necessary.

Pevsner was possible because of an intellectually receptive cohort of producers who commissioned programmes because they deserved commissioning, not just because schedules had to be filled. The network aimed for brilliance and took failure in its stride. ‘Let it make mistakes,’ challenged William Haley, the fearless director-general under whom the Third was born.

We’d never say that today (although Channel 4 tried to at its birth). Funding is tight, deadlines are short, contributors have to be dependable: there’s no time for the indulgences of time that made the Third possible. That’s not to say that good talk doesn’t happen any more, only that it has no presence. Where’s today’s Pevsner, today’s Reyner Banham? A century and a half ago, John Ruskin was as popular as JK Rowling today.And today, in the ocean of writings that our academics generate annually to protect their departments’ research budgets, there’s barely a book that’s worth reading, let alone capable of being read by any normal brain.

It’s disappointing. Pevsner was an hyperactive academic, massively in demand, but still able to find the time to communicate intelligibly to an appreciative public. Today, we have a proliferation of PhDs dedicated to architecture, monopolising its teaching, jetting to conferences, publishing papers – and saying nothing.

By the time I moved from The Guardian to the BBC in the mid-1980s, architecture was starting to be noticed, but for all the wrong reasons. The rise of heritage and Postmodernism made architecture easier to talk about, but didn’t raise the quality of conversation. Defeated, I went AWOL; writers with more stamina hunkered down. Thanks to them, coverage has grown – but I see no great gain. Architecture has joined the lifestyle magazine stable: an easy read, something to pass the time and drive adverts. It’s the deal of the devil: the media buy into architecture but only on their own terms. It looks like there’s still a job to do: I’m reporting for duty again.

Stephen Games’ (edited) encyclopedia, Pevsner: The Complete Broadcast Talks (Ashgate), will be published later this year. A companion volume, Pevsner: The BBC Years, is due to follow in 2014

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