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Clare Melhuish reviews Paul Finch on 'Whatever happened to criticism?'

CABE deputy chair Paul Finch questioned the RIBA Gold Medal, condemned the planning system and wrote off media coverage of architecture in his recent lecture on the state of architectural criticism. But his anecdotal, somewhat flippant take on the situation did not inspire confidence that there was much prospect for change.

Finch's A-Z of architecture provided a convenient and readily adaptable vehicle for a commentary characterised by reluctance to engage too closely with problems in intellectual life.As he says, writers peddling critical analysis, as opposed to blockbusters, hardly get a living wage and certainly can't afford to do research, whereas photographers, for example, can expect to receive two or three times as much.

Architecture and design may have acquired a higher profile in the national papers and on television, but the critical content is virtually nil - the 'underpinning ethos', as Finch puts it, 'simply consumerism'. TV coverage, in particular, is at an 'extremely low level', sustained largely by makeover programmes. As for the newspapers, 'the idea of a critical position from 1984 onwards was anything the Prince of Wales said', and is now confined to 'scandalous costs. . . avant-garde architects getting shafted or political nostrums like urban renewal' .

A depressing situation that doesn't offer much ofan entrée to the would-be critic. But it is not just the media that is at fault. The profession itself, represented by the RIBA, has precisely the same values - in a desperate attempt, perhaps, to appear relevant.

The procedure for selecting the Gold Medal winner each year is, reveals Finch, devoid of 'critical apparatus', a decision prompted purely by considerations of style rather than quality. By contrast, the RIBA's Building Awards are 'rather good', since the judging panels actually go to see the buildings, but there is never much written about them. Similarly, the extensive discussions behind the scenes of the Stirling Prize are never televised.

As for the planning system - the filter of censorship through which architecture is released to the public - it is highly flawed.According to Finch, a CABE survey of planning authorities revealed that a mere 50 per cent employed anyone with any design qualifications.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Finch suggests that in the US 'the public attitude to architecture is more informed' and critics have more influence. So what is wrong with the conduits of critical discussion in this country, where, according to Finch, 'criticism and critics have turned into reviews and reviewers'? If Finch is to be believed, 'everyone is under the cosh for costs' and talent and rigour do not come cheap.Maybe we need to rejig our priorities, in which case someone needs to lead the way.

Paul Finch, editorial director of Emap Construct and deputy chair of CABE, was speaking last Wednesday in the Bartlett's Thinking Space lecture series on 'Whatever Happened to Criticism - A Review of the Architectural Media'.

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