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Criticality: notes on an ugly word

[THIS WEEK] James Pallister looks at a new platform for critical ideas

To paraphrase Herman Goering, whenever I hear the word criticality, I reach for my Browning. Well, not literally; it’s frowned upon to bring handguns into the office. Still, it’s an ugly phrase, part of a long tradition of unpleasant neologisms spawned in architecture and the social sciences.

But what does it mean? In architectural academe it originates in K Michael Hays 1984 essay, Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form. In it Hays rejects a choice between cultural dependence or formal autonomy, and argues that architecture should be ‘critical’: materially of its culture but, through its language and form, resistant to dominant economic pressures.

Anyway criticality is old news. In the early 2000s critics Robert Somol, Sarah Whiting and Rem Koolhaas ushered in the birth of ‘Post-Criticality’ , something Jason Nguyen described in Manifold in 2007 as ‘architecture that investigates innovation, intelligence, provision – seemingly anything but social critique’.

That’s not a charge that could be levelled at This Is Not a Gateway, the vocal, sometimes querulous duo of Trenton Oldfield and Deepa Naik, who through their salons, imprints and festivals create ‘platforms for critical projects and ideas related to cities’. One of their criticisms of Post-Criticality is that it creates a situation in which galleries, commercial organisations, individual actors and governmental bodies wittingly or otherwise reproduce an ‘unquestioning acquiescence to the five drivers of present-day injustice: [including creeds such as] “elitism is efficient”, “greed is good” and “despair is inevitable”’. For more notes on this, see Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009).

This Is Not A Gateway’s 2011 festival is accepting proposals for ‘discussions, soapboxes and exhibitions’ until 5 May, the theme being ‘New propositions about cities’.

Critical Cities Vol II, available from Myrdle Court Press, This Is Not A Gateway’s own imprint; Criticality and its Discontents by George Baird, Harvard Design Magazine, Fall/Winter 2005

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