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Does architectural criticism matter?

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Joseph Rykwert, judge on this year’s AJ Writing Prize, on perils and provocations in the business of criticism.

Joseph Rykwert: The business of a critic is to discriminate: the better from the worse… the more beautiful from the uglier, the more valuable from the less

Criticism may seem quite irrelevant to any talk about building at this highpoint of starchitecture. After all, the business of a critic is to discriminate: the better from the worse, or - if you like - the more beautiful from the uglier, the more valuable from the less - separate the wheat from the chaff in short. But starchiteture can’t have much truck with such distinctions. It is content just to be. Celebrity seems to rise above the carping of discriminators. Criticising starchitects may  be like making disparaging comments at a pop concert - though, unlike starchitecture, pop music does seem  to have bred a culture of quite shrewd critics though their words, however sharp, seem unable to pierce even the most inflated bubble reputations.

Rykwert on Astley: Witherford Watson Mann have been gentle surgeons, saving the essential, eliminating the incidental'

Rykwert on Astley: ‘Witherford Watson Mann have been gentle surgeons, saving the essential, eliminating the incidental’

What is true of pop stars and of star buildings is also true of more muted high-rises. What, after all, can be said in terms of architectural criticism of these sheer walls of standard glass-and-steel elements, enclosing floors of almost identical plans? Perhaps some comment on the foyer or on the finial of the skyscraper may count as such. But for the most part, any talk about such buildings is limited to fulsome commendations.

It is even less relevant for those buildings whose extravagant bulk now litter architectural publications - especially the advertising pages. Vastly inflated sails or giant coffee-pots or yet  gherkins and hedgehogs seem to present the critic with formal entities that challenge him or her to disentangle hopelessly matted strands. But even faced with such conundrums the perplexed critic must not doff his thinking cap, but press it firmly down on his head, and take stock of what may appear as quite banal features of seemingly quite overwhelming buildings: how, for instance, does the building meet the ground? How are pedestrian entries managed, and how separated from vehicles; how, on entry, does the visitor proceed to upper floors and how are all these bits of circulation related to the declension from the public to semi-public spaces. A true architectural critic must be a dogged plan-reader.

And again: how is the structure related to the materiality of the building, and how does any fancy configuration relate to the way it sits in its environment - and what (if any) is the contribution it makes to the composite image of the city of which it is a constituent? The critic is further justified in enquiring about how the building is perceived - both by its  users and by the general public - since all such reactions do form part of the critical arsenal.

It is no secret that architects can be sensitive to critics, even over-sensitive sometimes to the point of threatening a libel action.

 Perhaps my military metaphor is not quite apposite. In English we are not used to that idea, but the French respect what they call critique militante, which we might more gently translate as ‘engaged criticism’; it might almost qualify as an oxymoron since we often see the critic as detached, above the fray, calmly formulating judgements and not engaged in jousts or disputes. Yet dispassionate criticism does not seem to be the kind that really matters.  I have always believed that the critic must be a fighter. To do so he or she must of course have a base from from which to operate - not only the obvious one of a newspaper, periodical, radio or television programme of even a blog which will make their views public, but more intimately a clearly articulated notion of what he or she think that society must expect of its builders: this does not mean only architects, but also developers, local and central government, in fact all those others who frame the programmes on which the architect must then operate.

David Chipperfield's Hepworth Wakefield

Rykwert on Hepworth Wakefield: ‘Studied casualness is an essential element of the composition’

Which is all very fine, but why will it matter, and to whom? In the short term the effect of a critic’s words may not be all that obvious - yet it is no secret that architects can be sensitive to them, even over-sensitive sometimes to the point of threatening a libel action. Perhaps more important is the effect on those commissioning buildings, who tend to think of themselves as patrons or even as public benefactors, and so find any carping at the products of their benevolence as impugning their good name. Such hazards do suggest that the engaged critic’s words are not at all vain, and that beyond any resentment they may well promote reflection and may even lead participants in the building process to modify or turn their ways. More actively, critics increasingly take part in competition and prize juries which invites their involvement in design decisions.

Considered at their lowest valuation, they will certainly help to form and reform the public opinion which is the uneven but fertile ground from - or against which - all those involved in building inevitably operate. But of course, at its highest, it may establish a fruitful dialogue between critics and those operatively involved in the creation of our environment. 

Joseph Rykwert is on the jury of the AJ Writing Prize

Does architectural criticism matter?

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