Filler’s critiques are particularly good at solidifying something you may have been thinking but couldn’t put into words, says Owen Hatherley
There’s a degree of certainty and good taste in what the New York Review of Books’ architectural critic Martin Filler does as a critic that doesn’t entirely translate to the building culture of places outside of the five boroughs. However, what he has always been superb at is invective. I say this not to diminish - it’s an, underrated and historically important virtue, too often overlooked in an art form which likes to pride itself on pragmatism and consensus. A book could be compiled solely from Filler diatribes - his surely accurate blasting of post-1989 Berlin as the missed opportunity of all missed opportunities, his dissection of the failings of celeb architects like Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Libeskind. Now that he’s finally been slapped with a lawsuit from Zaha Hadid, we should insist on the necessity of such viciousness before it is legally silenced.
What Filler’s critiques are particularly good at is solidifying something that you may have been vaguely thinking but couldn’t put into words, in making the pieties and ostentatious respect around a figure collapse, leaving a deeply fallible oeuvre stripped of bullshit, ready to be taken on objectively, not on its own exalted terms. It’s hard to look at any of the later projects of Daniel Libeskind, like the war museum in Manchester or the military museum in Dresden, without thinking of Filler’s one-liner that the architect had become ‘a virtual, self-igniting yahrzeit candle’, a mechanical automatic memorial service, whose allegedly significant fragmented crashing volumes have no real specificity, a brand architect of pseudo-memory. The attack on Calatrava is of the same order, drawing attention to the cloying nature of his metaphors and the empty-headed kitsch of his grand vaulted spaces. His recent comments on Zaha Hadid, in a review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build in the NYRB were perhaps slightly different, in that they were not about her architecture itself - although his lack of sympathy was clear - but about the morality of her projects in Qatar, and the manner in which she appeared to wave away the conditions of theirlabourers in a Guardian interview. The way that Hadid is often singled out for something that almost every major practising architect today does - that is, work in countries where buildings are constructed by a migrant labour force that usually lacks even the most basic rights – is often unfair, and it is hard not to wonder if there are some unpleasant exoticising undertones to it.
Filler also conflated a little by arguing that Hadid – the architect of the Al-Wakrah World Cup stadium in Qatar - had directly expressed indifference to the deaths of a thousand workers on the building. In fact, construction on the stadium has yet to begin and Hadid had suggested, in the face of the appalling numbers of migrant workers killed on Qatari construction projects in general, that this was a matter not for her, but for the Qatari government - a conflation, perhaps, but one which may get Filler in trouble in court, particularly if her lawyers decide not to accept his retraction. However, a critic should have the right to unfairness.
Architecture has often been driven forward by unreasonable diatribes, from Ruskin’s claim that all Classical and Renaissance architecture was immoral through to Adolf Loos’ assault on the ‘Potemkin cities’ of the late 19th century; neither was fair, but both forced much-needed change. And common to these has been an insistence that architecture as an art be honest, held to standards other than mere aesthetics. If Hadid’s lawsuit succeeds, it sets a dangerous precedent - not only in policing an already too quiescent architectural media, but also in stopping one of the motors that have so frequently been behind architectural and social change.