Architecture writing is changing, but good critics still call architects to account, speak truth to power and shape the understanding of complex issues, says Catherine Slessor
It’s that time of year when, amid the excess of Saturnalia, our thoughts turn to others less fortunate than ourselves. So between the eggnog and the Quality Street, let’s consider, momentarily, the plight of the poor architecture critic. This hitherto common and well-fed cock-of-the-walk is now sadly reduced in circumstances, fighting for meagre scraps where he (and it is usually he) can find them. It’s a sobering and salutary tale, and probably one without a heartwarming ending.
Once a heroic and influential figure, the architecture critic used to inhabit an Olympian otherworld of quasi-priestly privilege. He pronounced on the nature of architecture and his musings were duly received by a grateful populace. He churned out articles, newspaper columns and books, and occasionally he’d pop up on TV or radio to be plied by deferential interviewers for a pithy but erudite vox pop. Now all that has changed. Olympus has been sacked, the priesthood defrocked and the internet means we’re all architecture critics now, our opinions and hot takes circulated and validated by seething currents of digital media.
Most serious newspapers once considered architecture on a par with opera, theatre or visual art
Not that this is entirely a bad thing. As a seasoned architectural editor, I squatted in the shadow of Olympus and had to supplicate its bores and boors who were perpetually wreathed in a miasma of pomposity and self-importance. So I don’t really miss them. But in one of those curious contemporary paradoxes, the topography of architectural criticism has simultaneously been expanded (in terms of delivery) and condensed (in terms of content). For instance, most serious newspapers once considered architecture on a par with opera, theatre or visual art and boasted a heavyweight critic to keep abreast of it. Now the fashion is for more biddable (and less costly) content and clickbait wranglers. Which means that rather than the occasional, chinstrokingly earnest building critique, you get a constant scatter-gun of stuff, but stuff that at least acknowledges architecture’s often uncomfortable relationship with wider social, political and economic forces.
As architecture critics are changing, so is the career path to becoming one. Building Design used to be a reliable incubator of emerging talent (its bad boy alumni include Ellis Woodman, Olly Wainwright, Kieran Long and Will Hunter) but now that function has been osmosed into the shifting and more nebulous terrain of blogging, zines and generally making a nuisance of yourself. Jack Self and Shumi Bose, who have kick-started The Real Review, are a good example of this agile, bottom-up modus operandi. As are Phin Harper and Maria Smith, whose recent debates at the Architecture Foundation blew a freewheeling hole in the conventional format of anodyne panel discussions.
Perhaps architecture gets the critics it deserves, but supine criticism only serves to stifle debate and reinforce the status quo. Good critics call architects to account, speak truth to power and shape the understanding of complex issues. They also illuminate, provoke and entertain. I have a personal soft spot for Jonathan Meades and Paul Davies, a pair of incorrigible mischief-makers, who throw their nets more vigorously and expansively into the currents of what constitutes architecture. Meades has contemplated it through an array of eccentric prisms, including minor league Scottish football grounds, while Davies’s new book on architectural history is deliciously catholic in outlook. The index for ‘O’, for example, encompasses entries for Jamie Oliver, ormolu, Otis lifts and 120 Days of Sodom.
So let’s stow the violins and the seasonal sentiment for now. Architecture critics may be down but they are far from out. Raise a glass and toast their swashbuckling survival.