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Theory in Architecture: Architects groan, critics purr

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Architect and critic Irénée Scalbert looks at the dysfunctional relationship between the two callings, as a London Met exhibition and symposium tackles theory in architecture

Architects and critics have a tense, uncomfortable relationship. They live in the same space, and that space is too small. Architects groan, critics purr; more rarely, they bark or they scratch. Yet there is a great deal of respect for critics, especially in the UK. I sometimes wonder whether the admiration lavished on critics, such as Reyner Banham (pictured above) and Colin Rowe, is fully justified. The assumption in the UK is that critics, being intellectuals, know things that architects do not. But this supposed advantage can also be denied by architects, who feel, with good reason, that they have a superior experience in design and building.

This suggests a complex relationship in which it is difficult to know who has the upper hand - architects or critics. It is uncomfortable for both parties, and it is responsible for a mutual reticence, even a certain meanness. Critics can be appreciated by their readers, but only exceptionally will they be appreciated by the architects about whom they write. Alas, criticism is so often assimilated with publicity. This appears to be unique to the world of architecture. Artists and politicians, for instance, behave in a different way.

There is, in the mind of many architects, a confusion between knowledge and power. Architects are by and large judged by their peers and clients, not by critics. To see a critic participating in a competition jury is the exception, not the rule. I have seen architects desperate for the approval of critics, and this surprises me. The word ‘critic’ is itself a source of confusion, and an unpleasant one at that. It can mean ‘fault-finder’, ‘detractor’, even ‘severe judge’. Short of being a sadist or an autocrat, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone might wish to be such a thing. A good critic, unlike perhaps a journalist, has no interest in power. Would David Sylvester, the art critic, have wished to influence Francis Bacon or Alberto Giacometti? Did Colin Rowe seek to influence James Stirling? I doubt it. Like scientists, critics wish to understand and to find projects for their appreciation.

The true leaders of opinion have always been architects. AW Pugin headed the gothic rivival, not John Ruskin

What critics can do is to raise the stakes for architecture. They can help to articulate the work of architects in the terms of tenants, consumers or even society. They can say: ‘This is not enough, architecture can do better’. Critics will be impatient with the production of their own time because they see a gap The Critics between architecture (which is, after all, a slow and conservative art) and what they regard as the main issues of their time.

This impatience is at the heart of their work. For John Ruskin, it was caused by the effects of industry. For Sigfried Giedion, it was the reluctance to embrace the machine. For Rowe, it was the totalitarian tendency of modernism; and for Banham, the remoteness of the architect from the consumer and popular culture.

The end of modernism did not open the way for another approach, but for every conceivable approach to design. In turn, inevitably, criticism became less critical. It became a form of encouragement, a revelation of the possible. Architecture is now described in terms that are specific to each commission and to each architect, and criticism has lost much, if not all, of its externality. Form and meaning are its main preoccupations. Exit the user, exit society. How consistent, then, that the culmination of these developments (and perhaps their conclusion) should be the so-called icon. Criteria in architecture are similar to those in the art market: complexity, uniqueness and craft. A work of architecture must be different, and it is this difference that defines, like in the stock market, an increase in value - what economists call ‘appreciation’. This appreciation (the play on words is fully intended) has become the principal object of criticism. Not a few critics are bored with this surplus of difference, and it is against it that their impatience is now directed.

A word of caution. Critics are few. They have nothing like the influence accorded to them by architects. They are like supporters at a bicycle race: standing by the road, commentating and, hopefully, encouraging. The true leaders in opinion have always been architects. AW Pugin headed the gothic revival, not Ruskin. Le Corbusier led the modern movement, not Giedion. Robert Venturi and Stirling led post-modernism, not Charles Jencks. Critics can express their impatience, but they do not have the answers. They can be interesting, but they have no power.

The delusion to the contrary is sustained both by architects hoping for more publicity, and by critics imbued with a sense of their own importance. In the end, architects are only as good as their works, and critics are no better than their own words.

25 years of OASE, in conjunction with Criticism Revisited one-day symposium, London Metropolitan University, until 18 December, free, www.asd-realtime.org

Irénée Scalbert was an architect and is now an architecture critic. He has taught at the AA and the GSD at Harvard





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