Ada Louise Huxtable (first Architecture Critic of The New York Times, 1963) begins her discourse on Architecture Criticism by making the reader aware that the objective of criticism is unlike any other art forms. Architecture ‘is the most complex and compromised of the arts, subject to a battery of restraints, controls and conflicts of interest, always striving to find the line where art and utility meet.’(Huxtable, 1990). And why wouldn’t it be, after all, the outcome is generated by the architect, but that outcome is the conclusion of multiple dependent factors (by-laws, context, clients, program etc.) that are not written in letters on the facade of the design? Architecture cannot be judged from what is visible, for it is not a glass onion, such that with one look, all intricacies within it are realised. Thus, the entry of criticism takes place – a tool that helps judge a building beyond its aesthetics.
During juries and Crit reviews in a design studio, students (if luck chooses to be with them) would hear ‘Constructive Criticism’, while the unfortunate among the lot, would be hurled criticism at; but the objective of these tear-evoking sessions is to help students achieve a creative solution that holistically performs its functions. To articulate the essence behind the design, criticism can neither be badgering nor can it be adulatory. Essentially, all facts and logic in the design and building process need to be comprehended, that’s why the judgement has to be on-point and straightforward, but by no means can the judgement be neutral. After all, it is art, and the judgement can be subjective, but the judgement is a conclusion of understanding research and documentation with the intent to educate readers of the environment that is being created for them. That’s why, the job of a Critic and the architectural criticism, become a public service (and not a promotional advertisement piece for architectural projects).
Through criticism, a design is decoded and then composed into a legible language, which acts as a guide to understand the context, aim, technology, aesthetics and values. To do that, Architecture critic Carter Wiseman states that a critic ‘should hold the same knowledge, dedication, and writing skills to sort through their views, consume concerns and come to a useful judgement (Wiseman, 2014). The critic must inform and educate society, to look ahead of the classic principles of firmness, commodity and delight (Wiseman, 2014)
Judge it, don’t compare it
The criticism should be principled, firm, and objective. Architecture won’t be of value if it doesn’t hold the value of the people it serves – it stands built, without a purpose. It should be Fair in judgement, without any bias, and useful in its objective. Cathleen McGuigan (Editor-in-Chief of Architectural Record) mentions: “Judge a project on its own merits. You can’t judge a cabin, as you would a castle.” Understanding that each design was built in coherence to its time, place and then architectural language, comparing designs would not be fair. By using the data upon which the architects built the design, it should answer the question, ‘Did the art enhance the value of what it serves?’
Criticism cannot be led by ‘how you feel’. The environment built affects humans in their understanding of the world in front of them. If all of these understandings were taken into account, concluding the design would be illogical. The design is a result of a problem or needs that existed, and the decisions taken to reach the final design will be based on those reasonings. Alexandra Lange (architecture critic of Curbed) states, “So how do you read a building? Pick it apart until you see how it was done.”
After we follow Lange’s advice, after picking apart the building, we are to understand the aspects of :
- Program – what the client and the architect aimed to accomplish, their point of view to resolve the concern.
- Budget – the simple difference between apartment housing and affordable housing
- Sustainability – One cannot criticise a non-glamorous facade for its choice of material if the materials serve the purpose of sustainability.
- Time – grand castles of then are museums of today, not because they are timeless, but because the era today does not require a castle.
- Politics – since money, power and prestige are often linked to major projects.
Every Criticism piece is a unique voice that is persuasive and provocative:
Criticism essentially serves truth, which may not be agreeable to all, but it holds weight when stating its case. It holds weight because there are facts, fair analysis and documentation to support it. This makes the information valuable and honest and sometimes even challenging. The intent of the writer is loud and clear. Michael Sorkin (architecture critic of The Village Voice) says that the best criticism “fights for its relevance and remit.”
Each critic in history has had a unique voice that was delivered in their writing. May it be Ada Louise Huxtables’ hints of humour, objective and incorruptible writing, or Lewis Mumford’s (who wrote architectural criticism for The New Yorker from 1931-1963) elegance in writing, their voices presented their criticism more character and not simply a random piece be read from the newspaper.
It is a service to the public, a service to the profession.
Criticism is done with the intent of educating and bringing forth the positive effects architecture can have on society. This can only be done when there is love and passion for the subject and an understanding of the tangible and intangible changes that can occur through it. These changes are experienced by the public. At the end of the day, architecture and criticism are both public services, and by helping the public comprehend and assimilate the complexities of architecture, the true vision behind the design can be appreciated.
The art of architectural criticism is not to split and pinpoint the flaws in the design, but to present its entirety as a unified whole. To do that, the layers need to be unravelled and assembled to make sense of the process and the product. Today, architectural criticism has become an activity that can be found internationally, which means understanding a building has become even more complex, each with its own culture and context. Though difficult, the language of architecture has created its versions that resonate with its context. Criticism shows us the world we build as art and culture. Policy and practice. It is a combination of intellectual and aesthetic responses. (Huxtable, 1990). The world we build is a reflection of our society and our progress, and as Cathy Lang Ho states, it is only fair that we strive to advocate for values that lift society while helping to advance art.
Huxtable, A. (1990). Architecture Criticism. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , Vol. 134, No. 4, pp. 461-464. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/986900 (Accessed: January 3, 2023)
The 7 principles of architectural criticism (2022) Arch2O.com. Available at: https://www.arch2o.com/principles-architectural-criticism/ (Accessed: January 20, 2023).
The Act and art of architectural critique: A drawing, a house, and a sign: The plan journal (1970) The Act and Art of Architectural Critique: A Drawing, a House, and a Sign | The Plan Journal. Available at: https://www.theplanjournal.com/article/act-and-art-architectural-critique-drawing-house-and-sign (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Agrawal , Agrawal, R. and Aggarwal (2022) Why does architectural criticism matter? – RTF: Rethinking the future, RTF | Rethinking The Future. Available at: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architectural-community/a2654-why-does-architectural-criticism-matter/ (Accessed: January 20, 2023).
Hosey, L. (2017) The 7 lamps of architecture criticism, HuffPost. HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-seven-lamps-of-architecture_b_7080402 (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Lange, A. and Lange, J.M. (2012) How to be an architecture critic (from writing about architecture), Places Journal. Available at: https://doi.org/10.22269/120301 (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Ramadan, M.G. (no date) Architectural criticism as a main improvement strategy in contemporary . Available at: https://www.ripublication.com/ijaer20/ijaerv15n1_04.pdf (Accessed: January 21, 2023).
Wiseman, C. (2014) “Criticism ,” in Writing architecture: A practical guide to clear communication about the built environment. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, pp. 97–118.