“Belle-Lettrism is to the majority of writing what architecture is to the majority of buildings.”

-Naomi Stead

Naomi Stead is a Melbourne-based architectural professor, scholar, and critic. She is the present Head of the Architecture Department of Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design, and Architecture in Australia

Article in Focus: Naomi Stead, "A New Belle-Lettrism and the Future of Criticism," Places Journal, June 2012 - Sheet1
Naomi Stead_ ©Monash University

In her article, A New Belle Lettrism and the Future of Criticism that was published in Places Journal 2012, the author talks about how she explores Belles-lettres as a template for architecture journalism. As the definition in the article itself, the French term belles-lettres refers to literature that is fine or attractive, made, or polished. In this meaning, belles-lettres refers to all works of literature, including fiction, poems, and drama.

The author says,  have written elsewhere about the “complaints” commonly made about written architectural criticism in Australia, complaints which may well be complacent and under-theorized, but which remain pervasive.

In Australia and elsewhere, architectural critics hold no place as it looks dainty, dull, and not a real critic as it does not contribute to the improvement of future buildings as per ‘real’ critique. But the author views architectural critic as a particular genre of literature. It is a discipline with incredibly strong and well-defined rules – of tone, language, mannerism, and the image-text connection. Also, she refers to a few instances of online discussions on why architecture critiques are doomed and bland. 

Despite all this, Naomi Stead proposes a radical rethinking of critical practice for online journalism, and this might end up as a new belle-Lettrism. She explains how in present-day, belle-lettres are known for their aesthetic, sophisticated elegance, and refined style, linking it to a negative perspective for a critic. But Stead says, 

“Belle-Lettrism (as a subset of literature in general) is to the majority of writing what architecture is to the majority of buildings. This is a mode of writing that is more than simply practical or informative; rather it is a pleasurable, literary end in itself.

The reason why Naomi Stead prefers belle-Lettrism is that it opens a wide range of possibilities including fine writing that eradicates the boring descriptive texts and can create a subjective platform for both the author and reader. One of the most interesting features of belles-lettres is its association with letters. Like a beautiful letter, with design, typography, and images creating a personal emotional experience from the writer to the reader. As the modern media (just like memes in Instagram), belles-lettres include wit and joy in its historic form.  

Article in Focus: Naomi Stead, "A New Belle-Lettrism and the Future of Criticism," Places Journal, June 2012 - Sheet2
A New Belle-Lettrism and the Future of Criticism_ ©https://placesjournal.org/article/a-new-belle-lettrism-and-the-future-of-criticism/

But not everyone is on board with the same, as they think the internet provides a space for unregulated and biased reviews derailing the creative community. But Naomi Stead says that only reliable and engaging amateurs will get more audience and the others who speak ill will not. And this can advance the field of architecture journalism. This creates a deviating line of two types of criticism with different reasons and goals. Conventional print media critique by professional architecture journalists directing to practices providing straight on point judgments and advice to make better buildings. Whereas modern online media critique requires no formal education and focuses on a general and a bigger audience linking to cultures and opinions on architecture. This difference contains plenty of conflicts that are fundamental in architecture as a discipline and infect both online and print criticism, but which have long been misunderstood, inadequately stated, or just disregarded by architectural critics.

Naomi explains that it is obvious that architectural criticism is in transition, and the route to a more pleasant, “fine,” and amusing manner of writing on architecture. The new belle-Lettrism shows intriguing potential for architecture, both online and off, in its depth and range of associations, ambition to literary art, and enjoyment in the text.

The article as reviewed focuses on architecture criticism and how belle Lettrism can be a novel form. It also brushes the topic of how architecture criticism never really makes it to the major panel discussions regarding art and literature. The ongoing debate of how online critique creates a major dispersion and much more. The author uses intricate terms and provides a lot of instances. Belle-Lettrism can be an interesting way for journalism and impact the users a little more. But a more in-depth study of the literature is required for a foundation for this way of critiquing. 


  1. Stead, N. (2012). A New Belle-Lettrism and the Future of Criticism. Places Journal, (2012).
  2. Wikipedia. (2021). Naomi Stead. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Stead [Accessed 17 Oct. 2021].

Devika Bhaskaran is an architecture student with absolute love for writing, poetry and travelling. She believes that there are beautiful and mind-blowing untold stories within people and places and she hopes to be a voice for the same. She is in a constant search for architectural wonders that are accessible to all kinds of humans.