“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”

–William H. Gass

We might not be discussing the Alchemist (Yes, you got it right!) further, but we will actually look into the ingredients, fuels, and oxygen needed to put life into the art of criticism. In the article: “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011, Thomas Fisher takes us on a journey on his take towards the Architecture Criticism. Immersed extensively in architectural journalism for many decades now, with hundreds of writings to his name—in this article, he addresses the problems as well as solutions in the realm of Architecture Critics. He takes the five most prominent well-known personalities in the industry—Writer and critic  Lewis Mumford, critic Ada Louise Huxtable, urbanist and journalist Jane Jacobs, critic Alexandra Lange and editor Nancy Levinson—as examples, to show what it takes to be a good architecture critic.

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet1
Thomas Fisher_©arch.design.umn.edu

Before going into the article’s content right away, let’s first understand the essence of this article—or so to say, paraphrasing Thomas Fischer himself: Many art forms, such as books, paintings, and symphonies require only an individual creator to manifest his/her vision on board. But architecture is different. It requires many patrons and expresses diverse messages. In that case—we need those critics who look beyond the facade or the superficial qualities of the projects— to interpret the messages better.

For a better understanding, I have chunked-down the article into three major points. And have dissected them one-by-one. This will give you a structure to write down your own critical pieces or even to understand one!

1. The What: Existing Situation And Examples

Thomas Fischer begins with an interesting analogy of architecture and the portraits of the painter Chuck Close. In an interview in 2005, he quotes Close: “I remember Clement Greenberg said to de Kooning that the only thing you can’t do in art anymore is make a portrait. I thought, well, if Greenberg thinks [you] can’t do it, then I am going to have a lot of operating room all to myself.” Close then, quite literally, did astonishingly and profoundly reinvent the genre of portraits. 

Fischer then relates this with the existing scenario of the architecture criticism and the need-of-the-hour of this kind of reinvention. He explains how the U.S newspapers and the journalism offered, is now just a mere essayist art with no place for real criticism at all. 

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet2
Alexandra Lange_©www.madamearchitect.org

While addressing the writing of Alexandra Lange, Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough,” he describes how Lange has critiqued Ouroussoff, an architecture critic (quite an irony!) of the New York Times. Ouroussoff approached his writings as a way to comment only on the visible “appearance” part of the architecture—without real consideration of history, politics, and even urbanism. The major concern is that major newspapers lack the architecture critic and this is probably the professional extinction in action. In her view, architecture deserves more than that. “What we need is criticism that treats renderings and buildings as different,” she says. The criticism we need is not for only its news value but it should respect the place, connect to a building’s context, textures as well as emotions. 

2. The Why: The Necessity And Arguments To Support

Fischer proceeds by discussing the essay Critical Beats,” by Nancy Levinson, the editor and executive director of Places where she elaborates Lange’s points as discussed above. In addition to that, she adds that not only the degradation of art-critique is responsible for the fall of standards in architecture criticism. It is also, in her words, “The accelerating globalization of architecture culture.” Many a time you read a certain critical piece in a newspaper, and it seems to be alien. As if the sense of place and context is lost. In a similar way, say, for example, a building in Mumbai is similar to the one in London or New-york.

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet3
Nancy Levinson_©communications.yale.edu

All this is good until we understand the roots of the problem. But the main question to ponder upon is how can we improve the quality of criticism. As the saying goes, it is easier said than done. This is what Fisher proceeds with, further. 

Using the analogy of Close’s portrait, when we don’t have the room for conventional practice anymore, then this gives a whole lot of room to operate for the aspiring critics to revolutionize the genre of architecture criticism. 

3. The How: Solutions

Fisher breaks this in profound, easy to follow three-step action process:

a) Think Big

Close’s portraits were a revolution and set a high bar for starting Thinking big. No, not in a thought-process way. But literally—he magnified his portraits which were much larger than the normal ones, addressing them as the all-over-ness. This all-over-ness is what is required practically. Rather than just focusing on too few star-studded, star architects or the some famous in the field, the architecture criticism would thrive in a good place when the critics get over from this star-ness. Commitment to the whole, local, and native is what makes people relate to a place.

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet4
Lewis Mumford_©placesjournal.org

In contrast to Ouroussoff—as an example, Lewis Mumford, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, is a role model you should be looking at. He was one of the few who were true to the work they practice. He talked about a more locally-engaged culture that speaks to the reader. And Looked beyond the rendered blue-sky speculations that are far-fetched to be realized in reality in the first place. Quoting Fisher’s words: “To counter that impression, architecture critics need to think big — to reverse the mirror and show what buildings reveal about the nature of contemporary problems, and how profoundly buildings are implicated in the economic, social and environmental dilemmas we face and how they might thus contribute to effective and grounded solutions.”

b) Get Real

Addressing something familiar or known from a new perspective, open-up the possibilities that are overlooked before. With enlarging the portrait, Chuck Close, precisely, by increasing a range of focus painted portraits from photographs of faces. Yes, not the actual faces. This gave him the upper-hand in focusing on the details the camera lens captures. Sure is otherwise, invisible to a human-eye. Fischer says this kind of opening-up is required for architecture criticism.

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet5
Ada Louise Huxtable_©placesjournal.org

This type of approach is already practiced by Ada Louise Huxtable, the first and still the best architecture critic of the New York Times. Like Close, she drew the attention of the readers to more multifaceted and ugly realities of the architecture. And she has managed to do this successfully for five decades, says a lot about her courage as a critic.

Rather than sticking to a particular style, criticism is required to be approached in a wide-open way as the branches of trees spread out. It is an understanding that worth-writing architecture is around you everywhere. It takes courage, in Fischer’s views, and a lot of risks where you not only talk about only the beauty, but the bruises. And it is a great chance you will also make enemies on the way.

c) Be Arresting

Close’s portraits show us the abstraction of detail as well as the unity of the whole. This quality holds and grabs our attention. And similar quality is required for the architecture criticism we need today. Jane Jacobs is a perfect example to demonstrate this quality in action. She showed how a wider territory can be claimed by the critics. She has the great ability not only to see the parts and wholes, but also to abstract from reality. Her wide-range of books is a testimonial to this.

Article in Focus: Thomas Fisher, “The Death and Life of Great Architecture Criticism,” Places Journal, December 2011 - Sheet6
Jane Jacobs_©placesjournal.org

It is a matter of the question of what the future holds for the field. What should be the appropriate normal? What this new millennium has to offer? With the on-going pandemic, economical regression, and political debates, architecture critics don’t seem to exist. Or better put, critics choose not to speak up about the places or buildings that require their attention. The irony is that architecture criticism is disappearing when it is required more than ever. 

In the end, it is not the circumstances that define us. It is a matter of rising to the occasion. The solution is plain simple. As Fischer says, conversations should be held to address the larger public, not only the dazzling few, which will eventually benefit the social well-being and national identity. The architecture criticism should be like Chuck Close’s paintings: big enough, real enough, and commanding enough attention. 

And the new possibilities are endless. Maybe, you are a step away discovering that Alchemist within.


Madiha Khanam is an architect and an enthusiast writer. She approaches writing as a creative medium to pen-down her thoughts just like drawing and illustrating. She loves to read and write about architecture, engineering, and psychology. Besides, she loves to watch anime.

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