Nancy Levinson, “Critical Beats,” Places Journal, March 2010. Accessed 14 Jul 2020. https://doi.org/10.22269/100306
The editor and executive director of ‘Places’, Nancy Levinson, articulately conveys her observations about the state of architectural criticism, through her article ‘Critical Beats’, published in 2010. The article puts forth an enlightening perspective towards the declining character of the profession of architectural criticism. Architecture has often been considered a form of art. Architectural criticism is said to have lost its identity as a result of this incorporation. This makes the author emphatically state that the practice is ‘doomed’. Levinson also elaborates on the shortcomings in the field and then delves into understanding what triggered them. Consequently, she suggests the approaches to be taken to rectify them. The author puts forth some compelling points in her eloquent judgment of architectural criticism.
The empowering confluence of art and science is the defining feature of architecture. Over time, its status as a form of art seems to have become the albatross around its neck. This is especially true when the process of art critiquing became implemented to architectural criticism. Levinson quite rightly points out that this method tends to misjudge the complexity involved in architectural criticism. The reference to renowned critic Alexandra Lange’s opinions also elaborates on how this method reduces it to a mere description of the aesthetic appeal of a building. It is crucial to acknowledge the multidimensional qualities of architectural work.
The art critique model has established a vicious link between the endorsement of certain artists through critiques and the subsequent hike in their commissions. To quote the author ‘…creating an ever-constricting favored circle’, is another ill effect of such an approach towards architectural criticism. Akin to Lange, Levinson expresses absolute displeasure in the article regarding this celebrity centric approach.
Yet another challenge that has resulted through globalization is the expansion of the scope of architectural criticism. The critic is forced to adopt a global outlook and produce a befitting criticism. Levinson elaborates on how this situation has forged a new hurdle into the field. This aspect adds to the requirements for constructing a decent criticism. But globalization also arms the critic with new tools. It has opened new avenues to aid them to understand a work from a global viewpoint. This mare’s nest is echoed in Robert Adam’s ‘The Globalisation of Modern Architecture’, wherein he elaborately discusses how globalization can give rise to similarities as well as differences in global architecture.
The article showcases how criticism isn’t objective nor impersonal. So, what constitutes an ideal form of criticism? H.L. Mencken’s definition, “prejudice made plausible,” paves the way to Levinson’s approach. It reiterates how a critic must be armed with insight and in-depth knowledge. A good criticism does not limit itself to chronicling the existing, it digs deep and enables the reader to shape a well-informed opinion. The critic must foster the talent to connect to society, and this requires a certain level of immersion into the architectural work. As Levinson puts it “It’s criticism rooted in deep experience, comprehensive knowledge and (yes) love. How can you make others care if you don’t care?”
A building is never an isolated entity. Any architectural work is a product of its surroundings. A visual reconnaissance cannot convey its functional and atmospheric qualities. The author rightly points out how the global nature of architecture also limits the critic’s opportunity to experience the object of his criticism. Here arises the question of ‘accessibility’. It is fiscally and temporally taxing for a critic to even visit the omnipresent architectural works, let alone experience each one of them. As explained in the article, an architectural critic’s contemporaries in the field of art and literature can afford the luxury of accessibility.
Even when an architectural critic attains the opportunity to globe-trot to the places, he is reviewing, other impediments arise. Levinson points out how critics are caught in a jam-packed schedule while visiting for reviews. The critic becomes more of a sightseer in this case. As a result, one cannot amass enough experience in the buildings before assessing it. Indirectly this dragoons the critic to focus on a few chosen architects and their works. The drawback here is the inability to attain a comprehensive assessment. “We need criticism that connects us to a building’s references, emotions, and texture, not only its news value. We need criticism moored to place, and to the history of that place. …” These perfervid words by critic Alexandra Lange aptly elucidate the shortcoming of such skin-deep forms of architectural criticism.
Levinson persuades the need for a more locally focussed and intellectually stimulating approach paired with an interdisciplinary analysis. ‘The global beat’ has been highlighted by her as the crux of the problems faced by an architectural critic. The author praises Lewis Mumford’s and Ada Louise Huxtable’s work in this regard. Undoubtedly, their contribution to architectural criticism is unparalleled. Yet it is worth noting that they practiced in an era where the rat race and cultural disparities were less prominent.
The overpowering effect of digital media over traditional methods does not seem to find a mention in Levinson’s scrutiny. The advancement of the digital age brought with it the introduction of a plethora of choices for the readers. It is accompanied by the shriveling interest of mainstream media towards architectural criticism instead of free content mushrooming online. The boom of the internet also brought up a trend that is farthest from Levinson’s idea of good criticism. Ar. Witold Rybczynski illustrates this trend as ‘…hurriedly written, harshly polemical, and poorly researched prose’.
The internet has indeed provided a platform for writings that pander to demands such as ‘easy to skim through’ and ‘ability to go viral’. But the accrescent digital age does not necessarily inscribe the impending doom of architectural criticism. Instead, the emergence of a new form of criticism will be witnessed. The rise in technologies such as augmented reality with multiple sensory modalities could also act as an aid to ease the challenges faced by a critic. There is a need to encompass the changing scenarios while holding onto the ethos of an idealistic approach to architectural criticism. This will pave the way to endless possibilities in the field. Levinson’s conclusion is veridical in stating that “We’ve got to be making the best case for keeping the breed. Doing that might mean expanding the gene pool of critical possibilities.”