We’re surrounded by architecture critics, but do we know them?
“The critic is an editor: to make a visual argument, you have to cut out much of what you see.”
Alexandra Lange is a celebrated architecture critic. One would think that the heft of her words would be carried on by her facial features, instead, we see a grounded fragility in her face. The kind which is sure of itself, and warns readers about the impact that Lange’s words would have on them. In her article “How to Be an Architecture Critic”, she takes us on a journey behind the making of a piece of architectural criticism, revealing nested narratives for every point she makes. It is evident that yours truly, having the navigational skills of a single pebble, gets lost soon. But the piece is as engaging as it is meandering—and it leaves the reader wanting for more.
Lange initiates the article with an anatomization of “Sometimes We Get It Right” by iconic architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable. She starts by calling out a popular perception that built forms and spaces are merely investments, opportunities, and economic benefits. She urges people to look at the physical reality of a structure—about height and bulk, style and sustainability, the openness of architecture and process.
It is a slight nudge to all the non-architect readers to try and observe their surroundings more astutely. Having been acquainted with Huxtable’s work in the past, I am not surprised she chose her piece to study, but I wish Lange opted for a more diverse palette of critics.
“Start with the best example you can think of and pick it apart until you see how it was done.”
And that is what Lange does in her article too. Huxtable’s review of the Marine Midland Bank Building by SOM is a critic-favorite, where she talks about the intermingling of art, different eras of architecture and public space. The Marine Midland building is a glass-clad, strictly vertical volume, piercing the sky through the spikey fabric of Manhattan skyscrapers. And these are my words, mind you.
But the review of a single building is not enough to live through the spatial stories created by it. This is where context becomes important. Lange unpacks Huxtable’s point of view succinctly and suggests that the setting and open spaces of the building be read and studied, as much as the building itself. She informs the reader, “Huxtable is asking us to look at what is around the architecture as much as the building in question, calling our attention to what is important to get right.” This, she justifies, would bring the pedestrian’s narrative closer to the reader. The critiquing gets accessible, democratized even.
Lange gives a biography of Huxtable as the background of how Huxtable became who she was. No doubt, her achievements must be lauded for it was she who opened up the avenue of architecture critics and became the first-ever architecture critic in print media. But it might be myopic to focus on only Huxtable’s story—it alienates the very citizen who Lange is trying to influence. The critiquing might become accessible, but the critic needs to be relatable too. As a South Asian studying the diverse facets of architecture within my context, I am hesitant to confirm its resonance with me.
“We know what we already like but not how to describe it, or how to change it, or how to change our minds.”
The second step involves the writer taking the reader to the place. Lange says this is crucial and highlights how many critics-to-be forgo this ritual to settle for photographs of the space at the beginning of the article. However, it is quite telling how she concludes her article with a slideshow of photos of the works mentioned in her piece. But it was kept only at the end, so we are going to overlook that.
There is a clear preference for the written, and she insists on the spatial experience to be wrought (textually painted). To transform thoughts into words, Lange says that one must have already been in that place to judge the space. I had to take multiple trips on Google Earth to wrap my head around the places and spaces that Huxtable was trying to read through (reminiscing about my navigational skills). It almost feels like a treasure hunt—except the treasure is the hunt itself.
Lange advances to the next step (pardon the pun!) and explains Huxtable’s use of descriptive words. I am a big fan of this trick. One must be careful not to go overboard and pepper paragraphs generously with purple prose, because this might propel the reader’s interest to wane. So when Huxtable uses phrases such as ‘powerful play’ she is trying to amplify the drama created by the architecture while recreating the feelings associated with it. In more palatable terms, on a scale of Chetan Bhagat to Salman Rushdie, try to be somewhere in the middle (perhaps Dan Brown).
Throughout the article, it is evident that only one critic’s style is being inspected. There is a mention of Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp, but architectural literature is rife with many more examples. In her work “Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities.”, Lange parses through six different critics, each having a unique writing style. That book is more complete work when learning how to critique built forms and cities and it acts as an in-depth extension of this article.
The crux of the article lies in these lines – “Few practitioners of criticism meant to be critics. Criticism happened to them, through a combination of luck and outrage, at moments in cities when building outstripped sense.”
This strikes as a contradictory statement, given the fact that Lange elucidates the career of a full-fledged architecture critic, with a strong background in art and architecture. There needs to be a sound understanding of art and architecture to critique it, I do not deny. But that should not prevent citizens from having an opinion on the very spaces they inhabit—they’re the users that we are often addressing. How many of these ‘unintentional critics’ can we name, off the top of our head?
Lange still has confidence in the critics in all of us—from your aunt from rural Raipur wanting to paint her house orange to the gen X influencer who is ever-so-busy hunting for the next instagrammable/tiktokable building backdrop. It brought me to a startling epiphany—we need to be critizens (citizen critics). The metric with which we compare and judge aesthetics differs from person to person. Your art professor might fancy the purity of Mondrian-Esque forms but that does not necessarily impinge on your grandmother’s love of fruity ornamentation (floral is too dainty for her taste anyway) in the hallway. But for a citizen to criticize keeping a professional critic’s yardstick in mind seems a little far-fetched. For that to happen, a robust culture of art and architecture must be fostered in society.