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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Monday, January 16, 2006
    Sidewalk Critics

    Here in Boston 2006 has begun gloomy and overcast, snowy and rainy and icy—excellent weather for curling up with the papers and catching up on the year's-end most-notable-of-2005 lists. But the latest round of annual print retrospection has seemed to me curiously unsatisfying—which is not to say that the architecture critics of our major papers didn't find worthwhile issues to articulate (Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times zeroes in on the increasingly distressing gap between image and power: the fact that architects, although more celebrated than ever, remain politically ineffectual) and admirable buildings to applaud (Robert Campbell in the Boston Globe listed more than a dozen projects, focusing on museums around the world and science buildings in metropolitan Boston; rather less energetically, Nicolai Ouroussoff in the New York Times expressed enthusiasm for three new buildings: Zaha Hadid's BMW plant in Leipzig and science center in Wolfsburg, and Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música in Porto).

    No, the problem with the end-of-year summaries hasn't really to do with any of the individual critics or their surveys; the problem is that these annual lists expose what have become the limitations of the enterprise. The shortcomings of mainstream architecture criticism have, of course, been the focus of ongoing scrutiny—not to say of unflattering comparisons with that marvelous mid-century moment when critics like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and Reyner Banham managed to be both erudite and popular. The latest such scrutiny you might already have seen—I refer to the extended treatment of the topic several weeks ago in The Architect's Newspaper (no longer accessible, alas, on the paper's website). The paper's editors, Cathy Lang Ho and William Menking, do not pussyfoot around the problem. "Architecture criticism has devolved over recent years," they write, "from being consciousness-raising, progressive, and pleasurable to read—a standard that Ada Louise Huxtable worked hard to define from the moment she became The New York Times's and the country's first full-time architecture critic over 40 years ago—to being ad hominem, celebrity-obsessed, object-centric, and obtuse—a trail blazed by Herbert Muschamp, who was the Times architecture critic for 12 years before retiring last year. Is it any wonder that no one—professional or lay reader—wants to read criticism anymore?" From this blunt beginning the editors then orchestrate an eight-page, multi-vocal feature that mixes interviews with long-established newspaper critics (this group—presumably exempt from the devolutionary drift—includes Ada Louise Huxtable, Allan Temko, Paul Goldberger, Michael Sorkin, Robert Campbell, and Deyan Sudjic) and insightful overviews by Joan Ockman, Marisa Bartolucci, and Vittorio Gregotti. Skeptical readers might want to puzzle out the politics (gender, geographic, aesthetic) that resulted in the particular selection of critics to interview and to review. But overall the section is a smart summary of the scene, and it hits a lot of the sensitive spots, including the fascination with fame ("chasing celebrities," in Huxtable's succinct dismissal) and the insidious effects of the brand-market mentality (or, as the irrepressible Sorkin puts it: "The majority of critics nowadays are simply flacks: There are too many fashionistas and too few street fighters.")

    Yet nowhere does this ambitious survey hit the most sensitive spot of all. Nowhere do any of the critics acknowledge the rise of the World Wide Web, the pervasive presence of the Internet, the digital revolution that is altering both journalistic practice and architecture culture. "Alas, there's no Lewis Mumford on the horizon," writes Marisa Bartolucci. Who would disagree? But I wonder whether the real issue is not that there is no Lewis Mumford on the horizon; I wonder whether the real issue—the deeper issue—is that the socio-economic and professional-intellectual frameworks that supported his career—and those of the generation that followed—have weakened to the point of disintegration. Mumford began writing about architecture in the 1920s, Huxtable and Temko in the '50s, Campbell and Sorkin and Goldberger in the '70s—in retrospect the twilight of a still-analog era when print was the unrivaled medium of intellectual life, when serious-minded newspapers and periodicals could still aim to guide the culture, to be "general interest," sometimes "large circulation," and not infrequently "for-profit." For clearly critical influence depends not just upon the ability of the critic but upon the presence of a large and ready readership. Mumford became hugely influential—Colin Rowe called him "an American Ruskin"—not only because of his capacious intellect and prodigious output, but also because in mid-20th-century America there still existed something like a cohesive culture, a culture with discernible bounds, common touchstones, acknowledged authorities. It was a culture in which there flourished a lively and combative public-intellectual journalism, and a certain style of big-picture, ultra-confident criticism—Mumford on architecture, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg on art, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal on books, James Agee and Robert Warshow and Pauline Kael on the movies, etc. etc.

    Today that cohesion has all but disappeared; for years now the general-interest consensus has been fracturing apart, and not much of it has survived the rise of the decentralizing technologies of digital communication. "Architecture criticism has lost its place in public dialogue," write the editors of The Architect's Newspaper. This seems unfortunately to be the case. But it might then be useful to ask: Where is that public dialogue likely to take place? What might be its sturdiest platforms? Many of the professionalized mainstream venues are now retrenching: major metropolitan newspapers scramble to survive (at the Boston Globe, half a dozen veteran arts reporters recently accepted the paper's buyout offer, leaving the culture desk depressingly depopulated) and intellectually ambitious periodicals persevere usually as non-profits, official or de facto (Harper's is underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, and for years the red ink of The New Yorker was tolerated by its corporate parent Condé Nast); meanwhile fledgling new media generate flabbergasting quantities of content, an ever-present online multiverse of image, information, text and hypertext. Which is not to assert anything as categorical or apocalyptic as "the end of print"; but which is to suggest that old and new media together are now shaping the discursive culture of the field, and that the future of design criticism depends in some measure on the ability of print and web publishers to develop new and prosperous journalistic platforms. Four decades ago Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, and in the very first sentence he got straight to the point: “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” It is still a bit of a shock, and now we might rephrase: "The media are the message."

    The outlines of a multi-media, print-and-web architecture culture are still emerging, but it's not too soon to discern one of the big challenges for criticism: the Web has made the culture unprecedentedly—amazingly and impossibly—global. Architecture has been international in outlook for years, but until lately this was mainly a matter of keeping up with the foreign journals and new monographs, attending lectures and exhibits, (sometimes even) traveling. Today this manageable world-view has exploded into a superabundance of instant-access globalism at once exhilarating and exhausting. It's not that more architecture is being made around the world, it's that we are more aware of the architecture being made around the world. Years ago—way back in the 20th century—you might have sprung for a subscription to The Architectural Review, or El Croquis or A+U or Baumeister, and every few weeks the periodicals would appear in the post and there'd be a few dozen new projects to view. Now the pace is nowhere so leisurely; now you can boot up the laptop and click on Archinect, or Arcspace, or Arch News Now, or butter paper australasia or Design Observer or dutcharchitects.com—to gloss quickly through just the first four letters of my alphabetized bookmarks—and navigate the endlessly interlinking and hyperlinking world of omnibus portals—a virtual portfolio of global architecture, the contents of which are continuously shifting and expanding.

    You can see the challenge for architecture criticism—at least as construed as a type of arts review, the weightiness of which hinges inevitably upon the degree to which the reviewer's experience is comprehensive. How can any individual critic gain comprehensive experience of a field whose boundaries have become so vast, so perceptually extensive? The ambitious literary critic can place an order for next-day delivery and stack a season's reading on the bookshelf; the movie critic can become an encyclopedic authority on the basis of trips to the local multiplex and a Netflix subscription. In disadvantageous contrast, the architecture critic is confronted by a multi-continental production, the range and plenitude of which defy any effort to achieve extensive knowledge. Just to remain au courant with the far-flung projects of the big-name firms would require tireless travel (not to mention an ample expense account), and it certainly wouldn't leave much time to track the less-promoted work of promising young practitioners. How to choose what to review? How to define the critical beat?

    Nowadays the pressure, or the temptation, is to pursue the global beat, which means usually the big-name beat: a natural temptation, for the global is glamorous. Yet the global beat tends to produce criticism that seems paradoxically slight, criticism that is noncontextual, episodic and fragmentary, directed more to remarkable moments than to complex narratives, the kind of criticism that Ho and Menking characterize as "celebrity-obsessed, object-centric." But what if these characteristics say less about the talents of the critics than the limits of the genre? Herbert Muschamp was notorious for his loyalty to "a small coterie of avant-garde architects" (to quote Clay Risen in the New York Observer); but in retrospect this might be understood also as tacit admission that there really is only so much that anyone can experience and assimilate. This might account too for Ouroussoff's listing of a mere three projects by two architects (talk about a small coterie) in his roundup of the year's best.

    So here it might be worth considering that much of the criticism that seems now so exemplary was largely local: that critics like Mumford, Huxtable, and Sorkin all found their voices—hit their critical strides—as keen and close observers of the New York scene. Mumford, who began writing the "Skyline" column for The New Yorker in the early '30s (and would continue until the early '60s) was both a champion of progressive architecture and a five-borough populist; he covered not just major projects like Rockefeller Center and the '39 World's Fair but also cheap lunchrooms, shop windows, neighborhood playgrounds, and public housing. In the '60s and '70s, Huxtable eloquently advocated for both high-modern design and historic preservation, but she was especially expert at teasing out the intricacies of bureaucratic planning and real estate financing, the politics and money that were transforming the multi-layered and fine-grained prewar city into the world capital of what she called "death by development." And Sorkin, Village Voice critic in the Age of Reagan, carried on where the other two left off: to read his Voice pieces now is to revisit a city in the early stages of what has since metastasized into full-blown Disneyfication and terminal Trumpitude. (Recommendations: Sidewalk Critic, a delightful selection of Mumford's '30s criticism; Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, a collection of Huxtable's journalism for the New York Times; and Exquisite Corpse, Sorkin's cris de coeur of the '80s.) And of course the tradition of local criticism, of ongoing and detailed exploration of a metropolis, continues today in the thoughtful work of Blair Kamin, at the Chicago Tribune, and David Dillon, at the Dallas Morning News.

    I do realize that good criticism, and a lively critical culture, cannot be reduced to any simple opposition between "local" and "global," and that ambitious writers will always seek wide experience; and in any case, the local and global exist on a continuum, with each informing and influencing the other. But it does seem that much of the best criticism has resulted from sustained and ardent engagement with a particular place: engagement that allows the critical observer to gain comprehensive knowledge not just of the architecture of the place—the ordinary as well as exceptional buildings—but also of the diverse forces—civic, social, political, economic, regulatory, demographic—that shape the architecture. Mumford never studied architecture—his last degree was his diploma from Stuyvesant High School—but he was an indefatigable and brilliant student of New York City, which he called his "true university."

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link



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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


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