Architecture Critique Essay

I attended a panel discussion in New York City last night, sponsored by David Haskell’s Forum for Urban Design. The attendees, as you’ll see on the invitation, below, represented a number of hefty publications – meaning the combined critical and journalistic weight of the writers in the room was almost enough to redesign Manhattan…

Ultimately, the conversation was both stimulating and worth the trip – but I came away thinking two or three points still needed to be made. Although some of this did come up afterward, without controversy, whilst talking to David Haskell and the panelists, I do want to expand on and clarify some things.
First, early on, one of the panelists stated: “It’s not our job to say: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks…”
But of course it is!
That’s exactly your role; that’s exactly the built environment as it’s now experienced by the majority of the American public. “Architecture,” for most Americans, means Home Depot – not Mies van der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you’d have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan – or San Francisco, or Boston’s Back Bay.
You’d also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique – or celebrate – these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey – citing Le Corbusier – then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience: this was unanimously agreed upon by all of last night’s panelists.
Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don’t realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, can be criticized – if people don’t realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized – then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.
And no one says a thing.

To use a musical analogy: you can have a thousand and one interesting, inspired, intelligent, widely referring, enthusiastic, even opinion-changing conversations about music with almost anyone – including what that person listens to, why, what soundtracks they own, what “bip-hop” really means, whether or not “post-techno” exists, what they actually want to hear on the radio, should file-sharing be legalized, is Chris Cornell this generation’s Sammy Hagar (answer: yes), etc.
But to infer from that conversation – because nobody mentioned Stravinsky or Bach – that those people are philistines who don’t care about music is absurd. In other words, maybe my cousin can’t cite Deleuze and maybe he has no idea who Fumihiko Maki is, or even Frank Lloyd Wright, but does that mean he doesn’t care about architecture?
As it is, one critic writes for approval by another critic, who writes for another critic, who writes for some editor somewhere, or for the head of a department, and no one wants to step out of line. You want to talk about a videogame, or a Tim Burton film, or castles as described in the books of J.K. Rowling – but nope: it’s all Zaha, all the time.
Meanwhile, subscription rates are plummeting.

[Image: A single issue of The Architectural Review now costs US$22.99].

Further – though this may contradict what I say above – strong and interesting architectural criticism is defined by the way you talk about architecture, not the buildings you choose to talk about.
In other words, fine: you can talk about Fumihiko Maki instead of, say, Half-Life, or Doom, or super-garages, but if you start citing Le Corbusier, or arguing about whether something is truly “parametric,” then you shouldn’t be surprised if anyone who’s not a grad student, studying with one of your friends at Columbia, puts the article down, gets in a car – and drives to the mall, riding that knotwork of self-intersecting crosstown flyovers and neo-Roman car parks that most architecture critics are too busy to consider analyzing.
All along, your non-Adorno-reading former subscriber will be interacting with, experiencing, and probably complaining about architecture – but you’ve missed a perfect chance to join in.
Which brings me to two final points, and I’ll try to be quick:
1) Architectural criticism means writing about architecture, not writing about buildings.
Incredibly, in the midst of the talk last night, one of the panelists mentioned Archigram – almost wistfully – commenting that, despite a lack of built projects, Archigram still managed to dynamize and re-inspire the architectural scene of its era. This was done through ridiculous ideas, cheap graphics, a sense of humor, and enthusiasm. But, wait, what was –? Oh, that panelist must have forgotten, because he immediatetly went back to discussing buildings: not ideas, not enthusiasm, not architecture.
Architecture is not limited to buildings!
Temporary Air Force bases, oil derricks, secret prisons, multi-story car parks, J.G. Ballard novels, Robocop, installation art, China Miéville, Department of Energy waste entombment sites in the mountains of southwest Nevada, Roden Crater, abandoned subway stations, Manhattan valve chambers, helicopter refueling platforms on artificial islands in the South China Sea, emergency space shuttle landing strips, particle accelerators, lunar bases, Antarctic research stations, Cape Canaveral, day-care centers on the fringes of Poughkeepsie, King of Prussia shopping malls, chippies, Fat Burger stands, Ghostbusters, mega-slums, Taco Bell, Salt Lake City multiplexes, Osakan monorail hubs, weather-research masts on the banks of the Yukon, Hadrian’s Wall, Die Hard, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Akira, Franz Kafka, Gormenghast, San Diego’s exurban archipelago of bad rancho housing, Denver sprawl, James Bond films, even, yes, Home Depot – not every one of those is a building, but they are all related to architecture.
Every item in that list should be considered fair game for truly exciting, dynamic, and intellectually adventurous forms of architectural criticism. (And, obviously, many people already are writing about these things – including some of the panelists from last night. I’m just making a point).
2) Finally: The Archigram of today is not studying with Bernard Tschumi and openly imitating The Manhattan Transcripts. The Archigram of today works for Electronic Arts, has no idea who Walter Gropius is, and offers more insights about the future of urban design, space, and the built environment to more people, in more age groups, in more countries, than any practicing architectural critic will ever do, writing about Toyo Ito.
Videogames are the new architectural broadsides.

Being an architectural critic means writing about architecture – even writing about Le Corbusier and Toyo Ito, sure – but that means writing about architecture in its every manifestation: whether it’s built or not, designed by an architect or not, featured in a videogame or not, found anywhere other than inside a novel or not, whether it’s still intact or not – even whether it’s on planet Earth.
If a critic can get people to realize that the everyday architectural world of garages and malls and bad haunted house novels is worthy of architectural analysis – and that architecture is even exciting to discuss – then maybe the trade journals can get some of their subscribers back. At the very least, it’s worth a try.
Even if that means saying: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks.


Assigned Reading: Manfredo Tafuri, Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology, Contropiano 1 (January-April 1969)

In this essay, Tafuri examines architecture as an object within the city and transformations of architectural ideologies from the Enlightenment period to late Modernism via the lens of placing architecture within the urban setting as well as the role of urban planning on architecture. Focusing on the genesis of the rational plan as manifested in metropolitan form, Tafuri cites 17th and 18th-century notions of the city and its relationships to the “nature”, city as a natural object; 19th and 20th century modernism and pragmatism, city as a rational object; then ideologies of Le Corbusier that architecture as a cellular object which aggregates and forms into a whole; lastly, architecture in present day and its relationship to economy and capitalism as defining elements.

The essay begins with the Enlightenment and the urban design theories of Marc-Antoine Laugier, a proponent of the aesthetics of the picturesque, and his naturalism conception in planning as well as the idea of the city as forest. Laugier writes “Anyone who knows how to design a park well will draw up a plan according to which a city must be built in relation to its area and situation. There must be squares, intersections, streets. There must be regularity and whimsy, relationships and oppositions, chance elements that lend variety to the tableau, precise order in the details and confusion, chaos and tumult in the whole.” From Laugier, in order to find a solution to the problems generated by the cities, Tafuri points out the increasingly political role imposed on Enlightenment architects. Tafuri then cites Piranesi’s Campo Marzio as an experimental design tackling the problem of balancing opposites in the context of the city. This political role was also demonstrated in the urban design of Milan by Antolini, and his desire to inject a totalizing message through unified architectural form. The rise of American cities, built from the ground up in a relatively short time compared to the slow development of the European cities, presented new techniques of urban planning employing regular grids which gave the individual parts a degree of flexibility while maintaining the cohesiveness of the whole.

This exploration is done as a background to lead up to a discussion on the relationship between architecture and capitalism. Tafuri suggests that the modern architectural movement was born out of an overlap in the end of the Romantic era’s utopianism and the rise of realism, and that architecture was “the first discipline to accept the consequences of its commodification. Modern architecture was able to create an ideological climate for fully integrating design into a comprehensive project aimed at the reorganization of production, distribution and consumption within the capitalist city.” Hence, modernity according to Tafuri is an ongoing process which is linked to capitalism. Through analyzing the course of the modern movement as an ideological instrument of capital, Tafuri breaks the history into three successive phases from 1901 to 1939:

  • Formation of urban ideology as a way of overcoming architectural romanticism
  • The rise of artistic avant-gardes as ideological projects, which then hand those projects over to architecture and urban planning to realize those ideals in concrete form
  • Architectural ideology becomes the ideology of the plan

After the last stage, Tafuri suggests that architecture began to appear superfluous and marginal with respect to financial and political forces that took on greater positions of power in planning and distribution of capitalism. Phase one is characterized by the use of artwork by the avant-gardes as a field on which to project the feeling of “shock” typical of the urban experience and of living in a city which functions as a machine whose purpose is to extract value from its citizens and to provide a place for crowds to gather and to consume on a mass scale. That is “the city is an instrument for coordinating the cycle of production-distribution-consumption.”

Tafuri’s question lies in how the subject, the individual or art, seeks to protect its internal integrity and, at the same time, to accommodate itself to the “shock” of the metropolitan experience. The metropolis is the general form that is “assumed by the process of technical rationalization and objectification of social relations”.  It dissolves individuality into weightless, abstract levels and restructures subjectivity as reason and calculation.  To survive this life requires detachment and indifference. First, the exploded shock of the metropolis causes distress, and then detachment occurs; it is the subject itself that is the only impediment to smooth development of the fully rationalized technocratic plan of the total system of capital. By reducing the structure of experience to the pure object as a metaphor of the object commodity, the public becomes involving as a unified whole. This utopian agenda was what ended up formalizing a systematic pacification of capitalism.

The ideals of the avant-gardes gradually converged into one vision of the city as a place of chaos and order, and into a single ideal of translating chaos into meaning and value. The first and clearest example of this translation into reality was Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin”. Between World War I and II, the architects and planners associated with the Bauhaus adapted the techniques of design to the assembly line, and began to standardize parts, cells, blocks and cities into mass-produced kits. The city came to be seen as an aggregation of cells within an open plan. Once the city was understood as an instrument of production, an enormous social machine where the building is no longer an object, rather it is individual cells that create physical form. The architect begins to play the role of production for an assembly line and becomes an organizer of the process.

Le Corbusier pronounced that “the architect as an organizer not a producer of objects.” Tafuri suggests that Le Corbusier gradually tested and developed the most comprehensive system of rational plans at various scales, and implemented them into various projects. He saw his project as the rationalization of the total organization of the urban machine using the technique of organic unity. Rationalism, according to Tafuri, through its obsessive repetition, reduced the urban organism into a gigantic, useless machine.  In attempting to absorb all of its own contradictions, individual fragments collide against one another. Tafuri paints the picture of the city as a machine with an inherent glitch or virus. The city’s arrangement must occur so that the magnificence of the whole will be subdivided into infinity of details. Each is different from one another so that there are always new interpretations arising; it is through this apparent chaos or irregularity that characterizes great cities.

Through time the architect has gradually become removed from the creation and process associated with architectural design, and the first stages of this is exhibited by the architect as a manager, a manger of the process that create the architecture, not so must the creator of the built environment. This disassociation between architect and building is further intensified through technology. Architect loses its touch and focus on part to part relations and begins to focus on a technological solution for the problem as a whole. This results in the architect being less involved at each stage and more an overseer of process, an organizer of the operations.

Additonally, it is a regressive, utopian illusion if anyone argues that architecture can have any other role in the context of capitalism. Such illusions proposing architecture for a liberated society must be rejected and dismissed. Tafuri is unyielding in his condemnation of “leftist” architects, and he suggests that ‘there is no salvation to the commodification of modern art to be found by wandering restlessly through “Labyrinths” of images so polyvalent they remain mute, nor by shutting oneself up in the sullen silence of geometries content with their own perfection.

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