Criticism of criticism of …

Proposed design for the Zonghwei Cultural Complex, China. (ArchDaily.com)

Proposed design for the Zonghwei Cultural Complex, China. (ArchDaily.com)

That’s the title of a famous H.L. Mencken essay called “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism” about the convolutions of critical theoretics. An article by Mark Minkjan in one of my favorite blogs, Failed Architecture, is called “ArchDaily and Architecture Criticism.” It is a critique of the online architectural journal ArchDaily.com, and could be called “Criticism of Criticism.” It asserts that Failed Architecture is an antidote to ArchDaily, which is only partly true.

Minkjan points out that ArchDaily just reprints architects’ fatuous assessments of their own projects. But he does not admit that modern architecture (the only kind that appears in ArchDaily and every other mainstream architectural journal) is itself fatuous and impossible to criticize coherently because it has no conventional standards by which to measure a project against any other project or all projects. Overlooking this fact undermines FA’s critique, which is often valid but beside the point. One paragraph in his article describes a round-robin of critiques that spins off into space and then returns to zoom up its own rear aperture:

Rory Stott, contributing editor to ArchDaily, defended ArchDaily in response to an article published by The Architectural Review’s Phinneas Harper on Uncube, which was (via another article by Elvia Wilk) triggered by Jan Loerakker’s article on Failed Architecture. Phinneas Harper called for the de-democratization of the architectural press, arguing that it only leaves room for content [that] users are likely to click on (because clicks equal advertising income). Stott responded to Harper’s piece, being honest about ArchDaily’s model but also pointing out that the media outlet tries to generate original and critical content. He mentions a few examples, all written by himself. These all avoid criticism, instead side-stepping the issue with positive and descriptive terms.

The post of mine that you are reading now is criticism of criticism of criticism. Most architecture criticism misses the point, and without acknowledging that, criticism of such criticism misses the point cubed. I thought Minkjan’s reference to Phinneas Harper’s call, on Uncube, for “the de-democratization of the architectural press” was hilarious. As if there were any regard for the public in any of those journals today. There is not. The only articles allowed are articles about modern architecture. Period.

The Failed Architecture piece links to another FA piece, by Jan Loerakker, called “The Day Architects Stopped Reading Newspapers.” He quotes a typical example of the usual architectural self-pleasuring:

“The contemporary design of the main centres aims to characterize the city’s modernization, whilst capturing local cultural references. The building facades pay homage to local stone paintings and weaving patterns of sand-barriers found in regional deserts. Building materials further associate with local surroundings through different textures and colour palettes.” – Zonghwei Cultural Complex (ArchDaily 2013)

Yeah, sure! The passage describes the building design on top of this post. “Capturing local cultural references” indeed! Just look at it! Loerakker describes his amazement at “how big international firms like KPF or HOK and large governmental institutions produce the same kind of a-critical design, glossy imagery and sweet texts to sell cities built from scratch.” He adds: “Not only do project descriptions like these erode the meaning of words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘public space,’ it also raises a profound doubt about the quality and diversity of the proposed schemes.”

You bet it does, but the critics don’t listen to their own intuitive skepticism. Loerakker and his fellow critics of criticism criticize with considerable validity, but still they do not even begin to approach the degree of criticism their targets deserve. That is what this blog, Architecture Here and There, is for. The answer to all of the questions raised by the critics and their critics may be found in the past, until the point where thousands of years of progress in architecture was rejected and ejected by the modernist movement.

Unlike architecture today, traditional building evolved on a trial-and-error basis, building on the best practices of predecessors to determine what works – much as man has done with every other field of his endeavor, much as every biological species has done through natural selection, and much as Nature intends. It is entirely appropriate to step back in order to reacquire the proper road forward. But that is the last thing you will ever read in any mainstream architecture criticism or in the critique of that criticism.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Criticism of criticism of …

  1. Thanks, Rodney. I’ll be down in Charleston in April but can’t venture farther, alas. I hope you will shoot me some drawings.

    Like

  2. Rodney says:

    Good one David. LOL. Come down for a visit sometime. I want you to look at Mims Park. Getting closer to a start date.

    Like

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