By Nancy Levinson
"Architecture criticism has devolved over recent years, 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 fulltime 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's 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?"
With this rousingly unceremonious take down, the editors of The Architect's Newspaper, Cathy Lang Ho and William Menking, framed their recent assessment of the architectural-critical scene (published on November 16, 2005). You might already have seen the eight-page, multivocal feature, which mixed interviews with long-established newspaper critics (this group—presumably exempt from the devolutionary drift— includes Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, Michael Sorkin, Robert Campbell, Deyan Sudjic, and the late Allan Temko) and appraisals by Joan Ockman, Marisa Bartolucci, and Vittorio Gregotti of various contemporary newspaper and mag-
Contributing editor Nancy Levinson was cofounding editor of Harvard Design Magazine and currently writes the Web log "Pixel Points" for the online Arts Journal.
azine critics. Skeptical readers might want to puzzle out the politics (gender, geographic, generational) that produced the particular selection of critics to consider. But overall, the section is a telling summary, 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 says, "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 does anyone acknowledge the rise of the World Wide Web, the pervasive presence of the Internet, the digital revolution that is transforming journalistic practice and architecture culture. "Alas, there's no Lewis Mumford on the horizon," writes Bartolucci. Who would disagree? But of course, the real issue is not that there is no Lewis Mumford on the horizon; the real issue—the deeper issue—is that the socioeconomic and professional-cultural frameworks that supported his career— and those of the generation that followed—have weakened to the point of disintegration. Mumford Lewis began writing about architecture in the 1920s; Huxtable and Temko in the '50s; Goldberger, Campbell, and Sorkin in the '70s—in retrospect the twilight of a still-analog era when print was the unrivaled medium of intellectual life, when serious-minded dailies and periodicals could aim to guide the culture, to be "general interest," "large circulation," sometimes even "for-profit." For clearly, critical influence depends not only on the ability of the critic, but also on the presence of a large and ready readership. Mumford became hugely influential—Colin Rowe called him "an American Ruskin"—not just because of his
capacious intellect and prodigious output, but also because in mid-20th-century America there existed something like a cohesive culture— a culture with discernible bounds and common touchstones, in which there flourished a lively journalism by public intellectuals, and a certain style of big-picture, ultraconfident criticism: Mumford on architecture, Clement Greenberg on art, Edmund Wilson on books, Susan Sontag on just about everything.
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," worry the editors of The Architect's Newspaper, with reason. But where is that dialogue likely to occur? Many mainstream venues are now retrenching: Major newspapers scramble to survive (at The Boston Globe, for instance, several veteran arts reporters recently accepted the paper's buyout offer, leaving the culture desk depressingly depopulated), and intellectually weighty periodicals persevere, usually as nonprofits, official or de facto. (Harper's has long been underwritten by the exists. MacArthur Foundation, for in oc <
Critique example, and for years the red ink of The Atlantic has been tolerated by its deep-pocketed businessman-owner David Bradley, and before him, Mort Zuckerman.) Meanwhile, fledgling new media are generating flabbergasting quantities of content, an ever-present online multiverse of image, information, text, and hypertext; and in this illimitable process they are also generating a newer, narrower definition of "public," or rather "publics," as broadcast slivers into narrowcast, and as the old-style, top-down discourse makes way for the looser, more participatory dynamics of online exchange. None of which is to assert anything as categorical as "the end of print," but rather to recognize that old and new media together will shape the future of design critique, and that this future won't look much like the past. As Kurt Andersen— whose polymathic career includes a stint as architecture critic for
Time—argued recently in New York magazine: "Paper media today are ... like sailing ships around 1860—still dominant but enjoying their last hurrah."
The outlines of a multimedia architecture culture are still faint, 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 recently this was mainly a matter of keeping up with the foreign journals and new monographs, attending lectures and exhibitions, and (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—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 and there'd be several dozen new projects to view. Now the pace is nowhere so leisurely; now you can boot up the laptop and click on Archinect or Arch News Now or butterpaper australasia or Design Observer or dutcharchitects.com— to gloss through the first four letters of my alphabetized bookmarks—and navigate the endlessly interlinking and hyperlinking world of omnibus portals, a virtual portfolio of global design, the contents of which are continuously expanding.
You can see the dilemma for architecture criticism—at least as construed as a type of arts review, the weightiness of which hinges inevitably on 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? 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 multiplex and a Netflix subscription. In disadvantageous contrast, the architecture critic is confronted with
FLEDGLING NEW MEDIA ARE GENERATING FLABBERGASTING QUANTITIES OF CONTENT AND A NEWER, NARROWER DEFINITION OF "PUBLIC" OR "PUBLICS."
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