Self-taught as an architecture practitioner. What is the vernacular if not the built remnants of the self taught
How to write about architecture
I write for people who interact with the built environment as users and consumers and less so as designers. Architecture for regular people. The work of criticism is public facing but theory isn’t. theory is intimate, criticism isn’t, it’s all about the performance, so why not make it a good performance.
Here’s an example of some architecture writing about Alison and Peter Smithson, the inventors of New Brutalism in England.
First, Reyner Banham in The New Brutalism:
The most obstinate protagonists of that type of architecture at the time in London were Alison and Peter Smithson, designers of the Miesian school at Hunstanton which is generally taken to be the first Brutalist building. The term ‘Brutalist’ was doubtless applied to their ideas lightly and in passing, but it stuck to them for two reasons: firstly, because they were prepared to make something serious of it; and, secondly, because Peter Smithson was known to his friends during his student days as‘Brutus’from a supposed resemblance to classical busts of the Roman hero. […] When Peter Smithson finally committed the phrase to print in December of 1953 the situation had already developed so far that no word but brutalism could have ever served to express what the Smithsons and many others of their generation urgently felt they must express. Even if they had, as yet, no architecture to express it.
Now Kenneth Frampton in Modern Architecture: A Critical History:
Split between a sympathy for old-fashioned working-class solidarity and the promise of consumerism, the Smithsons were ensared in the intrinsic ambivalence of an assumed populism. Throughout the second half of the 1950s they moved away from their initial synpathy for the lifestyle of the proletariat towards more middle-class ideals that depended for their appeal on both conspicuous consumption and mass ownership of the automobile […] Meanwhile at a domestic scale they continued to regard the chromium consumer product in the crumbling tenement or the plastic interior as the ultimate liberating icon of their concillioatory style.
How do we blend the familiarity and humor of Banham with the sharp criticism of Frampton?
Sprawl is bad except in writing, its good in writing. Architecture writing likes to be dense, which can be useful for the production of knowledge but doesn’t make for very good reading. That kind of analysis is important, but the job of criticism is something else.
Critics inform people outside of achitcecture. Some come out of architecture schools, others were self taught. When every newspaper had all these different critics (in the middle of the century), the goal of criticism was clearly the general public. they translated matters of aesthetics, history, politics for the public.
Ostensibly they write about theatre, art, design, literature or whatever, but really they’re asking how you can use those things as a prism through which to see everything else.
Manfredo Tafuri: The Theories and History of Architecture (1960). He says that because of the way art is made, the critic has an inherently problematic relationship with their subject, there’s a complicity between criticism and activity.
The state of criticism
Three layers of publications:
- Academy (Log). When you read these it’s easy to forget that the subject is in fact buildings. Whatever is hot in the philosophy department at the moment.
- Tradepress (Etropol) geared toward the field and the practice of architecure or architectural history (like Artnet and Hyperallergic in the fine art world)
- PR-chitecture (Dezeen): Architectural vaporwave, way easier than actualy making buildings. get attention for your brand. stuff that never materialises, architecture for the click economy. See No, ‘PR-chitecture’ won’t save us from the pandemic (2020) in the Architect’s Newspaper.
You can criticise this stuff on aesthetic grounds, but the base issue is that architecture in an inequitable society will always be inequitable, and will resist or absorb the project of criticism.
This image-production is essentially safe (hence profitable) because it doesn’t realy challenge anything. Big firms get rich, and everyonce in a while they’ll throw something to a smaller firm to give the appearance of opportunity.
PR-chitecture is a failiure of criticisim, curation, journalistic adaptation to the media landscape (as well as architecture).
A new criticism
We’re at the end of print architecture criticism, and there isn’t really a viable replacement yet. How long does it take for a writer or publication to become financially stable enough to become good and useful. Mcmansion Hell worked out, individual projects aren’t the way to build a new architecture criticism. It has to be a collective project.
Letter to an architect in the Architectural Review.
Because the new criticism is a collective project, it doesn’t matter if you call yourself a critic or a practitioner or someone who draws wall sections all day. The new criticism should be accessible and irreverent. Alternative funding models lilke Patreon (as opposed to the Subscription/Commission model)
Funny captions on big houses is effective because it teaches people to look at buildings and their environment and think about society, power, culture.
We can build something new in tone, choice of language, visual cues and medium , but still constructive. We can sustain criticism by giving it a new audience. Criticism is an innate sense, it’s just rarely cultivated. People already do architecture ciriticism when they talk about borders, labour practicises.
Our duty as critics is to educate and empower the critic and others.