Observations On Unhelpful Architectural Writing


Architectural critics, like all art critics, are stuck between bald snap judgment and the extension of art history known as architectural history. It's a strange place to be, and the critics we admire tend to create new conversations about architecture in general, through their insightful opinions (IE Paul Goldberger) or their insightful riffing on architectural history (IE Robin Evans, RIP).

Click Continue Reading for the rest of the critique of the critics.

Because we are more interested in possibilities and solutions, we do not usually mention bad examples of architectural writing. It's too easy to find, and it's not a battle worth fighting. But it is from time to time helpful to point out what we think is repetitively unproductive. We've mentioned one architectural writer for the New York Times who consistently takes whatever the celebutantes in the architecture world are giving out, without any usual journalist due diligence. We feel it is important mentioning this article by Robert Campbell, which ostensibly discusses Norman Foster's Hearst Tower. Mr. Campbell takes the tired, facile (our opinion!) argument that Modernism Is Bad Because It Does Not Look Human (whatever that means, but his opinion!), and that because the building has not picked up an affectionate nickname like Foster's Gherkin Building (retarded nickname, our opinion!) it is All Wrong. Sticking point after sticking point is raised (the relationship of the tower to its antique base, for instance), and Mr. Campbell proves himself right by going back to what the building is saying, as if it telephoned him.

The entry to the building is a good example of this. His beefs with it are that 1. Once inside one isn't aware of the old structure you are inside of, 2. that the waterfall is cliche, and 3. that you can't go up the escalators unless you work in the building. To which some verifiable facts are available: 1. The interior of the old Hearst ashtray (as we have affectionately nicknamed it) had few interesting ornaments in a tiny lobby (I used to walk by this lobby every day before the Tower was built); there was no other interior ornament to be aware of, so Foster lined the interior of the shell with a material that recalls the exterior. It is a simple solution, and perhaps not to one's liking, but Mr. Campbell doesn't really explain what "being aware of" actually means. X-ray vision?. 2. Opinion. We think it's beautiful, even when we pass the lobby and get a glimpse of the glass glowing with daylight and water from our taxis when we pass by. 3. This is true for every corporate tower in Manhattan, so what's the point of mentioning it?

We appreciate voices like Mr. Campbell's in the big and messy conversation about architecture. Conservative voices leaven the obsession with newness and celebrity. But in our view, his arguments are not well served by critiquing a project through the same old Modernism Is Bad And Does Not Love Us Back. Riffing on his final graph, his is an argument with no place, an argument that seems to be applied to every modern project, regardless of what's actually there.


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