If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It: or, What’s the Point of Architecture Criticism?

Simon Sellars Architecture & urbanism

want blood

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for Refuel Victoria’s Monday Night Talks. I was on a panel of four responding to the topic ‘Blood-Sport or Boosterism?, explained by the event organisers like so:

“What’s the point of architecture criticism? What are its conventions and can we productively subvert them? Who speaks and writes about architecture and why? How might we broaden the conversation about architecture and what it means? Of late, there has been a good deal of debate about criticism and how to do it. This panel discussion uses a new book edited by Naomi Stead, Semi-Detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture, to open up a more complex account of architecture criticism and the role it can play in architecture and in the broader culture.”

Besides myself, speakers included Naomi Stead, Ian McDougall (Ashton Raggatt McDougall) and Tom Morgan (co-editor, Post magazine). The chair was architecture critic Justine Clark.

Originally published on Australian Design Review, 25 July 2012.

The question for the panel is: “What is the point of architecture criticism?”. I aim to find a way into the ‘problem’ by addressing a few interrelated points. I speak from the perspective of an editor and publisher of architecture reviews, in particular the humble project review – a form of criticism maligned in recent times. Examples of this particular stance can be found in the recent online debate about the MCA, as recorded on our website, in which architect Sam Marshall said “most architectural criticism is drivel,” and in Alan Davies’s recent post on Crikey, ‘Are architecture reviews critical?’. According to Davies, architecture reviews in professional journals “usually present only one solution (the adopted one!) and tailor and massage the constraints to flatter that choice – to make it seem like it was the inevitable, best and only one. More often than not these ‘reviews’ are written by the architects themselves and consist largely of pictures. Even those written by others are rarely critical and seldom in any way that isn’t awfully nice and awfully oblique. They’re really fluff pieces, not reviews in any meaningful sense of the word. There’s little of the plain-speaking criticism a novelist or painter might expect from a critic.”

I’m disappointed in Davies’ assertions, as he is a critic whose opinions generally stimulate me, but also because he appears to be recanting a 2010 article he wrote on the subject, almost identically titled (‘Is architectural criticism critical?‘). There, he wrote: “I would love to see architectural reviews [that discuss] to what extent the architectural outcome was retarded or advanced by the actions of other parties such as the owner and the builder… [However] While authors depend on reviews for sales and some architects perhaps benefit from them, developers and owners generally do not. They might even be damaged by a negative appraisal. So any critique of private developments that is truly critical would have to step carefully around commercially sensitive issues.”

As Davies’ 2010 article suggests, it’s an act of bad faith to equate architecture criticism with literary criticism, art criticism or even film criticism, although confusingly, Davies, the 2012 model, is hardly the first to suggest that it should be treated as such, with many of the most strident voices in support of similar ideas coming from architects themselves. Architecture criticism, and I’m talking about the project review of the type found in both AR and AA, and which Davies, 2012-style, is pointing his gun at, is in fact a peculiar act of collusion between architect and reviewer. There is no getting around that. Most obviously, the reviewer needs the architect’s help or even permission in accessing the building, particularly if it is a private home. Often the architect has paid for the photography that appears in the magazine and also owns the rights to the plans that are published alongside the review and photos. For all of these reasons, there is an unspoken burden of responsibility on the reviewer to not shed blood, to not stick the boot in, to not claim that the building doesn’t work or has failed its civic or public function, to skirt around the issue of how it has failed the client or the taxpayer. After all, the architect’s eyes are watching – they’ve gone to all that trouble! And, to be quite blunt, architects also tend to inhabit thin skins.

A good writer will of course find ways to test such constraints, using their wordsmithing to craft constructive criticism. For my part, I have never instructed a reviewer to hold back. I would also never censor a writer who submitted a review containing very strong opinions. However, the reality is that a great deal of self-policing occurs. If the reviewer is an architect, invariably they will not want to be seen to be attacking a peer, nor will they want to jeopardise potential collaborations or future job opportunities – this appears to be particularly so at a time when so few job opportunities seem to be on offer. If the reviewer is not an architect then those pressures obviously don’t apply, although the burden on the publisher remains. If we annoy an architect by publishing a less than enthusiastic review, then there’s a reasonable chance that the practice won’t give us access to their best projects in the future, and as a commercially driven, advertiser-beholden publication that is a worry. I’m not saying I’d pull the review necessarily, or rewrite it, but it is a concern – advertisers, after all, want to be situated next to the best projects. This is peculiar to the profession: architectural criticism, in this form, is what it is and there’s little point in pretending otherwise. After all, a film reviewer doesn’t need to ask a director for permission to view the film before reviewing it.

Yet Davies and certain architects, including some in the audience at Monday night’s discussion, feel that the gloves should come off, that we should say in plain-speaking terms when, why and exactly how a building does not work. My response? If you, the architecture profession, want a more ‘robust’ culture of criticism, in the ways that you have outlined, then that is up to you, as architects, to accept the consequences. I place the onus back on the profession because I’m somewhat bemused that publishers are being held accountable for this particular ‘problem’. If you want us to ‘spill blood’ in a review, then I’m fully prepared to spill blood, and to unleash my review-dogs of war, but don’t then turn around and say you’re not going to publish with us again, or that you’re going to sue. I don’t believe in negative or hurtful criticism for the sake of it, but I do believe – like Davies, funnily enough – in honest, constructive criticism. And sometimes that can sting.

This brings me to another point: the threat of libel. When I first started atAR I was warned that defamation laws in Australia are particularly vicious and unforgiving when it comes to criticising buildings, no matter how reasoned or articulate the opinion may be. In this country architecture writers can be and have been sued, and Alan Davies knows this. In his 2010 article, he acknowledged: “The law has long made it hard to review buildings critically. In 1979, architect John Andrews won a defamation action against Fairfax for claims in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Belconnen office complex he designed ‘leaked like a sieve, was an administrative nightmare, a property manager’s nightmare and, in effect, a security risk’. The leaking issue is something that presumably could be established factually but the other points are much harder to pin down.” From talking to other architecture editors, publishers and writers in Australia, I know that this overarching, unspoken threat is not confined to one misty incident in time.

One way to get around the constraints of the project review is to publish features alongside them that talk in more general terms, that are ‘no holds barred’ about the problems and challenges facing Australian architecture. But even then, and I don’t exaggerate, I’ve received semi-serious death threats and half-serious threats of legal action for publishing certain pieces – and I’ve only been in the job just over a year. Let me assure all of you: in the journals at least, there is no conspiracy to protect certain reputations via ‘fluffy’ architectural criticism, or to preserve a certain elite, or to prop up whatever other silly charges get levelled at us. To return to the ‘blood sport’ metaphor, and to quote AC/DC this time: “If you want blood, you’ve got it”. But then my warning would be: “Be careful what you wish for.”

To conclude, I feel that a large part of my role as AR editor is to involve the public in the debate about architecture and the built environment, to widen and enhance the conversation by capturing and including the public voice. In that sense, I agree with architect Don Bates, who in the audience on Monday posed a provocative question to the panel: What does it really matter if architecture criticism, as we once knew it, no longer exists? Maybe we’re looking at the wrong model: Why do architects want to be assessed in the same terms as film or book or art reviews? Again, the humble architecture project review is what it is, unless you, the profession, say otherwise.

In this debate about ‘toothless’ architecture criticism, and the point of the critical discipline, people frequently point to the demise of long-form architecture writing as some sort of harbinger of doom, as if it means the profession itself no longer matters, but a lack of writing about architecture should not be confused with a lack of interest, public or otherwise. On Twitter and in the margins of other social media, such as the comments sections of online newspapers, there is a very vigorous, very robust and often blood-spattered public debate happening about our built environment involving architects, planners, developers and the public alike. The interest is there but the means to tap into it in a meaningful, analytical way is perhaps not, at least as long as the obsession with the ‘review’ remains – or at least, a nostalgic view of what a review is supposed to be (as local lore states, real blood, alongside the metaphorical variety, was spilled in the old days of RMIT’s Half Time Club, a legendary live forum for architectural debate). As another audience member, Ammon Beyerle, suggested, perhaps it’s not the public that lacks the language to deal with architecture – perhaps it’s architects who no longer have the language to communicate with the public.

For me, asking the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” is to ask the wrong question, and it’s no wonder that we are, in a sense, getting the ‘wrong’ answers by asking it. After all, this exact same debate crops up in a circular fashion in Australia, and there are online records of similar debates, couched in remarkably similar terms, being conducted as far back as 2003. Has anything been resolved in the meantime? I don’t want to sound entirely cynical by posing that question, as I wonder if the debate crops up in times when the profession itself – let alone the sideshow of criticism – is perceived to be ‘in crisis’. Was that the case in 2003? I can’t say for sure as I wasn’t on the scene then, although I can say that ‘crisis mode’ is certainly the perception today from many quarters. Perhaps asking the question, then, is a sign of the profession wanting to claw some credibility back for architecture, to make architecture mean something again in the face of rampant development, artificially intelligent consumerism and sentient capitalism. And that’s valuable – it’s an undeniably valid concern. Yet I still think the debate can be productively shifted sideways without losing that core ideal.

This brings me to my final point: that perhaps the role of the architectural advocate, rather than the critic, will play a more crucial and central role in not only educating the public about good design but also actively involving all of us – critics, architects or otherwise – in the conversation about good design and liveable cities. Here in Melbourne, for example, Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Christine Phillips and their Amsterdam-based colleague Rory Hyde fulfil that role, with their fingers in publishing, radio and TV pies. Learned, articulate and witty, their response to the built environment, and their advocacy of it, is never dumbed down or less than serious, yet it is always engaging. It’s not simple cheerleading, either – it’s an honest appraisal of what makes good built design, and the implications if that is ignored. Given an even bigger stage, I have no doubt that they would continue to educate an even wider public interested in the makeup of our cities. I like to think that the project reviews I’ve commissioned for ARbegin to approach this new mode, too.

I’ll end with two quotes that articulate the idea of advocacy for me, and that also render further the question “what is the point of architecture criticism?” as redundant. The first quote is from Kieran Long, the English architecture writer, who participated in a similar panel organised by Domus magazine. On Twitter, Long said: “Any long essay on the future of architectural criticism is about the most pointless piece of writing imaginable.” When pressed, he responded: “I was part of the Domus event, and it was an aimless discussion. [Architectural criticism] just feels like a microscopic concern right now, and the current state of it doesn’t really reward/merit lengthy study.”

The second quote is from Michael Kimmelman, the New York Timesarchitectural critic, who makes a similar point, while introducing the advocacy angle:

“To a large extent, the public conversation about architecture has been dominated by people who shared particular interests in formal and material innovation … But there have always been vast numbers of people interested in buildings, landscape and urban affairs, infrastructure and planning, in the interaction of formal and social inventions – people who have profound interests in cities and transportation and the way we live – who have felt left out of the conversation … I’d like to believe that my role is to act as an advocate, not simply to respond to what’s proposed or built – which often means going beyond the role of a reviewer, as criticism is so often defined. Architecture is far too important to lose itself in questions about the state of criticism, which is not interesting.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Long and Kimmelman.

Indeed, there are far bigger fish to fry.