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Why Architecture Needs More Building-Architect Critics

In the movie The Natural sports writer Max Mercy confesses to the great player Roy Hobbs that although he has never played baseball, he is there to “protect” it. Today the protectors of  architectural orthodoxy are almost predominantly a legion of writers, who like Max Mercy, have never done what they write about, but are sure of its meaning. If it were accurately reinvented in the movie, I am sure Max’s mythical newspaper’s sports section would have at least had an old jock as a columnist to offer insights that Max didn’t have. The extreme diversity of means, methods and motivations in architecture could be better understood if more building-architects wrote in mainstream architectural media.

If the goal is to understand beyond the Who, What, When and Where, and actually get to the Why of a building, wouldn’t it be nice to hear the editorial voice of someone who has dealt with that central question? If the “Why” is left entirely to the designer of the building being analyzed, journalism becomes a mouthpiece, not an evaluation.

At the same time, it’s ridiculous to think that only architects can or should report on architecture: a baseball game reported by only color commentators becomes a dugout. But in architectural criticism that’s widely read, there are almost no practitioners present, and that shapes opinion and creates a narrower view of the architectural possibilities. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, architecture has “writing, writing everywhere – but not a building architect to read” in professional journalism. Alexander Gorlin, among a few others, is a sterling exception, but his presence merely proves the rule that more building-architect perspective would enhance the understanding of the field. .

There may be more words and writers than ever writing about everything including architecture, as the last generation of media has gone through the same extreme shake-up in architectural journalism as it has in every other topic. Thousands of building-architects now write, but those voices are almost all unaccountable bloggers. The loss of credibility is not limited to internet flamers. Errors and omissions have also soared in professional media, where content is compromised to the point where pay-for-placement sites like Houzz compete for credibility with the Architectural Record HOUSES issue.

In the increasingly fractured media, I yearn for insights into the full process of getting a commission, designing it, meeting budgets, obtaining permits, and then building the design. With rare exceptions, that complete perspective doesn’t exist. It’s as though there were no “color commentators” in sports broadcasts, no moguls writing in the Wall Street Journal, no professional politicos on MSNBC.

In truth, architecture has historically had only modest architect-commentator contributions. Any number of non–practicing “architects” write for any number of venues, but like academia, the voice of the building-architect is generally not part of the conversation. There are reasons for this. Architects often offer tortuous, self-indulgent prose (my editors make that point pointedly clear to this architect). Practitioners in any field can be poor communicators of their own insights. Yogi Berra  proved personal experience is no guarantee of cogent insight when he offered: “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”

But “Archispeak” is real. Co-opted by an award-winning podcast, the term has a definition in the storied “Urban Dictionary”: “Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self doubt.”

Despite the dangers of affected prose, there are unique benefits to building-architects being part of mainstream discourse. Legal media has any number of present and former practitioners commenting and reporting at every level of law journalism, offering information and perspectives simply not available to journalists who have never practiced law. Science media is hugely infused with working scientists. Working authors often offer up commentary and reviews of others’ writing. But fine arts commentary has fewer artist–commentators.

Commentaries on business, government, science and athletics would be factually and anecdotally deficient without practitioner perspective, so why do we give fine arts commentary a pass, especially architecture?

And yet both perspectives—objective and unpracticed, experienced and subjective—can be woven together to create a fuller, more complete picture. Commentaries on business, government, science and athletics would be factually and anecdotally deficient without practitioner perspective, so why do we give fine arts commentary a pass, especially architecture?

The extreme subjectivity of a painter or a sculptor or a composer make their perspective on others’ muses or techniques problematic at best. When you read the ramblings of architects in the blogosphere, it’s both mind-numbing and cringe-producing. Conversely the endless chatter of articulate hands-off architectural analysts make practitioners cringe in its ignorance. Buildings are buildings. They are not concepts or 2-D realities. They are central to place and used by people. They have complex origins of desire and funding—and, increasingly, complicated legalities impact design.

Being a great journalist, Fred Bernstein was surprised when no other writers addressed the issues of zoning when he wrote about this year’s darling of the media: Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed by Sanna. I was more interested in that issue than the florid, descriptive prose of others, and any diligent building-architect asked to critique the building would first think of that beyond the gushing wonder of the building’s expressive form marrying with the rolling landscape (let alone how all-glass walls can be ethically defended in New England). But Bernstein is the rare journalist: he is degreed in architecture and open to revealing the gist under the gloss.

As architecture trends to a fine arts focus for validation, the absence of the building-architect as “color commentator” is not missed by most. What the non-building world of criticism and academia does not know won’t hurt them—and soon readers will have no inkling buildings are not just sculptures to be described, but complex realizations of technology, law, communities and money. I love listening to baseball on the radio, but I’ve never played it, so my ignorance is blissful. But everybody uses buildings and some people actually need design services. If the goal is to understand architecture beyond the image, the “color commentary” of the building-architect is necessary.

The non-practicing design critic cannot download a lifetime of experiences. a la the Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Yogi could not get out of his own way when talking about baseball, and architects are often victims of their own intimacies with design when we write about it. Still, no number of informed thoughtful questions can simulate the intensely dense experience of getting commissions and buildings built. The non-practicing design critic cannot download a lifetime of experiences. a la the Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Without those insights the journalist must rely on the project’s designers or their intimates to fill the gaps in their knowledge—not exactly disinterested sources. Endless questions presented to the actors in any event benefit from the perspective of a fellow actor: any honest architect will tell you there are times that getting a job and keeping a job changes your perspective when doing the job.

The inside baseball offered up by color commentators is not the big picture. Professional journalists have a larger perspective than any building-architect. The greatest home run calls were not made by former players but by journalists. Still, when a pitcher is having difficulty, the Little League-experienced commentator struggles to invent knowledge he or she simply has never experienced. Anyone can call balls and strikes, but only someone who has been at the plate can fully understand the vagaries of hits and misses. Limited critical understanding eventually limits the criteria by which buildings are judged by the general public.

When you only listen to Fox News, Ted Cruz is a heroic statesman. Limited expectations reward shallow thinking. Unless you understand the Why’s, the other W’s only provide stats, not meaning in architecture or baseball.

 

Featured image via A. Zahner.

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