When one asks guitarists who is best qualified to make an archtop jazz guitar in 2021 the answer is clear: Robert Benedetto. He has been building the top guitars for artists as diverse as Frank Vignola, Howard Alden, and Pat Martino for the past 30 years. Nobody asks who is better, as the proof is in the product: If the instrument plays superlatively in the estimation of the best players in the world, then the person making it is a virtuoso at the same level as the artist. Are there others in the world that would like to rise to that level? Yes, and some are very nearly there, but no builder joins the elite without proven qualifications.
It isn’t hard to judge the abilities of people who make things at the highest levels of craftsmanship or technology, because unless the product passes muster with users, no one will purchase it. Moreover, the work of such masters is virtually priceless.
Unfortunately, at the level of cultural expertise, the question isn’t so clear-cut. Judgment seems to be heavily dependent on which side of the culture wars one is on. The New Criterion is a purportedly objective journal that publishes critical positions on the arts, many of which are slanted toward right-leaning political positions. October is an art journal that has for decades occupied the avant-garde edge of cultural studies, initially under the editorship of Rosalind Krauss. Continental, post-structuralist critics find a sympathetic platform in its pages.
On the architecture front there is Log, a journal published by Anyone Corporation of New York. It is funded partially by Peter Eisenman and has an A-list advisory board of American and European architects. Like most such journals, all the gatekeepers are on that list, leading to familiar positions that track with academic theories that strangle discourse rather than open it up. Occasionally an issue presents wider points of view, but only when a particular editor invites outsiders to contribute. Only those living in a well-defined silo are qualified to offer critical positions: Log calls them “protagonists.” The Classicist, a journal sponsored by the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art, is firmly rooted in a traditional mode of thinking, virtually the opposite pole. Subscriptions to these journals are small by standards used to track conventional print media, so it is unlikely that readers will leave their silos to read competing polemics.
Not surprisingly, the number of professional architectural critics has been declining steeply since 2000, and not only because publications requiring their services have waned.
Still, a savvy observer of the wider media world will find that a number of publications who hire “critics” to offer their expert interpretations of what is going on in the building industry are using similarly narrow criteria to decide who is qualified to fill such positions. Ergo, if the person in question makes statements that comport with positions favorable to the editors, he or she will retain her job as a critic. If not, she gets the hook, despite all sorts of caveats in print that indicate the publication does not favor any particular architect, style, or movement. Not surprisingly, the number of professional architectural critics has been declining steeply since 2000, and not only because publications requiring their services have waned.
In the case of Architect, the “official” publication of the American Institute of Architects, a group of writers who were on the masthead three years ago has shrunk from half a dozen to two or three, following the resignation of Ned Cramer, the magazine’s original and longtime editor, amidst draconian budget-slashing. The New York Times eased out two of its last three architecture critics after a backlash from readers and an ethics breach. The editors then asked Michael Kimmelman, a longtime art critic, to fill the post. Blair Kamin, the distinguished critic at the Chicago Tribune, left his post a few months back, but he was not sure he would be replaced. Another elder statesman, Witold Rybczynski, long a critic for Slate and some architectural publications, has reduced his writing to an occasional tweet and short blog posts.
Arch Daily and The Architect’s Newspaper, the two leading English language webzines that deal with buildings, cities and landscapes, purport to publish a wide variety of views on those subjects. Though I observed months ago that both were relatively neutral in their positions on design, each has taken an alarming turn toward establishment positions. A recent article in Arch Daily featured a photo of Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Tower as a symbol of modern Beijing, rather than the more familiar image of the Forbidden City, a nod toward the powers that be. Both websites insist on short pieces that more often than not avoid any controversial subject matter. (Full disclosure: I have written for both publications in the past.)
Who, then, is capable of rendering an objective and well-informed opinion about the quality of buildings and cities in 2021? A very tough question. It is easier to locate marginal or incompetent candidates than superlative ones in today’s polarized media landscape.
Who, then, is capable of rendering an objective and well-informed opinion about the quality of buildings and cities in 2021? A very tough question. It is easier to locate marginal or incompetent candidates than superlative ones in today’s polarized media landscape, so we may as well begin there and see who is left standing on the far side.
Rowan Moore, a former architect with a significant following, holds forth regularly in The Observer, one of London’s progressive newspapers, and also writes for The Guardian. He makes a point of standing for the regular bloke on the street, with prose aimed squarely at that edge of the market. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the hypocrisy of wealthy donors building gaudy museums in the Middle East, as he has done in the past. The problem is that many of his essays wouldn’t get him past the examiners for O-Levels, so he may as well be writing for The Sun. One clear qualification for our prospective critic is proper command of the English language.
Virtually the same can be said of another gadfly, Aaron Betsky, a regular contributor to Architect and Dezeen. He writes today not as a paid critic, but as an academic in an architectural school, and the AIA gets what it pays for. One of Betsky’s recent screeds against what he regards as insufficient support of today’s fringe movements and outrageously conceptual projects targeted both me, and Common Edge, as “conservative” in our points of view. That essay was, like many of his efforts, written in haste with little regard for style, literary form, or grammar, making his argument about as persuasive as a 30-second ad for cat food.
Speaking of nine lives, he recently was hired to lead one of the largest architecture programs in the U.S.: the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. His résumé is littered with hastily curtailed attempts at various careers: architect, museum curator, museum director, design professor, and president of the now-defunct Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin. Apparently, a few years of dabbling at each of these qualifies him not only to write critical pieces for the AIA’s magazine, but to pass judgment on the abilities of faculty who are likely more experienced at virtually all aspects of professional and academic life than their boss. A group of uncritical, not to say fawning, books on contemporary avant-garde architects has been a regular source of income, so credit him as a success in the publishing game.
Two highly regarded, often-incisive journalists write for major market publications in the East: Justin Davidson of New York Magazine, and Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Each has the tough, thorough discipline of a good reporter, and a bulletproof writing style to match. Neither has been afraid to take on some powerful establishment architects in running down a story about their respective urban territories. Davidson, initially a music critic, wrote a scathing review of Rem Koolhaas’s foolish exhibition on “the countryside” last year, despite a lavish presentation at the Guggenheim Museum. Saffron has jousted with the likes of Frank Gehry and Robert Stern in her pithy essays on virtually anything related to the built environment. It’s a pity more publications don’t hand good journalists the job of looking at architecture. Kimmelman has been a breath of fresh air since assuming his New York Times post several years ago.
The criticism often leveled at such journalists by members of the design professions is that they lack insiders’ knowledge of the building process, and sometimes gloss over complex issues that challenge architects to produce excellent work in institutional and commercial arenas. Ada Louise Huxtable, now often seen as a paragon among critics, worked hard to educate herself after an art history background, and was properly self-critical when she came up short. She wasn’t afraid to ask experts when information wasn’t forthcoming, as she did when she telephoned me about the stacks in the New York Public Library only a month before her death.
Writers with substantial academic credentials have had more difficulty maintaining positions as regular architecture critics. One who wrote for the New Criterion before moving to the Wall Street Journal is Michael J. Lewis of Williams College. Because he eschews the fashionable jargon of many in his tribe, Lewis has produced a terrific body of work on U.S. architecture, with a particular flair for buildings in Philadelphia, his home town. Sarah Williams Goldhagen, who wrote fine columns for the New Republic for more than a decade, left her post at about the same time she quit full-time teaching at Harvard and is sorely missed.
Other university and professional school faculty have found less success in adapting their learned points of view for the general public. Architecture New York, Metropolis, and Oculus occasionally run short essays by faculty in area universities, but few stay on to become regulars. One exception is Alexandra Lange, who studied at Columbia and now writes for several New York publications. An interesting case of a journalist moving over into academia is that of Joseph Rykwert, who had no degree in art history when he began writing in London after World War II. His magazine essays were so trenchant and probing that he began contributing to academic publications, eventually heading a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Practicing the craft of writing and observing the building and demolishing of cities has remained the most useful credential for anyone looking for a career in architectural journalism. Pulitzer Prize–winner Robert Campbell, who had an architecture degree but practiced only for a short time, wrote some of the finest essays in the genre as critic of the Boston Globe. He once told me that he had a job in an engineering office that had the unenviable task of making Paul Rudolph’s concrete buildings stand up. “I learned not to be dazzled by pretty drawings or charisma,” he reflected while standing in Rudolph’s restored Yale School of Architecture building.
Several decades of varied writing for a variety of architectural publications would be an ideal C.V. for a prospective critic, were such candidates plentiful in our current cultural milieu. Joseph Giovannini is a freelance writer who once contributed regularly to newspapers and magazines on both coasts, but has recently become an activist in Los Angeles, where he has opposed the destruction of LACMA and its replacement with a lavish new building. Like David Brussat, formerly of the Providence Herald, he prefers to operate as a kind of moral conscience for his metropolitan region. Three years ago, Christopher Hawthorne left a successful job as critic for the Los Angeles Times (where he won awards for his writing) to become an adviser to Mayor Eric Garcetti, and he loves his new position. One fine writer who has remained with his newspaper throughout the last decade is Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News. His recent biography of Philip Johnson won acclaim from both architects and cultural critics.
In the category of up-and-coming journalists who write on the built environment, Kate Wagner is exemplary. She writes a blog about McMansions and was recently invited to speak at the Yale School of Architecture, a coup for a non-architect. Writers in real estate and city-beat publications, such as Alissa Walker of Curbed, are also emerging voices for change.
Is there a critic still practicing the craft who meets all the criteria we’ve discussed? Perhaps not, but Martin Filler of The New York Review of Books comes very close. Filler went to Columbia to study art history, and initially set out to write widely on various art forms, including painting, dance, and music. Beginning his career as an editor for Progressive Architecture, Filler plied his skills as a writer and editor for House and Garden while it struggled to compete with the glossier and less substantial Architectural Digest. Like many fine publications, it vanished with the internet after the turn of the millennium. Though he briefly contributed pieces on architecture to the New York Times, Paul Goldberger was firmly ensconced in the post of head critic. Filler continued to write as a freelancer before contributing a few excellent essays on architectural books to NYRB. Widening his purview, he created a permanent position there as a true architecture critic over more than two decades. Today he can write on any subject, though books and exhibitions occupy most of his attention.
I recommend that readers look at Filler’s brilliant New York: Conspicuous Construction, a devastating critique (in every sense of the word) of New York’s spate of “needle towers” near 57th Street in midtown. To write it, he needed not only the seasoned eye of an urbanist who knows the city’s skyline, but also the skills of an investigative journalist and real estate economist. It is a wonder the Real Estate Board did not ask for his head on a platter once the greed of key developers was exposed. Zaha Hadid’s office sued him over a candid, but not entirely accurate, portrayal of her work as flippant and a waste of honest labor. They will be quite happy in a few years when he retires, as one his age is entitled to do.
Alas, most Americans, even New Yorkers, with a passing interest in architecture and urbanism do not subscribe to NYRB, which is often pilloried as a hangout for disgruntled progressives and literary junkies. So Filler’s fine work does not reach many architects, developers, or policymakers. Those who pay for, and design, much of what we live with in our cities are more likely to read Twitter feeds, occasionally see the Wall Street Journal, and consult the Engineering News-Record than track down essays in silo-centric journals or specialist publications. They are less and less likely to encounter any kind of reasoned, informed critical writing on things that affect the daily lives of millions. Without watchdogs, predators will wreak havoc in the barnyard—and we have seen the results in our cities and towns.
Help wanted: architectural critics. Only the experienced need apply.