Denver Art Museum via wiki commons

What is “Critical” in Architectural Practice Today?

“Critical” is one of those words that architects utter frequently in order to establish bona fides with others in the field. Perhaps a decade ago it would have indicated an education at one of the front-rank architecture schools where critical theory was a foundation course. After humanities departments abandoned that discredited form of literary criticism, it hung on for a few years among theory-obsessed academics and starchitects. Mercifully, many architectural theory teachers are now moving on to address what is actually current in philosophy and cultural studies, and to educate literate future architects accordingly.

Alas, however, the damage done to unsuspecting architectural students is still evident in the prevailing attitudes about design found in AIA chapters, editorial boards, and AEC partners meetings across the globe. Awards juries cling desperately to its banners: deconstruction, textuality, poetics. More significant, architectural school leaders cannot seem to remove the flashing red “CRITICAL” sign from their brains when assessing the work of students and young faculty. That alone should indicate to freethinking designers that we need to find a better word to describe the worth and intellectual merits of new work. 

What, exactly, did critical theory in architecture hope to address? At its best, perhaps in Kenneth Frampton’s renowned essay on regionalism, it indicated skepticism of romantic notions of vernacular typologies and materials that had previously informed writing on non-European buildings or environments in the developing world. In European philosophy, it might be targeted specifically at political ideologies that undergirded oppressive regimes, or culture that was co-opted by power elites. If rational discourse were possible in such contexts, an architect might well use art to comment on injustices and inequalities in society at large. That is, of course, if one believes that architecture can always communicate effectively to a politically oppressed society, or that architecture is a “fine art.” 

“Critical” design was a fig leaf that hid the most basic responsibilities of architectual licensure from many otherwise sensible architects pursuing excellence, or accepted standards under a current aesthetic criteria. What, indeed, were those standards?

At its worst, addressing social ills by designing buildings that presumed to criticize a corrupt status quo pushed architects toward the arid obsessions of conceptual art—which could at least hide in galleries—and away from common-sense concerns about environmental quality, safety, beauty, psychological well-being, and even neighborhood civility. “Critical” design was a fig leaf that hid the most basic responsibilities of architectural licensure from many otherwise sensible architects pursuing excellence, or accepted standards under a current aesthetic criteria. What, indeed, were those standards?

Instead of going down a rabbit hole to answer that question, let me suggest that we look at another word which indicates a deep concern for the aesthetic and social qualities that both professionals and the public want to see in buildings, cities, and the environment: judgment. Not a term used often these days in the context of design. But it is a necessary part of life for anyone who cares about what is good, true, and ethical in contemporary society. And all of us care about whether young people have it when they emerge from school. 

Whereas college-ready students should possess critical thinking skills when they enter a university, it is imperative that they leave higher education with the judgment to make choices about what is good and what is bad, well made and ill conceived, acceptable and unacceptable, in their chosen field. In most fields—the sciences, for instance—students graduate with enough sensibility and skill to perform well at the next level of their careers. They have sound judgment. It’s doubtful that most undergraduate architecture majors receive a similar education that would lead to a shared sense of what is good and bad in building design; they can’t judge quality because their teachers disagree about the criteria needed to assess it.

That confusion isn’t necessarily unique to art and design. The prominent sociologist Richard Sennett goes so far as to suggest we return to standards of good craftsmanship when assessing product design, job performance, even corporate management. A master craftsman develops the ability to quickly judge whether his work is meeting not only his own standards, but also those of the masters who came before, and those who will continue the traditions passed down to him. He can look to the past for exemplary precedents.

When music students give a masters level recital, they are judged by a panel of professional musicians who sit behind a partition in order to avoid any preconceptions about the skill of the aspirant they are hearing. No one asks whether they are appropriately critical of the student’s virtuosity. They will hear quality according to performance standards that were passed on to them by mentors years before. They are objective in large measure because they accept the prevailing views of their peers about both skill and aesthetic taste. 

The design “critics” in architecture schools have no such accepted canons from which to assess the work of advanced students. Nor do they trust the educated public to understand how a good building or urban space should look, feel, or perform. Yet an educated person will inevitably want to weigh in on the quality of the environment—and does, in fact, have the common sense judgment to do so. If architects really want to connect with the public, they will need to have a similar understanding of what qualities it desires in the built environment.

One of the missing pieces in most metropolitan areas is a shared civic pride in parks, government buildings, and cultural centers. When these buildings were built during the Progressive Era, community leaders worked with architects in order to make a public realm that all would respect and cherish in the future. Today, when an architectural competition is held for an addition to a museum, library, or town hall, leaders entrust the choice of architect to a jury of “professionals” who have little or no stake in the local economy or social fabric. 

Little wonder, then, that Denver can build an addition to its Art Museum that is so aggressive and ugly that crowds avoid it like the plague. If cultural leaders forego a competition, they generally leave the choice of an architect to an oligarchic donor who is concerned mainly that they be associated with a “star” in the field. The commission is bound to end up in the hands of a starchitect, and no critical judgment will be used to decide which one of that select group gets the job. The Los Angeles Museum of Art has been building one disastrous addition after another, each paid for by a different egotistical donor, with no apparent master plan for how the parts will fit together. 

All architects have a civic responsibility to maintain the environment for the common good, as do other publicly engaged professionals: lawyers, doctors, accountants, municipal employees, and the like. As such, they must judge whether what they design meets standards that the law and public taste deem acceptable. This is the basis, the critical foundation, for professional practice today. Anything additional, including the addition of signs, symbols, and forms “critical” of the establishment, is neither necessary nor beneficial according to those standards.

The art of architecture will not be diminished, as some fear, by pushing designers to consider things that were always in the forefront of their charge. If architects are to be judged on the true merits of their work, they will need to cultivate a similar facility for judging the work of others in their profession, as they place themselves in the midst of the civic realm in their cities, towns and neighborhoods. They need not accept the corrupt practices of politicians or businesspeople when working to better their environment, but they will need to judge the appropriateness of building protests instead of simply writing letters to an editor or running for local office. History has shown that architecture cannot change society for the better if the political, economic, and social fabric is riven asunder as it is today. The best thing we can do for our clients is to produce designs that reinforce the values and characteristics of our home places, and leave the criticism to social scientists and philosophers. 

Featured image: Denver Art Museum addition, designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Photograph by Frank Vanbetlehem, via Wikipedia Commons.

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