What, exactly, is the point of architecture criticism? The word “criticism” is derived from the Greek term krinein, meaning to separate, to sift, to make distinctions, to discern, to examine, or to judge. According to Wayne Attoe, an architect and educator who writes about architecture criticism in his book Architecture and Critical Imagination (now sadly out of print), this does not necessarily mean to disapprove of, or to find fault with. It can be favorable or unfavorable; it can praise or condemn.
Attoe makes the distinction between criticism as a thing—a product—and criticism as a behavior. As a behavior, criticism is a mode of seeing, of examining, the way in which we assess the built world around us. If you think of it this way, it’s easy to understand why critics are always “on,” so to speak. Being critical is a critic’s modus operandi. It’s hard to just turn it off. Asking a critic to stop being critical is like asking someone to stop seeing the color green. It’s the way the critic beholds the world.
Criticism, Attoe argues, should be a tool for generating better work. The key to achieving this is to see criticism as a behavior and not a judgment. When it comes to being critical of criticism, Attoe observes that “criticism will always be more useful when it informs the future than when it scores the past.” So how might criticism be useful in informing the future, to make better work possible—essentially, to make a difference in the quality of the built environment? The answer lies in the realm of the “lay” architecture critic.
How we communicate and share information today potentially makes every one of us an architecture critic. There are more outlets today for the lay architecture critic than ever before. We see signs of this in the wealth of travel blogs and posts on sites like TripAdvisor about the architecture of the places where people vacation. There certainly seems to be an interest among nonprofessional architecture critics.
There’s a hint of this blossoming of “everyone a critic” in Alexandra Lange’s book Writing About Architecture, whose opening chapter is titled “How to Be an Architecture Critic.” Lange writes about how critics operate, how they structure their critiques, and the methods they use. Her intent is to educate the public about criticism. What we need, she writes, “are more critics—citizen critics—equipped with the desire and the vocabulary to remake the city.”
While Lange offers her readers the work of noted commentators of the built environment—such as Ada Louise Huxtable, Lewis Mumford, Michael Sorkin, Frederick Law Omsted, and Charles Moore—as touchstones of criticism, a different approach is suggested by Attoe, whose book predates Lange’s by some 35 years and has a similar mission to transform each of us into a critic. Attoe’s approach asserts that architectural criticism is happening all the time, by everyone, if we choose to recognize it. He notes that what we might include as the work of the lay critic is “the product of a particular point of view, namely that virtually everything people do in and about the built environment is a form of criticism.” All of us, architects and non-architects, engage in criticism much of the time, in an “ongoing collection of diverse behaviors,” as Attoe describes it.
Such a view of criticism is liberating in the extreme. While it challenges our conception of the architecture critic as someone with specialized knowledge and experience who is anointed to pass judgment on works of architecture, it seems to be much more in line with the way people actually interact with architecture: by embracing it or running from it. That recognition is evident in a variety of critique types, everything from post-occupancy building evaluations and the landmark work of William H. Whyte to YouTube and TikTok videos today of people interacting with the built world.
Lay critics—people not trained as professional critics or designers, or those who don’t commission projects—interact with the built environment every day and practice their architecture criticism directly.
Attoe’s taxonomy of lay criticism includes four realms: Attitude Toward the Environment, Adoptive Behavior Within the Environment, Unintentional Modification of the Environment, and Intentional Modification of the Environment. The first is recorded in written or verbal responses in such forums as letters to the editor, personal blogs, tweets, and comments to articles about architecture that users make in response to it. You can also gauge attitude through surveys: for example, based on interviews with users, is the location and design of a public space inviting for people to be there?
Adoptive Behavior Within the Environment means that the lay critic accepts it as is, without modification. Lay critics vote with their feet; they either flock to a public place or avoid it. Unintentional Modification of the Environment happens when people unintentionally change the environments they use without even realizing they’re doing it. For example, we’ve all seen grass in a public park worn away connecting two points with a straight line; it’s an unintentional modification, indicating a preference on the part of the pedestrian.
Intentional Modification of the Environment, perhaps the most interesting of the quartet, is a critique of the built environment in which the lay critic intentionally acts upon it, often to improve it. For example, in postwar Levittown identical, cookie-cutter Cape Cods were modified by residents over the years to the point where the houses are now all different. Le Corbusier’s housing in Pessac, built in 1924, underwent similar transformation, as the homeowners intentionally modified them to make their domiciles more what they thought a “home” should be. The historian Phillippe Boudon who studied these modifications writes: “Le Corbusier, who apparently considered this project a failure, stated that the tenant ‘must change his outlook,’ but unbeknownst to him, it was the tenant who with great ease changed the architecture.”
For the past 40 years or so I’ve taught a course, “Writing About Architecture,”that is formulated on Attoe’s taxonomy of criticism. Students readily apprehend the usefulness of this framework, in that it allows them to critique the built environment using a variety of means beyond the written word. The point of the course is not to create new critics in the formal, professional sense, but to help students to be more critical—as a behavior—of the built world and to encourage them to articulate an architectural point of view that can be used as a lens to assess architecture, their own and that of others. This leads, I believe, to a better-educated student and ultimately to better architects—designers who understand that they cannot be objective, that they see the world from a very personal vantage point, and that they can expect the same of others. No one can be an objective critic. E.B. White expressed this best when he wrote, “Whoever sets pen to paper writes of himself.” And, I would add, even if she writes about architecture.
In a world where everyone is potentially a critic, such tools are invaluable because they help us to organize our experiences and see what is there, as well as what the future could be. The poet William Butler Yeats could have been describing the promise of the work of the lay architecture critic when he wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” The lay critic shares with the professional one the hope to make a difference, if not immediately in the built world around us, then in the potential built world inside each one of us.