Critiquing the Critics

James Russell, FAIA, (left) speaking at “Architectural Criticism Today,” with panel members Cathleen McGuigan, Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, Justin Davidson, and moderator Julie Iovine.

Courtesy the Center for Architecture

Event: Architecture and the Media Series – Architectural Criticism Today

Speakers: Julie Iovine—The Architect’s Newspaper (moderator); James Russell, FAIA—Bloomberg; Cathleen McGuigan—Architectural Record; Justin Davidson—New York Magazine; Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA—The New Yorker

Organized by: Center for Architecture and the AIANY Oculus Committee and Marketing & PR Committee; co-organized by The Architect’s Newspaper.

Location: Center for Architecture, 02.27.12

When architects want to gauge the success of new buildings or other significant projects, they turn to columns by critics such as Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, James Russell, FAIA, and Justin Davidson, or they peruse publications like Architectural Record and The Architect’s Newspaper. These writers and editors participated in a panel discussion—the first in a four-part series—examining the state of architectural criticism today: how it reaches the general public, the effects of digital technology, and the recent shift away from a focus on “starchitects.”

Some critics write for the general public—”People who might know Frank Gehry but don’t know SHoP,” explained moderator Julie Iovine of The Architect’s Newspaper. Architecture columns vie for space with movie and pop-culture pieces. Though each critic on the panel targets a slightly different audience, they agreed that interest has shifted from the celebrity architect and “object buildings” to larger debates about the future of the city.

Digital technology has, no doubt, influenced the way the public consumes criticism—they have become critics themselves. “Twitter and the Internet add a whole new level of immediacy to ‘undercooked’ ideas,” Russell said. Even critics find themselves writing about buildings before they are complete, using only renderings as their guide. Goldberger noted that there is an expectation of decisiveness when critics review a finished building, but when it comes to the un-built, he feels a responsibility to be equivocal.

But what about critics’ responsibility towards the architects about whose work they write? According to Goldberger, “Good criticism has to pay attention to the social, economic and political context—architects’ good intentions don’t always have a place.” Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, concurred: “Criticism is not just giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.” She strives to include images that illustrate projects within their urban context and also interviews end users. Ultimately, the panelists tried to keep things in perspective. As Goldberger concluded: “Nobody tears down a building if we don’t like it.”

Read The Architect’s Newspaper’s transcription of the event here

Murrye Bernard is a freelance architecture writer and a contributing editor to Contract Magazine and e-Oculus.

The next event in the “Architecture and the Media” series is “Design Reportage: The Business Press and General Interest Media,” on Thursday, 05.03.12, 6:00 – 8:00 PM. The panel will focus on media channels outside the design and building industry.