Today we had another in the series of NYIT “Lunchtime Lectures.” This lecture series features symposiums from current faculty (along with some notable guest appearances) during the free period in our school (when no classes are scheduled, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30 – 2 PM). They occur once or twice per month.
Todays lecture featured the professor I T.A. for in history, Dr. Brian Brace Taylor of NYIT and Columbia University and historian/critic/professor Kenneth Frampton of GSAPP, Columbia University. The discussion began with an overview of a publication Taylor and Frampton produced (along with others) in the 80’s and 90’s entitled MIMAR, “Architecture in Development.” Literally translated, MIMAR is a word in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and certain dialects of Turkish that means ‘master builder.’ Dr. Taylor outlined the history of the publication and the purpose that it intended to serve. The discussion quickly moved on to the role of criticism in architecture – what is the function of criticism, who is entitled to be a critic, and how does criticism affect the practice and education of architects.
Frampton quoted from Baudelaire: “Criticism should be partisan, passionate, and political.” I believe this to be true because it can be no other way. But the ensuing discussion about critical elements of architecture was a large point of discrepancy amongst the audience. Professor Nader Vossoughian (from here at NYIT and also the moderator for this lecture series) questioned why architects should be the gatekeepers of architectural criticism. He asked whether or not architectural criticism was anything more than eye candy – a glamorization of only a small sampling of buildings.
How instructive is criticism and what purpose does it indeed serve? Who should be a critic?
To me, anyone can be a critic. That’s easy. But who do you listen to? I offered the experience of the internet: while there was (and is) some socioeconomic barrier to participating in an “open” forum like the internet, where do we get our information, more often than not? From reliable sources. I turn to places like archinect for information and discussions on architecture, amid a myriad of sources on architectural topics, because of the experience of architects and students alike. Can you find information on architecture elsewhere? Absolutely. But there is a gravity towards like minded individuals and insightful observations that has pulled back this relatively open forum to something more specific – with specific topics, but more so from specific critics or panelists. Shouldn’t we focus on this gravity towards like minded panelists in the midst of a host of other possibilities more than anything else?
Outside of the dynamics of the medium of the internet, I find that the most interesting element to this is the natural selection and honing of a topic in the open forum of the internet. Someone earlier in the lecture had countered that the ubiquity of human experience in architecture lends itself to a greater sampling of architectural critics from different backgrounds. Some of the audience contended that so many forces operate on architecture that criticism needs to stem from various disciplines in society even more than other topics subjected to criticism.
C’mon. Not everyone who experiences architecture is an architect, designer, builder, or whatever, but not everyone who watches movies or eats food is an actor, director, or chef, either. I really question the relevance of that view, where we need more multidisciplinary criticism outright. We get that. I read ESPN for information on sports, but FORBES also offers economic breakdowns of leagues and teams. This criticism is for other purposes and from other viewpoints. Socioeconomics factors in to sports as well. Would it really make architectural publications any more relevant or any stronger if they had this variety of viewpoints? They occur somewhere else.
As for the function of criticism, we should turn to Terry Eagleton, methinks. Criticism is instructive. Criticism offers an education. It is informative, and should be taken with a grain of salt, like anything else. It’s a viewpoint, offering awareness of the subject from one point of view. We’re all subjected to our own predilections and biases, no matter how overt they may be. I don’t consider architectural criticism any differently.