I recall reading an interview with a singer/guitarist in the grunge era, a small local band, who said after a performance he was typically surrounded by people telling him it was a great show, but inevitably one person would say something flippantly negative, and sadly that was the only comment he could ever remember as he laid awake at night.
Architecture comes with criticism intact. One cannot put their work out into the world without expecting to be criticized. But we should, as a community of professionals, be able to expect respectful commentary, considered and generous. That last word I use intentionally, as Orhan Ayyuce has used it often with regard to how much knowledge exists on Archinect, and how willing people are to give of their knowledge when asked. I think "generous" is a beautiful term for the type of criticism I would like to see more of here.
This isn't about not hurting people's feelings or giving the praise of a parent ("Good job, buddy!"about every damn thing). It's about elevating the discourse for all of us, so the entire discipline benefits from intelligent, and fair criticism - which would make praise more meaningful. Simply being called pretty, or not, isn't meaningful, as it takes no skill by either party; having your skills and efforts recognized and acknowledged along with helpful criticism that challenges you to improve even more: that is the level of conversation we all deserve.
This issue comes up this week as I have to embarrassingly admit to and retract some comments I made about Bjarke Ingals Group's REN Building. It's painful for me to read the criticism I lobbed at BIG, especially the use of the word "stupid". Stupid is a lazy word. Stupid shows an unwillingness to thoughtfully consider the work, just an unthinking drop of the first dismissive word that comes to mind. I must have been in a nasty frame of mind that day. In the interim 18 months, I saw their VM Housing apartment project (on their website, icon VM), which I like very much, and the Mountain Dwellings project, which I unreservedly adore. The Mountain Dwellings (website icon: MTN) project blows me away with its bizarre but totally resolved and humane subversion of program relationships.
In my defense, after the grumpy laziness of my initial commenting, when called to task by Jill from Inhabitat, I did put some effort into both commenting and actually looking at the project - I did say that it's graceful, which it is. It's a lovely form, with a whimsical application of circles as structure, and is even sufficiently resolved technically for a schematic proposal (BIG's ability to get the Mountain built inspires absolute confidence that the elevators and other technical issues in this building, should it come to reality, would be easily managed.). My biggest criticism at the time was about what I saw as a cynical marketing-driven overlay of feng shui iconography onto a project that had initially been proposed for a port city in Copenhagen. That's one way to spin it, to be sure. But after hearing about the project in the context of BIG's other work, I don't think it's cynical. The firm's work seems to revel in the fluidity of cultural iconography, and each of their projects is deeply concerned with how humans live. A more generous criticism would allow that people, designers or not, will read into buildings whatever most resonates with their personal geography anyway, and that loss of control of how people view and use our buildings is part of the reality of building anything in the world. Ed Bacon loved the fact that skateboarders appropriated Love Park - it was a mediocrity-loving (and liability-fearing) city government that "redesigned" Love Park to disallow skateboarding, thus destroying a cultural icon. The REN building is beautiful to look at. It may have complexities that can be criticized functionally, urbanistically, even politically, but as compared to other, excessive, contemporary towers, it is beautiful.
And what's more: putting together a proposal this big requires serious effort, economically, creatively, personally. Typing some words and hitting "submit" is really too easy. It's a gift to us armchair critics to be able to have access to such a bounty of building ideas on which to comment, even as we do our own work to the best of our ability, typically without recognition. I've actually heard from other architects about whose work I have spoken positively on Archinect that they appreciated the praise - it's a tough world out there, and being bold, trying something new, is a risk. Significant effort and initiative is best acknowledged, I'd say, by giving a generous, considered, respectful comment - even if it's a criticism.
Clay Shirky on Gothamist put forth an attitude toward criticism which I have always considered a touchstone (except on my grumpy days, when I forget, obviously.) The entire piece is worth reading, if you follow the link; it's fun. Specific to criticism, when asked what would he do to change New York?
Go to any party -- architects, fashion designers, mathematicians -- and you'll hear the same thing, and usually so subtle, so sophisticated: "Well, I enjoyed the piece, but I thought it was a little derivative", "The building is interesting on its own terms, but it isn't very well integrated with the neighborhood." Tiny sprinklings of corrosive doubt, offer by people gnawed by envy, and seized on by those made sick by over-exposure to quality.
So when my turn with the magic wand comes around, I'll use it to turn the snarkiness dial down, way down. Criticize, sure -- if something's bullshit, say so, and if you have an insight about how something might be better, sing it, and sing it loud...But when you feel yourself about to criticize something because you just can't stand how good it is (and you know you do this, we all do), at that moment, stop.
Stop, because it will turn you into the kind of small-minded champion of mediocrity we all came here to escape. Every day, you've got a choice -- am I gonna be one of the 45, or am I gonna be one of the 7 million. And being snarky about other people's good work ain't gonna help you with that.
I don't want to be too Pollyanna about this. As Shirky says, if something is bullshit, SAY SO (American presidential campaign strategies, anyone?). If someone is skating by on laziness, call them out and challenge them - positively - to make a better effort. And challenge yourself, in every critique, to be generous: reflect on what you're seeing in the bigger context of architectural discourse, identify the elements that are good, apply the logic of the good parts to the overall scheme to see where improvements can be made. Think about how much effort you would want a critic to put into a comment made to you.
Snarkiness is fun, yes, but can be like too much candy without a good meal - stomachaches all around. Being generous in speaking of another's work doesn't mean "heaping praise". It means delivering the critique from a place deeper than the insignificant nitpicking that comes so easily, deeper still from a place that harbors no envy, and even further down where the critique is offered in a genuine effort to improve the project, to the benefit of the discipline as a whole. Everyone wins.
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Campus Architect at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. For the previous 8 years I was self-employed as an architect in Indianapolis doing mainly custom residential remodel plus some commercial, public art, and public housing interiors work. I'm also very involved in the local arts and design ...