"On Criticism" an aggregate thread

So in compiling the editor's picks this week i was struck by a quote from Denise Scott Brown's recently published article, "Questions of Style" in Artforum. In the piece she writes,

Our approach to style is broad and deep. It's nonjudgmental at first, to make subsequent judgment more sensitive.

It inspired me to start a thread which

a) documents other features and threads from Archinect re: criticism

b) gives us a place to be critical about the act criticism

First up is Liberty Bell's Archinect Op-Ed: Generous Criticism: Don't Be Lazy

Critique and criticism

is it it it political?

Bad Crits?

Way to understand architecture criticism

Dec 5, 10 5:28 pm

criticism, like modern art, is dead.

Dec 6, 10 12:00 am  · 

I would say hopefully not.

I don't have much time know to elaborate but I do think that perhaps the largest form of criticism is the turn away from explicit criticism of buildings and into a notion of the expanded field.

In this framework the very growth and interest on other types of practice (social design, architecture as service etc) or the efforts of writers to extend architectural criticism to include things like design fiction or Bld Blog(ian) sorts of contemporary futurism musings all qualify as architectural critism.

What has perhaps, died down is the focus on the criticism of actual buildings as architectural experience.

For some related readings see....

Architectural Criticism

Critical Condition

Criticism Kerfuffle 2010

On Criticism 7: Authority and Responsibility

Dec 6, 10 8:46 am  · 

that should read now,

guess it's what i get for doing at work.

Dec 6, 10 8:47 am  · 

for instance from the first link via Geoff

First, early on, one of the panelists stated: "It's not our job to say: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks..." But of course it is! That's exactly your role; that's exactly the built environment as it's now experienced by the majority of the American public. "Architecture," for most Americans, means Home Depot – not Mies van der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you'd have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan – or San Francisco, or Boston's Back Bay.

Dec 6, 10 8:48 am  · 

How did criticism come about anyway? Maybe if we look at its origin we may better see how it is either application, not applicable or whether it just needs to be modified for the context today. There has been a dearth of literature on archi-criticism for a long time already.

Dec 6, 10 8:23 pm  · 
olaf design ninja

its your lucky day nam...i just happen to be reading this and can't sleep as usual...only grain alcohol in reach, too much for a monday

from the introduction to "Differences" by Ignasi de Sola-Morales -

"To engage in the critique of architecture means situating oneself inside the crisis and embracing both hyperawareness and loneliness. The preception of crisis constitutes the starting point of criticism. Being concious of them means diagnosing them, expressing a judgement that seperates the different principles that come together in a given historical situation. Architectural criticism is not a literary genre, nor is it a profession. It is, above all, an intellectual attitude by means of which discourse becomes - in loneliness and in conscioussness of the crisis - judgement, separation, and decision."

as Sola-Morales claims root of the word Crisis and Critique are derived form same in latin and greek is a another explanation on the origin -

"Origin of CRISIS
Middle English, from Latin, from Greek krisis, literally, decision, from krinein to decide — more at certain
First Known Use: 15th century"

regarding your Denise Scott Brown have to dive in non-judgemental to then make the right decisions.

negativity and school crits

i see you lumped that into this thread as well. I've been on both sides of the crit and been in crits at all levels, from the very informal and fun to the big names and no one is looking at the stuff on the walls. you know where the crits who do world circuits continue their discussion on architecture as if the students weren't in the room or were paying for a lecture they couldn't read in the library.

the negativity that is correlated to crits is a result of most people, including the jurors, not knowing how to behave emotionally in a crisis, a moment of decision. fear mainly and the position of hind-sight, to shoot a risk down that can never be played out because its only a concept.

i like to ask people why they made the decision they did.

styel can be thoroughly avoided if one approaches each situation as Scott-Brown says.

every client is different, every sitatuation is different, there is no reason for architecture to be categorized or given topological references, other than a means to giving those who fear times of decisions a safety net...ideologies to fall back on when in doubt.

someone who can design doesn't need a handbook or a text, they just do it.

Dec 7, 10 1:30 am  · 

Thanks! Your reference by Sola-Morales is new for me. Etymologically, only 'critical' implied in criticism (i.e., one can engage in a criticism without being critical) pertains to the idea of crisis.

Even so, does all crisis need to be necessarily addressed by architecture? To put this in another way, is architecture necessarily the (tentative) answer to many crises? If not, then Sola-Morales's definition is interesting but not very useful.

But assuming if we are to accept his definition for no good reason other than to legitimize criticism, then would it mean that 'crisis'--or whatever he has in mind for this concept--is literally and intentionally fabricated so that criticism can exist? Is there a global crisis in economy, environment, geo-politics and societies today? Or is it possible that much of these crises are intentionally fabricated in a few instances, and in most, the hybrid undesirable consequences of rampant (and irresponsible) media streams (how appropriate today!) and uncertain minds?

As I understand, criticism came into architectural history about from art history. I know less about how criticism came to pass from the closed door Ecole de Beaux-Arts evaluation to our star-panelists today resembling a bad episode of the American Idol because nearly everyone pretends to be Simon. I have looked at more than a few students in the eye, and even more, self-examined and self-reflected on my long journey in this system, and concluded that crit is a terrible way to teach and promulgate architectural lessons. The students who think they are geniuses don't benefit; the ones who tried to learn are always completely put down (because their designs don't compare well with those who have nothing to learn); and the students who already have everything are just paying lip service and passing time. For all students (and teachers as well), they are mostly all tired and frustrated. How is it possible that good lessons and insights can occur under such conditions and constraints?

Dec 7, 10 2:00 am  · 

Crtiticism should ideally be a thoughtful analysis that also gives some paths for proceeding forward. No slashing and burning thank you.

Maybe just "reflections by a certain critic on the current work in question" would be an encompassing definition?


the expanded field, or the "death of architectural criticism":
The reasons for the expanded field of architectural discourse could be:
1) the width of non-architectural education that would be architects are saddled with, by professors better versed in Habermas and Lacan, than construction and form.
2) the seemingly mundane and unexciting sphere of real buildings & actual projects does not speak to potential critics and writers, they have to go out of their environment and find something extremely outlandish and foreign before even beging contemplating analysing and explaining it.
3) the tradition of architectural criticism that has to do with buildings, environments and related matter with the aim of analysing, explaining and evaluating is not in sync with the dominant strains of architectural discourse today in many schools, offices.


the joy of architectural criticism:
I enjoy reading architectural criticism, the kind that deals with buildings and related phenomena. I feel that reading such writers as Scully and Frampton really opens up possibilities to see and think about quality, value and worth - not skirting these questions as too low-brow, self-evident or just boring. There is space for "writing about buildings and what they mean for people" as long as there is a built environment and critics not too detached or scared to tackle it.

Dec 7, 10 3:43 am  · 
olaf design ninja

The way I am reading Morales point on crisis and crititque is that criticism happens in practice more than anything. He gives examples of crisis for a doctor is the point at which an action is required to save the patient and crisis for the judge is the verdict.

I don't really think criticism of buildings and existing architecture really is criticism, its really more elaborate observations in which scenarios can be presented as re-enactments of the possible criticism that the architect did while practicing architecture for that particular building.

Good philosophy is practiced criticism at crisis in thought...hence I do not qualify Baudrilliard, Virillio and others that comment on current conditions critical philosophers. Frampton is a good observationists...and so are most these BLOGS. Sure they occasionally re-create a scenario in which they would suggest a critical path based on or leading up to some conclusion, but ultimately its advanced observationism.

I say get rid of jury crits all together. Pointless and damaging mode of architectural education.

Dec 7, 10 8:07 am  · 

Jury crits = good for the education of an architect, even if I agree with odn that in principle they are not a good mode of architectural education.

BUT - they expose the design & the architect, and are the best form of testing propositions - the discussion is often rife with duelling egos, faulty logic, prejudiced thinking and so forth - in other words, these are the best kind of shark tanks for the students to learn from mistakes (theirs and others), bend in the face of reasoned opposition and when necessary, stand their ground.


Yes, a crisis is obviously something that calls for a decision and action - I see criticism as probing observations & analysis - and think that not accepting the term "architectural criticism" as "criticism" means putting too much weight on the meaning of crisis (that the words are related does not necessarily mean that there should be a strong connection between their accepted meanings.)

Dec 7, 10 8:31 am  · 

this guy is a critic?

maybe not.

Dec 7, 10 9:00 am  · 
olaf design ninja

if anything Helsinki redistribute the importance of jury crits versus daily study work...the shark tank is great for potential client interaction but shouldn't be the climax of the design project.

i don't want to be seen grossly overexagerating my first reading of Morales, but I like where it's headed since it agrees with what I think already.

i think the difference between criticism and observation depends on whether a decision is/was made regarding an architectural choice.

so perhaps if a 'critic' provides the history, a re-enactment of architectural practice in all it's social, design, urban, and historical contexts, and discusses the decisions made perhaps that qualifies as 'architetural critism'.

i don't think simply making observations that are then judged on based on some system of thought qualifies as 'architectural criticism'. for example a Modernist judgement of a neo-colonial house is not criticism.

Dec 7, 10 10:52 am  · 

olaf I really like this passage from the quote you shared,

Architectural criticism is not a literary genre, nor is it a profession. It is, above all, an intellectual attitude

Perhaps that is much of what has gone wrong with regards to many of the complaints re: the professional critics.. It wasn't suppose to be a profession, but rather an extension of one's personal or professional discourse?

it seems as if you are specifically referring to the crit process when you write?

I know less about how criticism came to pass from the closed door Ecole de Beaux-Arts evaluation to our star-panelists today resembling a bad episode of the American Idol because nearly everyone pretends to be Simon. ??

Only because i would argue that one of the issue with contemporary professional criticism is that it isn't enough like Simon. Meaning it isn't critical (not necessarily mean but negative maybe) enough.

Finally, generally with regards to the jury crit it seems that the idea is to prepare an student architect to deal with rejection and opinionated clients. It seems to me that it serves a useful tool to force the student to defend and perhaps rethink their own "artistic" suppositions or beliefs vs the demands of client/program etc.

However, if that is the goal it does seem following up on Helsinki's post that critics perhaps can sometimes rely too much on negative (as opposed to constructive) criticism. Moreover, if the critics are focused more on Habermas and Lacan, than the real constraints of construction and form, it would make sense that the architectural criticism that has to do with actual experience of buildings would not be thriving.

I think that this i like to ask people why they made the decision they did. is a good approach as it forces people to think about and explain their own thought processes more.

On a side note I know that recently there has been a couple (1-2) programs started to teach focus on architectural criticism/etc at the graduate level. I would be interested in hearing about anyone's first hand experience of these programs.

Furthermore I wonder what the relationship is between criticism and curation? Is the curation and framing of a discipline's work a form of criticism. If so is this a new development?

Maybe criticism isn't strictly a written phenomenon anymore?

Dec 7, 10 11:12 am  · 

re: curation as a form of criticism I am thinking of examples such as Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement

for more see here

Dec 7, 10 11:19 am  · 


Dec 7, 10 3:27 pm  · 
olaf design ninja

curation is re-enactment of criticism, a tricky method for ultimately judging others work with your own values while not just being an observant judge but one who appears to not only understand but re-enact the architecture being critisized better than the original...

simulated and mocked history surpasses the real history and we all agree as we walk out of the art gallery. we wonder to ourselves why didn't we see that before in the architecture? good chance even the original archtiect didn't see what they were doing.

best critic of all time Philip house before farnsworth house....Mies was clueless, he needed a good critic and sponsor.

Dec 7, 10 10:43 pm  · 
olaf design ninja

lauf architecture is not a profession for the genius ontological re-enactor, it's for little black shirt workaholics who balance their existence with alcohol. mathematics and physics and music and anything stricltly virtual is for the genius of your type...well at least if you want respect for being that genius type.

voice activated cad - actually in 2000 by a friend using CAD for the first time, he was like "man if i could just tell the damn thing to draw a line to the left"

you're inferring i'm one of those guys in one of those threads?

it's possible, but today i am not who i was, i'll never get a tatoo. meaning is fleeting.

we're such good critics, we can jump into the minds of any poster, re-enact them and shut them the hell up...are peoples lives really that short in ontological options? aren't schizophrenics really just overly advanced humans not under consciouss control of their abilities? the bug that got off the elevator sent signals to the aliens today on my whereabouts....

we'd probably make good con-artists, spies, or people we really aren't.

criticism seems to gain value when the critic can relate. architects can relate to other architects, and none of us have time to publish our struggles until way late in the game when our position is outdated and the young who can't draw start doing architecture.

so the best critic is the best fake...(fake by normal peoples standards)

Dec 8, 10 11:38 pm  · 

NYT Sunday Book Review section asked 6 people to respond to the question "Why Criticism Matters?" The NYT Editors answered here and the six responses can be found here

Jan 2, 11 1:50 pm  · 

nam - interesting stuff - thanks for posting the links.

Jan 2, 11 8:35 pm  · 

although the entries are all focused on the tradition of literary criticism I thought this passage in particular, by Elif Batuman, could be applied to criticism in any field...

The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality.

Jan 2, 11 10:27 pm  · 

Nam, thanks for the links, - a good the quote!

If applied to architectural criticism, it could be understood as seeing the works in their context, as widely as possible - how they are shaped by / shaping it.

I agree that this is a viable view, but otherwise, the idea of interpretation that is so strong in Batuman's text (the idea posed by Freud that all things have the potential of another dimension of meaning behind them) is much more suitable for literary criticism, and I think sometimes architectural criticism follows this lit-crit lead and ends up feeling convoluted without telling much (of the architecture; telling lots and lots of the critic) - at the same time too shallow and too dense because of the strange tool used.

The best criticisms/analyses are the ones that find the tools for their work in the object of contemplation itself. I've always enjoyed pieces of writing that feel like they are applying a hard gaze at the material reality of something, adding the pressure so much, that the reality of the object is clarified - coal to diamond - before ones eyes.

Another thing:

A critic of architecture should not be scared of two concepts often evaded: "value" and "quality" - they are not in any way necessary, a criticism can be more like an analysis than an evaluation, but grapling with these can electrify the discourse. Architecture is about spaces and places for life and being - real stuff - its not about thought games, even though the flattening out of architecture on pages and screens makes it seem natural to regard them as primarily something to be read, rather than entities that actually act with us - making it possible for us to do and experience things. Why wouldn't architectural criticism then take these on, value and quality? - obviously, the possibility of ridicule is huge when trying to articulate a stance for / against something not on the grounds of aesthetics, ideology or ideas like coherence and originality, but on the grounds of good / bad. But I would argue, that there springs up also the possibility of active engaging discussion, of a sort that is of interest to all, not just the connoisseurs of archispeak.

Jan 3, 11 5:35 am  · 

or: the good a quote!


I do know how to use the "preview" option, I just don't seem to know how to write...

Jan 3, 11 5:37 am  · 

helsinki, completly agree with you re: the need for a focus on the material reality of the object of contemplation (although how this would apply to an unbuilt or speculative project for example I am not sure). I suppose this could mean just critiqing the space and form and not the over all interpreted "meaning" of the piece.

Here though I think you are right that seeing a work in context (social, cultural, political, artistic whatever ) is key. However, this context should probably not from my perspective include as you suggested, any Fruedian type of psycho-analytic exploration of the designers mind/wishes etc...

I think if anything the issues of value and quality that you identify are two of the issues that have been less examined in recent years. It seems as if at least many major publications have focused not on any sort of objective measure of these issues, but rather a subjective analysis of form etc. In other words. tying in with earlier post, I think criticism as a source of actual larger cultural/architectural crique vs a walk-through/review of the work has come back in vogue. If not in practice at least in theory.

Jan 3, 11 8:45 am  · 

Yeah, I wrote maybe a bit haltingly: meant to say what you wrote: that the context-thought was good and applicable, but the freudian stuff wasn't. I think over-interpreting this wish/thought/non-tangible-or-proven -area of designs inevitably lead to the critics own thoughts coming to the fore, and possibly overshadowing things that actually "are there."


About the value-quality thing: I think the flurry of opinionated like/dislike criticism on the net referred to in the NYT article is a symptom of NOT being able to articulate where value or quality is found or what it in a given context is.

Oversimplifying, one could say that criticism, or architectural writing, is either plain analysis of the meaning/working/process of a piece of art without any valuations (see: Lagos) or soundbites, anonymous shouts from the sidelines hating/praising (see: Archinect! (just kidding!)) - Anyway, talking/writing reasonably about values and quality would be a real challenge, THE challenge in my opinion.

Also in architectural education - it was mentioned earlier how important the questioning of reasons behind design choices is, in studio crits for example. These are the type of questions that will eventually lead us to questions of value: "why did you do this?" "what were you trying to achieve?" "why?" - the sad thing is, that in many cases the "values" found are just empty, cynical or downright nihilistic - but nevertheless, it's a process worth exploring - the results or lack of them after such chains may surprise, and certainly educate, everyone involved.

Jan 3, 11 9:38 am  · 

Helsinski--right on. I once asked a student 'why did you do this?' (he was advocating some kind of blade runner Simcity concept). To this he replied, 'why not?'. The ethics of 'I do because I can' is very strong in the practice of architecture. A little detail on the eaves is harmless; but a city block with that kind of rational and blind capital bending on making more is something else.

A whole generation of critics has sadly evaded this issue altogether.

Jan 3, 11 10:04 am  · 

BE: The ethics of 'I do because I can' is very strong in the practice of architecture

what's most frustrating to me is that this attitude persists after students who didn't learn self-criticism reach leadership positions - making it extremely difficult to work on an actual design team in many offices. if you cannot convey intention (or have failed to understand the purpose behind intention) you have no hope of your coworkers or staff being able to contribute to and execute a design without running a sort of dictatorship or fan-club.

It's hard enough getting people to agree on the same ideas, but almost impossible if whom you are working with is incapable of giving and receiving criticism - even at the most basic level. And it's the same with clients - good clients are often good critics.

IMO - the act of writing and reading and analyzing criticism definitely helps us better communicate design intent. unfortunately those who regularly practice this have developed a language that is far too opaque and specialized - and it excludes a large portion of not only the public, but also the profession. on the other side newspaper and magazine and random internet architecture critics are so incredibly watered down that it's far too easy for us to dismiss them.

Jan 3, 11 2:47 pm  · 

Thanks for the tip sf, I think it's important to note that when discussing good / bad & ethics in architecture, there is the risk of falling in style wars - and then the ability to keep an open mind and have at least a look on all the different views out there is tested. This book seems interesting, although there's a whiff of historicism just looking at the info on the book that is available online. How did you stumble upon it - Notre Dame?

Toaster, I agree that there's a gap between much of academic writing concerning architecture and professional / non-professional writing for the bigger public. I'm just wondering is the difference in the language, or in the refusal of taking a stand - criticism published for a broad(ish) audiences seems to have to have an opinion of the value of the architecture in question and more academic writing seems to reflexively recoil from saying anything that could be an evaluation of wether a piece is good / bad (+ reasons for the judgment.)


I'm trying to think about good examples of architecture writing that also has an opinion about value. I really love the writing of Robin Evans, for example, but most of his essays are analyses with illuminating observations - I guess this is the case often with good thought provoking writing on architecture - without anything polemical or opinionated.

Well, at least here opinions have been expressed, and if memory serves, also revised and struggled with:
V.Scully: Modern Architecture and Other Essays 2003

Another piece of great analysis and writing + opinion is of course the Death and Life of Great American Cities, but seems sad not to come up with other examples of more recent vintage...


Jan 4, 11 7:58 am  · 
St. George's Fields

As for "writing + opinion" of Death and Life of Great American Cities, you should not that when she wrote that book in 1961... her work was largely an "informed opinion." There's little difference between an "informed opinion" and "theory."

Did she hypothesize? Yes. Did she provide examples? Yes. Did she try to present a more complete picture of the situation? Yes.

Where it leaps from informed opinion or theory to fact is experimentation and collection of quantitative data. Can you test urban planning theories? Not really. Perhaps in Planned Urban Developments. But very few of PUDs produce positive results.

An interesting outlook on Jane Jacobs would be to see how much of her work did not come true. In that sense, little of Jacobs wrote about is patently false.

One needs to separate sociological from architectural in these discussions, too.

Death and Life of Great American Books is not an "Architecture" book. Most of the well-known books on urban and planning studies books are not "Architecture" books.

Jan 4, 11 8:43 am  · 

haha, helsinki. it's not a whiff of historicism - it's a text that is used in architecture history all over the u.s. and has been for decades!

for a lot of us scott's interpretation of historic architecture is the first we ever heard, i.e., the critique became equal to the history.

Jan 4, 11 8:52 am  · 

One of the most profound fallacies in architectural theory is the conflation of aesthetics with ethics, vice versa. Pugin did it; Gropius did it; Kahn did it; Botta did it. One simply cannot argue for a certain 'style' of aesthetics by using a moral argument (e.g., modern is better than neoclassical because it is more truthful). This is a category mistake.

The gap is there for a reason: to demarcate academic exclusivity on one hand, and on the other to dissociate oneself from the allegedly pedestrian mass media take on architecture and urbanism. Most of the academic writings are not literature written to elucidate or to enlighten; rather, they are written for peer reviews. There is something very disturbing about this picture; but this nature does not detract from the truthfulness of this claim.

I disagree: one can no more differentiate the sociological from architecture, especially in Jacobs's work than one can try to understand her work by taking narrated lives out of her picture and critiquing it solely on the basis of urban space. While it is true that most of the well-known books on urban design and planning are not architecture books, it does not follow from this that these categories are not related--dissociation does not mean irrelevance. Rather to take a page from the Eames, it is a matter of one's scale and/or unit of analysis.

A theory is truly a theory if it has some kind of predictive capacity. This stringent characteristic of theory makes most 'theory' in architecture atheoretical. I think in the discipline of architecture, we have loosely equated theory with history, criticism, manifestoes, models, frameworks and hagiographies (perhaps even informed commentaries). I have no problem with this broad definition of theory but we must ultimately know where we stand on this vague territory in relation to other disciplines with their own theories.

This is also where I will make a distinction between sociology and architecture.

Jan 4, 11 10:03 am  · 

BE is correct. we must be careful also when discussing theory and criticism. these discussions should be labelled 'histories and theories' considering there are complex derivatives between them. 'The Architecture of Humanism' provides this platform to think upon, and in that case style is of no issue. In reality there is no such thing as style, but rather production from the multitude of histories and theories.

Our critical ports have been destroyed in the fallacy of style. Look at sci-arc for example. There is apparently a "style" but the style is based upon a specific technology and time, making it a product of its own imagination. They have limited themselves in craft and created an architecture with few variables, hence scientific-architecture. And while the parametric production of architecture is not what i practice, i will say it has some qualities that reappear from renaissance thinking.

Helsinki - No It is a very popular book here in the US. Written initially before architecture had separated itself from nature in the 1920s, its language is quite interesting and worthy of criticism at the historical level. Sure there is some historicism mixed in, but it is quite a spectacular read for the criticism of architecture.

Jan 4, 11 11:26 am  · 

Steven, sf, BE, eew - you caught me: I've had my education outside the US - and this book was totally new to me - should maybe have a look... Oh well...

Jan 4, 11 4:12 pm  · 

Re: our brief discussion of context and criticism as a way of discussing larger social/cultural issues ... I think this quote

You might think that UBS is being unduly touchy – it could surely hire enough security to keep al-Qaida or student rioters out of an arcade or coffee shop – but it is not surprising that the planners would want to avert a Swiss flounce. Given that the shaky edifice of the British economy is in thrall to financial services, they would not want to bring down such a heavy blow for the sake of a bit of permeability for pedestrians. There is not much Shuttleworth can do with these macroeconomic forces, and it could be argued that the accommodation of brute finance is what the special enclave of the City of London is about. He can't pretend his building is not big. But he could try to reconcile the scale of the new building with its surroundings.

from Rowan Moore's recent review of Make Architects proposed design for new UBS headquarters in Broadgate London, is a great example of looking at how larger forces impact design as much as wishes of client, constraints of program or designer...

And thanks for contributing to this thread all....

I would also suggest that there is a big difference between theory and criticism. For me criticism is not independent of theory, but outside of it. The theory is more academic in nature. Criticism as I am interested in it has more to do with popular culture or at least practice... Looking not at the linkages in style, or philosophical ramifications etc of a work, but at how it functions, or what it says about us, or it's designer...

Jan 4, 11 5:26 pm  · 

quite true Steven. funny how that happens isn't it?

is death and life criticism or a fable? it isn't quite a theory. maybe a morality tale?

probably that is why it remains so popular. it avoids categories, more a metaphor than a portrait. also why it seems so relevant today, even if jacobs herself decided she got some of it wrong in later years. there is lots of room to reflect our own interests. perhaps that is what good criticism is about? making a container that has room for content to be inserted and removed at will with no ill effect. ?

there is massive amounts of quantitive research on urban planning theories. planners take the risk of promising effects from their designs, and those can be measured in a very direct way. they seldom work out, because humanity is not a machine, but it means instead of criticism we can engage in research, which has higher standards.

that doesn't make criticism of urbanism any easier - there is always the caveat that the new design is still being shaken out and in 20 years people may live there which point the design could very well be a success.

architecture doesn't seem to have that wiggle room.

Jan 4, 11 7:01 pm  · 
St. George's Fields
Jan 4, 11 10:52 pm  · 

that is a great point, jump, with respect to jacobs reminds me of something i read once, either barthes or joseph campbell, was addressing the topic of what makes something or someone mythical and the position forwarded was that the person or work does not allow partial appropriation. so much of what we do and so much intellectual, creative and political currency is about making aspects of our selves and our work partially appropriable. we let others take what they want and leave the rest and we do the same. it can be an expedient to offer one's services and support buffet-style. but with mythic figures, arguments, works, they force people to accept or reject in full a seemingly self-evident, cohesive proposition or persona, whether because of their brilliance, insightfulness, lack of verifiable referents, careful delineation of the boundaries, what-have-you. I think jacobs' work qualifies in this way. Regardless of her credentials or research, which are substantial and legitimate, the book has a gravity and poignancy that makes if feel self-evident and right and self-assured. your statement reminded me of this framing of the mythic and i see it in her work.

the problem with such an approach can be that it is difficult to develop metrics or tests to validate the propositions. this is often generally the case with positions advanced by criticism, as well.

in some ways i think criticism's weakness may actually be its strength when practiced well. that is, criticism often is an introspective process leading to an informed opinion, often based upon exhibiting a well-crafted internally valid argument that also suggests external and construct validity, though proof of these is not required or often possible. it is a creative act that can be practiced either individually or collectively, either as internal monologue or through dialogue or both. It is not beholden to validation in the same way that technical theories are. It does not have to demonstrate reproducible effect, mathematical proof or consistent results when sampling the results of its effect on a population. For these reasons, its relationship to the sciences and engineering is speculative and tentative, perhaps combative or supportive, but often not directly influential on quantitative and qualitative research efforts or architectural practice. But to the extent that it is a practiced way to exercise the mind, especially logic and to develop one's intellectual method and style, and in that it allows one to go beyond the limits of metrics and validation, it can be freeing and seeing the outline of an approaching or receding form in the penumbra and somehow conceptually grasping the presence before it is factually understood. but it can also be a convoluted, pretentious mess filled with lots of fancy sentences that kind of make sense but over-complicate the simple and oversimplify the complex.

Jan 5, 11 12:11 pm  · 

Jump, I think "the Death and Life..." remains popular also because we think we know how Jacobs felt about the things she was describing: she wasn't detached - using her own life and direct experiences in the book and making assured moral judgments about the things she saw - backed by original and persuasive reasoning. Also, works like Venturi's and Scott Brown's are examples of studying the world and making (albeit in this case implicit) statements concerning value - these are works that stay popular and influential.

jmanganelli - About "the Death and Life ..." & the mythical: one important part of the impossibility to appropriate the work partially would be the strong stance it takes - it has an agenda, and whenever you use it as a point of reference, this agenda has to be taken into account. Analogically, it reminds me of how anyone who expressed symphaty with the nazis have had all their other work inked with the same black (a bit of a faulty analogy, but wanted to write it down anyway.)

And I think you really hit upon something with the thought about criticism's weakness / strenght: getting proof / designing measurable experiments concerning the built environment is quite impossible (beyond counting cars...) and embracing the intuitive should be made easier by this - a further strenght that builds on this is the fact that architecture criticism deals with phenomena that is observed with the instrument we are potentially most in tune with: ourselves - and honing this sensitivity, the language for expressing it and communicating these insights to others can be much more valuable and enlightening than any (inevitably) pseudoscientific approach can ever be.

Jan 7, 11 8:09 am  · 
olaf design ninja

The study of being is important for the architect phenomenologically. Any other use of philosophy usually becomes irrelevant and useless - language of design, symbols, process and deconstruction, etc...

BE hit a point that answers Helsinkis quest for value. The attitude "because I can" is only going to become greater in the i-pad, i-pod, facebook, don't critisize me because I am fat and stupid future era of society. A society stuck on prevention and feeling good all the time.

We must be liberal and accept all people values, which ultimately renders them valueless. Hence every new student to architecture learns all theories on architecture are opinions valuable only to whoever wants them to be.

In short, nothing really means anything and we can't agree on anything anyway so why should anyone take the time to communicate their opinion.

Toasteroven points this attitude out as a problem in leadership. You become a leader by first enforcing your opinion and then acquiring power over others to support your opinion.

The "because I can attitude" is a leadership attribute.

I am liking nams direction towards curation of the subconcious flow of latent energy in society, the freud bit was interesting..

Jan 7, 11 9:33 pm  · 
olaf design ninja

The study of being is important for the architect phenomenologically. Any other use of philosophy usually becomes irrelevant and useless - language of design, symbols, process and deconstruction, etc...

BE hit a point that answers Helsinkis quest for value. The attitude "because I can" is only going to become greater in the i-pad, i-pod, facebook, don't critisize me because I am fat and stupid future era of society. A society stuck on prevention and feeling good all the time.

We must be liberal and accept all people values, which ultimately renders them valueless. Hence every new student to architecture learns all theories on architecture are opinions valuable only to whoever wants them to be.

In short, nothing really means anything and we can't agree on anything anyway so why should anyone take the time to communicate their opinion.

Toasteroven points this attitude out as a problem in leadership. You become a leader by first enforcing your opinion and then acquiring power over others to support your opinion.

The "because I can attitude" is a leadership attribute.

I am liking nams direction towards curation of the subconcious flow of latent energy in society, the freud bit was interesting..

Jan 7, 11 9:34 pm  · 

Theory and criticism are kind of like those crystalline structures the worker people used to make on Fraggle Rock that the Fraggles would come along and destroy and eat. Beautiful. Rarified. Refined. Fun to tear down. If only they were tasty, too.

Jan 7, 11 11:04 pm  · 
St. George's Fields

My point was more or less that scholarly arguments can be framed many ways. More often than not, architecture in the academic sense teaches one variety "argumentation" known as "theory and criticism." This is entirely not helpful when communicating or collaborating cross-discipline because "theory and criticism" are often the same thing in other disciplines.

If we take "Death and Life of American Great Cities," we can formulate different arguments for different disciplines:

From the humanities perspective, we must take every Jane Jacobs said at face value as fact. The underlying concept is that she would have not have put forth the effort to write something if it didn't have intention to that effort.

If she was being deceptive, what was she trying to cover up?
If she unknowingly writing falsities, what pretenses would there be in order to cause her misinterpretations?
Overall, what motivations existed at the time for this work deemed necessary to create?

One would then have to cross-reference those concepts with her contemporaries to identify the who-whats-where of the basic circumstances that lead her to these conclusions.

In addition, we must also investigate her past to see if there was any previous actions that would inform this future. Did her job writing propaganda from the American government-- the antithesis of this book-- play into her conceptions about the subject?

Arts (including literature):
From this perspective, we must investigate-- whether true or false-- what basic internal and external conflicts the work presents as a case. As she develops this case, we must make note of both the meta and specific plots and developments.

Is there a coherent theme? What is the most basic premise? What forces are at play? What historical and social references are necessary, redundant or unnecessary?

If we take the book as a work of art referential to society, are the assumptions both valid and understood from the referential time point at which the work was created?

Sociological (including planning):
From this perspective, we must investigate the case, case-studies and the theoretical framework created in the report to see what hypotheses and conclusions are drawn from the work.

Can the data be accepted as being accurate and truthful? What individual parts can be fact checked? Can the work even be investigated through formal and informal study? Would independent study yield similar results through survey, experiential study or testing?

If parts of the work are inaccurate or fabricated, can the entirety of the report be invalidated? What misconceptions or illogical conclusions can be further investigated?


I'm sure this is self-evident. But we must see whether a hypothesis was formed, what variety of experiential model was used and what kind of data generated is produced to see what, if any, solid conclusions had any specific merit.

Due to the fact that the subject of study at hand is fourth-dimensional (time-dependent), the general hypothesis would have to be retested at specific intervals for an indefinite period of time to see if changes in the test model produce any statistically significant results.

Given the complexity of the experiment and many subordinate experiments, too many confounding factors might be present to render any significant meta-analysis of the entirety of the meta-hypothesis.

Even if the majority of interpreted experiments only render qualitative data, one could test applicable theories if the qualitative responses are all similar in scope and point. Demographics would have to be both fixed and randomly sampled in two different control groups to insure a comprehensive, founded data pool.

And this, basically, was my point that many scholarly arguments can be framed from many vantage points. Because sociology, arts, humanities, psychology and their related disciplines often overlap... many scholarly argumentative approaches can be made.

Architecture-- while right nor wrong-- seems to widely misappropriate formal argumentative reasoning by either totally rejecting standard formulaic approaches or by adopting incompatible reasoning. I cringe when I see architectural topics only being explained or expounded through philosophical means rather than through more appropriate means such as scientific, historical or arts methodology.

Jan 8, 11 12:29 am  · 

this is a very interesting point, uxbridge. it reminds me of ecological interface design, cognitive work analysis (more specifically work domain analysis) and fbs modeling (which I'm learning about this year) in the following sense. When designing complex human-machine systems, assessing user needs and systems requirements in order to specify and design the system or as part of interface design, these techniques mentioned are used. fbs is more rooted in engineering and cda and wda in human factors psych. but their techniques have some considerable overlap. It is what they do, broadly speaking, that relates to your point.

There is an implicit paradigm underlying these data gathering and analysis techniques that the system in question is complex and its manifestation may be understood most coherently in different ways depending upon the level of analysis and the focus. Thus it takes several analytical models to understand needs and requirements well enough to design a useful system. That is obvious enough. But ultimately, to design a useful, robust system or interface, the one design has to account for and address all of the facets of all of those models. So when using these techniques, it is key both to thoroughly map all of the models and, to the greatest extent possible, map all of the interrelations between the models. With this analysis, it is possible to move onto designing the system, which is where the ecological interface method comes into play. In order to do so, part of the success of the system is derived from making the inherent structure and relationships of this aggregated model easily legible and useful to the user. It all starts with that analysis.

In reading your post, I see a call for a similar approach (in spirit) in architecture. That method A or B or C or D etc by itself is useful if rigorous but (and here is where I may be projecting onto your post a bit) that what is really needed is to be able to access and use all of these models in conjunction, as so many overlays of data and structure, in order to discern a likely master narrative that will lead to coherent and verifiable design.

In order to pull both human needs analysis, systems requirements and building performance requirements and metrics into one unified platform, adopting a strategy reliant upon co-simulation involving UML or SysML systems modeling and CAD plus PLM solution and a simulation environment such as excite or teamcenter, etc, as is done in aerospace, large scale product development and software development seems to be the near term trend.

This gets at validating the performance-based aspects of architectural design but may seem like some sort of totalizing framework that precludes design thinking and ultimately designers themselves. It could very well be. No system, natural or otherwise is immune from becoming prisoner to its own rigid, abeit success structure; in this case the capacity to operationalize a massive amount of data and analysis. But just like in natural systems, novelty is key to find the cracks and flaws in the methods and the tools and ultimately for the health and longevity of the system.

And this is where, I think, the creativity implicit in theory and criticism comes into play. While theory and criticism (as we know it) may seem suspect when compared to more technically grounded analytic methods, it also has the freedom to escape the constraints of the mroe rigidly defined approaches. Yet it usually maintains enough of that rigor that it is in some ways relatable to the aforementioned methods, well-positioned to offer critique.

Jan 8, 11 1:24 am  · 

uxbridge - jacobs was a community organizer - her book uses observation to back up certain political ideologies to advance her cause... yes it's criticism of overly "scientific" and non-humanist approaches to urban planning, but it's also a tool to help neighborhoods fight against development/destruction because it gives them a language and set of examples to draw upon.

you're right that many architecture topics fail to convince "the public" of their validity because they leave out more relatable (NOT "appropriate") methods of argument - but it's important to understand that all criticism and all theory is political/ideological even when backed up by science and research - and that all architecture is political. ideology cannot be escaped no matter how opaque we make our arguments or how much science we use to back up our claims (conservative pundits often use this as their only criticism, but we all should know that this is a given when presented with any information).

The reason criticism is important is because it is supposed to attempt to identify and dissect the agendas of the author of the work (in our case, the architect and the client). but we also need to understand the agenda of the critic who is doing the critiquing.

Jan 8, 11 10:26 am  · 

toast The reason criticism is important is because it is supposed to attempt to identify and dissect the agendas of the author of the work (in our case, the architect and the client).

but that is only one form of architectural criticism right? Can't criticism also just be about the project itself, how it works as spatial experience, or urban object etc...

I guess what I am trying to say is somtimes criticism focuses to much on the "agendas" (philosophical, theoretical etc) than on the specific building and why it is good or bad...

Although re: the issue of agenda, that passage by Rowan Moore that i posted a few post back seems a good example of a case wherein dissecting the agenda of client or architecture is key to understanding the proposal.

The other issue that seems to be surfacing (for me at least) is the potential difference between criticism of the built project vs criticism which is helping to shape (hopefully) the project as it is being designed, proposed and built....

If one differentiates thusly, is it safe to say that the two forms of criticism are seeking to accomplish different things and thus looks and reads differently?

Jan 8, 11 10:37 am  · 

IF everything is political, then nothing really is.

The reason why architecture persists in the 'philosophical' method--there is actually nothing, absolutely nothing philosophical in the truest sense of that word, in most of the writings; feelings and opinions yes; but philosophy, no--is because it continues to persist in the thought that buildings can be 'read'. Just as one read Borges, one can read the glass house. And just as one can deconstruct a reading of Borges, one can deconstruct the narrative or description of the glass house. But the fallacy is open for all to see: there is nothing to be read in a work of architecture because it is not a book.

That said, Colin Rowe's 1947 essay on the mathematics of the ideal villa is quite something. It is lucid, vivid and a piece of productive research without the usual trappings of (social scientific) methods.

Jan 8, 11 10:43 am  · 

I think the differentiation between the two forms of criticism is valid. Not everything has an agenda or an intended politics, or the actual agenda is different than the interpretation

when people connect with a design, they often feel as though they "get it" and often it is inaccurate by a good degree --- just projection

nothing wrong with that, these readings have value, and sometimes there is an intended narrative, or recovering the actual intent of the author adds to the value of the work

but the trouble seems to be with the presumption of correlation or the degree of correlation between the reading and the architecture

last spring i saw kipnis and finch discuss the projects of mayne, diller, scoggin and meredith face to face with the designers -- and it was interesting to see the degree to which the reading of the architecture, even when focused on understanding process and not just interpreting form, and even when said readings were illuminating in and of themselves, were still just projection

in fact, at one point kipnis complimented mayne on a move in a building in china while we all looked at the projected image of the space in question --- mayne's response was that something was a mistake and they had to think fast how to make the best of it and this is what resulted --- kipnis deftly spun the conversation in another direction --- mayne went on talking about how many thousand unique pieces of steel they got into the building and what that meant to him --- the correlation between the criticism and any basis in the actual motives or process was suspect, if that is how it justifies its relevance

at one point, after another case of the "reading" projecting the agenda onto what was actually just problem-solving, finch joked that, "ah, well it worked in practice, but does it work in theory..."

i think criticism is a fine art, maybe like ballet. Does it have value? Yes. Utilitarian value? Probably not. But why would you want it to have that kind of value. That is not its purpose.

Jan 8, 11 11:12 am  · 

Geoffrey Scott once remarked that we use ethical language on our buildings precisely because we make and treat our buildings like machines; so that we can humanize what we have made inhumane. Perhaps the non-utilitarian practice of criticism is to allow a bit of our humanity--in all its uselessness, non-purposiveness, pretentiousness, wantonness and so forth--to creep back into something that follows from a blend of practical intentions and contingencies.

Jan 8, 11 11:27 am  · 
sic transit gloria
"there is nothing to be read in a work of architecture because it is not a book. "

"the non-utilitarian practice of criticism is to allow a bit of our humanity--in all its uselessness"

Wow, BE, are you actually alive, and not maybe a machine yourself? There is already nothing BUT humanity in all architecture. Buildings, be it "architecture" or a simple shack, and particularly houses, figure in most of our actions and then memories, indeed cannot be separated from them...and by extension cannot be separated from the entirety of our selves.

Architecture may not be able to be read, but it speaks plenty. You need to read (or re-read) you some of the always timely "The Poetics of Space".

Small example, apropos the present season:

Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. Not only does it confer age upon our memories, taking us back to a remote past but, on snowy days, the house too is old. It is as though it were living in the past of centuries gone by.

Jan 8, 11 3:46 pm  · 
olaf design ninja

Uxbridge I think you're a Kwinter fan,

and Kwinter is quite appropriate in the reading of architecture here.

(i'd argue architecture could actually be self-referential criticism and story at once. you don't need to go outside the piece to find reasons for what happened. as jman points out above all the outside forces converged on the pieces existence and what happened is a result of all people involved and forces...the result is the story and the story is it's own critique. that link about Tolstoy's response to a critic would be appropriate.)

for a science of architecture i think the closest other science is the study of the Economy. Economists are social mathematicians, architects are social sculptors. we could work together.

architecture does speak poetics, an ontological poetics, one many people never recognize as the environment is always assumed and taken for granted.

if you start to dig deep into Lebbeus Woods renderings and place yourself in those might just make a movie with the renderings as landscape...a movie that makes a world, a world that influences your state of being.

Jan 8, 11 6:17 pm  · 

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