How can a building be 'critical'?


I'm a undergrad (senior year!) at a rather intellectual school. Right now we're designing in a studio an academic building for the art program, a little ways off campus.

My professor is really intelligent and interesting, but I just can't follow exactly what she means. She says our buildings should be "critical" and have a "critical agenda." Basically, I think this means that the building should be saying something / taking a stance / commentating on something. She says it should have a stance on the buildings role in its specific location on campus and on how art is produced. But I think she also means 'critical agenda' in a deeper way that I don't quite grasp.

Can someone who's been around the block explain to me how a building can have a critical agenda? Rather than just looking cool, being a good neighbor on its block, and setting up good programmatic relationships so that it functions well?


Sep 22, 08 9:29 pm

code red...... we have a code red......chains off the doors......the enemy is here

maybe she wants something that has substance and not just some random b.s.

or maybe if your idea is to have zombies in the studios...then you better have some zombies in the walls or something......

Sep 22, 08 9:36 pm
Carl Douglas (agfa8x)

I would take 'being critical' to mean avoiding assumptions, especially about the things that seem most obvious. How is your project more than just 'practice for the real world'? How does it contribute in an informed way to architecture as a whole?

Sep 22, 08 9:39 pm

I particularly like Mary Povey's construction, "In my view, critical should not mean judgmental, but rather crucial, or essential."

But you should look up the convention of the editors of Critical Inquiry, and peruse the various position statements they wrote. One of them should strike a chord with you, and you can build a project around that.

Sep 22, 08 9:49 pm
vado retro

besides looking cool. maybe you ought to read something about art? and as far as how art is produced who can even decide on what art is let alone how it produced...

perhaps you ought to wander on over to the art department and talk to some artists maybe they could give you some insight or better yet just use this quote, hell claim it as your own, no one will ever know one way or another. use it as your critical agenda, your concept, your mojo, hell get a t shirt with the quote across the front. it will look cool!!! so, much for the rather intellectual school...

"The great art is always ceremonial. The great art is terrifying, sometimes monstrous and repellent, but always beautiful. when the gods speak, the figure is stupendous and frightful."-John Graham,
Systems and Dialectics of Art,

Sep 22, 08 10:05 pm

this is very helpful so far. thanks...!

Sep 22, 08 10:13 pm

you have to find quite a bit about art and art education... develop a position about it. in terms of how it interfaces with narratives of cultural decoding, interference, political locations, individual placements and social placements, historical development, consumption, production and exchange values of art and artists in the past, present and future places. study commerce in art markets, museums, galleries, etc. visit some art schools and join few art studio classes as an observer.
after that, you can start to make critical views and start to transfer them into your building program and its delineation.
i suspect it will be more about programmatic formulations and commentary before the form related moves, if you are serious.
treat it as a good semester to study art in the age of neo capitalism and the utopian society, if you need some frame of reference.
don't fall for one liner gestures, that would be a missed opportunity.

however, in architecture schools and in many cases, after two weeks of research part of the projects, all these go out the door and somehow a magical rendering or a cardboard model appears. after that, it is all rush for final presentation, where a picture or two and some quotes appear as references to your research, taking a small portion of the wall pin up... try to break out of that formula. and don't be afraid to ask your teacher how she means.

Sep 22, 08 11:29 pm

the converging/diverging relation of architecture and art...

Sep 22, 08 11:56 pm

Can someone who's been around the block explain to me how a building can have a critical agenda? Rather than just looking cool, being a good neighbor on its block, and setting up good programmatic relationships so that it functions well?

Critical thinking: implies being, Crucial and Decisive, in an effort to see and understand a design problem and its intended solution clearly and honestly, in order to judge the reasoning behind the design decisions in relationship to the completed whole.

Have a reasonable and defendible intent for doing what you have chosen to do. Think through and evaluate the alternatives, at each decision level, then choose the one that is best suited and compatible with the intent of the design.

The opposite of a critcally thought out agenda, would be an arbitrary one. Where you predetermine what the building should look like, then work to make everything else fit wthin the predetermined outcome.

Sep 23, 08 12:54 am

make sure it doesnt leak and comes in under budget

Sep 23, 08 12:54 am


that certainly meets the definition of critical truth.

Sep 23, 08 1:37 am

thanks, this really helps clear it up. now i just have to give it a shot... i'll let you know how it goes.

Sep 23, 08 7:38 am

so far i like orhan's answer best, though it implies an awful lot of research you'd have to do prior to actually making a design proposal.

in simpler and more architectural terms, rather than analyzing all of culture, politics, and economics in order to take a position, you could keep it a little simpler at first. look at the built environment around your site and make your building a response to that environment.

this turns 'context' on its ear a little bit - you're not necessarily trying to 'fit' [shiver up my spine using the word], though that could be one response, so much as you are recognizing 'this is how things are' and your design proposal either supports/reinforces that condition or calls it into question. or both.

most importantly, whatever your design is intended to do, you HAVE to be able to say it and say why.

Sep 23, 08 8:11 am
vado retro

art school projects soundtrack...


Sep 23, 08 8:49 am
liberty bell

My architecture professor, at an architecture school that was steeped/immersed/drowning in the culture of art-making (Cranbrook) once said we needed to make sure our design projects answered the question "How does this project further the discipline (of architecture)?"

Sep 23, 08 8:56 am
vado retro

"One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture. It's like being the piano player in a whorehouse, you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs." Robert Hughes

Sep 23, 08 9:25 am

cool, thanks!

Sep 23, 08 12:38 pm

You've gotten some good responses here.

Let me add one: ask her what she means.

Unfortunately, academia tends to attract folks who speak in catch phrases. Critical thinking is something we should always be applying, but if you're unsure as to her full meaning, ask.

We shouldn't be afraid to seek clarification. A decent instructor will respond helpfully.

Sep 23, 08 12:47 pm
chatter of clouds

horror movie mansions are very critical buildings. their gables look like raised eyebrows. like my aunts'. and they're quite critical of their living people's habits. like my aunt.

Sep 23, 08 12:55 pm

Just ask her what she means.

When I have done this in class, the jargon spouting prof's usually stutter for a few minutes before changing the subject.

Sep 23, 08 1:04 pm
chatter of clouds

when you have done this in class, you must have creamed your pants, when you have done this in class. bravo for creaming in your pants, when you have done this in class.

Sep 23, 08 1:48 pm

I've got balls, big ones at that. No creaming of pants necessary.

I've called the bluff of the jargon spouting prof's throughout college, still passed with flying colours.

You little sheep, probably nod and agree, while they laugh to themselves thinking;

'Oh foolish people, is there nothing you won't believe'

Sep 23, 08 1:53 pm
chatter of clouds

boasting about your balls, boy, you should be wary around some sheep

Sep 23, 08 2:01 pm

critical agenda

Racheal Whiteread "House" 1993

Sep 23, 08 4:27 pm

Take a position!... think of it as a debate on an aspect of the building's design approach to...... fill in the blank.

Sep 23, 08 10:57 pm
chatter of clouds

there's a disconcerted awareness behind being critical. a refusal to let a moment pass by without being both aware of it and somewhat discorted by it. there's also what seems to be a drive to both explain the moment in a lineage of preceding moments (how it belongs historically) and how it belongs thematically. its a suspicious and organized look at the flow of an unchecked history. when of substance and not merely captious or ironic for irony's sake, it is a belly-disturbing vision ... abstract and disruptive.

Sep 24, 08 5:37 am
chatter of clouds

organizing look...rather

Sep 24, 08 5:40 am

Blah, Blah

Sep 24, 08 8:06 am

If you can't say it you can't do it.

Sep 24, 08 12:21 pm
another reference.

the artists do it all the time.

Sep 24, 08 1:06 pm

Stephen Lauf, Architecture in Critical Condition (Quondam, 2008).

from the series:
Architecture in Undetermined Condition
Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment.
Architecture in Good Condition
Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
Architecture in Fair Condition
Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
Architecture in Serious Condition
Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
Architecture in Critical Condition
Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.

Sep 24, 08 2:34 pm

this reminds me of an story I heard Robert Irwin tell at a talk in 2006.

He was invited to a creative conference with the likes of Frank Ghery and some other notable architects and designers who I forget.

Irwin has spent a lifetime creating spatially charged and "critical" minimalist art and pretty much invented West Coast Minimalism.

Anyway, at the start of the conference each participant was asked to stand and introduce themselves and what they do. As each person stood, the successful architects in the room each explained that they consider themselves Artists and not Architects.

Bob told the story that he responded something along the lines of "if you guys are all artists then I guess I don't need to be here." and walked out.

He then went on to talk about the lifetime he spent thinking and creating art and dealing the issues and theory of fine art creation and how daft he thought it was that some architect, after spending their life thinking architecture, would stand up and claim to be an artist when they really have very little understanding about what that means.

He then asked what we thought the architects would have said if he had stood up and claimed to be an architect?

anyway, just an interesting anecdote.

Sep 24, 08 4:24 pm

The interesting part of Irwin's anecdote, I think, is this notion that architects don't want to just be architects. Why is that? Do we associate architecture with the banalities of "mere" construction?

Artists spend their entire careers engaging with abstract ideas. Most of what they create serves no practical function. The best architects, to my mind, are able to harness abstract ideas and realize them in functional ways. The best architects are social artists; that is, they make art out of the interactions of people and space.

Architects should be proud of being architects.

Sep 24, 08 4:55 pm


Sep 24, 08 5:01 pm

maybe that something your building is saying should really be about what it is doing, rather than what it is.

maybe critical could mean, don't start from your preconceived notions of "art school", rather, develop your building with an idea of a building that is a about art education and the making of art, and your take on that is ________ and that's why it does _______ and responds to the site in _______ way. think about the site in terms of the users, the forces affecting it, the political, social, and cultural, economic forces? maybe no need to get too heavy on reading, but simply make observations regarding context, talk about different scales.

your end product could even re-conceptualize "art school"...

show a thought process related to what your understanding of art is (based on your observational and other research) and a process of investigation that led to your design.

Sep 25, 08 4:00 am
chatter of clouds

there was one point in schools where this would have been easily achieved by making a nice pristine model box then stomping on it. apparently, its a different dance now.

Sep 25, 08 5:19 am

critical as in done the way it as always been done with out employing new technologies of efficiency and human occupant health?

Sep 25, 08 11:28 am

I was thinking about this question, and google searching to try to find an article I read in archi-school, I don't remember who the writer was, but the article addressed this exact debate. The article was something like, "Can architecture be critical?"

I'm not sure, but its possible it was in here:

Perspecta 33 "Mining Autonomy" - This issue of Perspecta, the Yale journal of architecture might be worth reading, describes this whole discourse about "architectural autonomy"... Peter Eisenman wrote a bunch of stuff on this, not sure where...

Found these online, worth reading, a summary of this whole discourse on criticality in architecture:

"criticality" and discontents; george baird

critical of what?; reinhold martin

Some other stuff related to this:

Autonomy and the Will to the Critical.
Peter Eisenman Assemblage, No. 41 (Apr., 2000), pp. 90-91

an abstract for an article related to this debate online... couldn't get into it, but sounds like it might be relevant if you can find this journal at your library

Sep 28, 08 11:06 am

found this, sort of relevant to the discussion of art and architecture:

architecture as conceptual art?

Sep 28, 08 11:27 am

To ERr with SuperGlue
Bilocation Syndrome
Going into Eclectic Shock/Therapy
Surgical Double Theater
Waiting Room: Anxious, Reading, Liszt
Operation a Success; Patient Dead
Malpractice Case: Houses
Eternal Wrest

chapters of Architecture in Critical Condition: Which Doctor?

Sep 28, 08 1:05 pm

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