civil architectural criticism

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I love architecture, I love to talk about architecture and I love to dialogue with others about architecture. Yet, nothing gets me more irritated than people who throw out useless or foolish statements that do not contribute to a conversation or worse are based solely upon their narrow preference.

After 26 years practice and 12 years of teaching in a university setting, I have been around of lot of architectural discourse and found ways that I believe make for good conversations about architecture, while allowing everybody involved to learn and think in a way that is meaningful. Spend any amount of time on social media today and one will see comments made by trolls who love to throw hidden bombs of indiscreet remarks that do nothing but frustrate and irritate those whose work is being represented. I find it gutless and cowardly.

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This doesn’t mean that comments can’t be critical of built work that might be thoughtless or insipid; at times work is just that bad. For instance, everyone in the architectural world has followed the saga of the blog against the McMansions and the author’s legal struggle with Zillow. My interest is not discussing the legalities of the case or my opinion on those details, but here is a site that comes across quite harsh and at times insulting to those who own or designed these houses; however, the blatant indulgence and lack of any redeeming design qualities in these houses warrants a severe response. The site makes me laugh, yet I’m not convinced the constant shaming will make any noticeable change. I just know there are no velvet gloves in her responses. Perhaps its popularity has confused the legal discussion, but that’s another day folks.

Meaningful discourse doesn’t mean a lack of passion, nor does it mean comments cannot be direct or even severe at times. Honesty isn’t always kind but it needn’t be nasty. I’m going to offer a few of my guidelines for meaningful discourse. I find many people unskilled at talking about architecture – especially in public – especially at architectural student reviews. To that end, I offer a few rules – or better yet, questions to ask to get the conversations started.

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likes
One of the first things that must be disassociated when offering a useful comment is personal preference. Yes, we can have meaningful conversation about the merits of any work of architecture without personally liking it. We can judge it on its own merits rather than get bogged down with “what would I do” or turning up one’s nose at it in disgust much like a child reacts to eating vegetables. Personal likes shut down conversation – as it cannot be debated. You like it or don’t like it, so what?

history
Obviously if we are discussing new work, one ought to ask how it address our time. It seems to be universal that something built in our current era ought to speak of our current culture, our current technology and our current place on this planet, regardless of what visual methods or materials are used to represent it.

quality
Does the work appear to have been done thoughtfully with good composition skills, a good understanding of material assembly and built with craftsmanship on the part of the builder or contractor? At times one can capture an idea in its purest sense as strong, but the actual execution of it might not have lived up to the same level of quality. Therefore, the distinction between those two can be part of that conversation; in other words, we can give credit to the author for the idea but then critique harsher the construction for not equating. Conversely, an underwhelming idea might be built to a higher level of craftsmanship where the final execution elevates (or disguises) the original idea. Both are possible.

does it work
This is related to but not necessarily the same thing as function. To be honest, the term function is overused or misused far too often. Mr. Sullivan’s legendary quote is typically misrepresented. I find it more important to discuss how architecture extends beyond the limits and boundaries of mere program and contributes to the greater context of community. For instance, if we have the building next to a river or on a corner lot or some other type of the striking site, I ask what does it do to embellish or celebrate that situation? Does it invite people to engage with it? Do we see crowds of people gathering around sitting on it, under it? Does is stimulate activity or is it sterile and repel people away? Is the scale inviting or oppressive, dare I say claustrophobic?  I could go on, but how something works is a far more interesting conversation.

function
Perhaps this is best judged by the actual end users, whether it be a homeowner, students, or hospital staff. It might be educators or employees. We would ask ordinary things like is the light switch in the right place, is equipment located correctly, is the temperature comfortable, is there harsh light, is it easy to navigate through the building, does the roof leak, or does it have maintenance problems? We could go on with aspects of programmatic relationships of spaces. Are classrooms in the right place or the offices located near or far from critical elements? I’m sure in healthcare situations, the relationship of spaces is highly critical. Buildings might excel in these categories, and they should – this is very important, but when judged against the other categories, we still might find prosaic responses that do little for the human spirit.

civility
Passion is important, conviction is important, but to engage with people and move the conversation forward without enraging others, there needs to be level of respect and grace shown in the conversation. Throwing mud at a building or designer, calling people names, or making innuendo or sophomoric allusions might only be funny to a small group of people. It is true some things are so bad and thoughtless that sarcasm and sharp wit might be necessary to convey the gravity of the offense. I’m all for that at times. Yet, I hope we can tell the difference. Comments can reflect more poorly against the critic than the target with a result of zero.

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I love architectural debate, I love to talk about architecture and I often enjoy talking with people of diametrically opposed positions. It’s stimulates thinking and it allows growth or deeper convictions. Consensus is often boring and sometimes we change our minds – yes, it happens.

Before we hit enter, before we even type it, before we say it, think carefully about whether our statement is useful or merely shows our own personal ignorance.

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civil architectural criticism

5 thoughts on “civil architectural criticism

  1. I don’t like this post, I love it. Thanks for taking the time to articulate these points Lee. It reminds me of a book called Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro. It’s about working with and for clients as a design professional (emphasis on professional), and all of the things that should come along with that. Although the intended audience aren’t architects, the content applies. It should be required reading for all students and professionals working in design positions. I think your audience would find value in it.

  2. John Hrivnak says:

    Respectfully disagree. “Personal preference” is why we don’t all live in identical houses or drive identical cars or wear… you get the point. I, too, have been both practicing and teaching architecture for decades. Its my opinion that we can learn about “personal preference” and gain useful insights when we ask “why” one likes or dislikes something.

    Many like a restaurant for its “ambiance”… asking them what about the place triggered that response can help one better observe one’s environment and learn what “triggers” engage certain senses or emotions.

    I do not think that’s a bad thing.

    So… if you just don’t like “it”… ask yourself why a few times – then a few more… the insights gained can be instrumental in helping one formulate designs that successfully hit the target of “I like it”.

    1. I don’t think you’re response is actually the opposite of mine, but we’d have more fun carrying on with it over coffee. We may be saying the same thing with different words or different emphasis. Either way, I appreciate your insights.

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