The Indicator: Death of a Critic

When a major architecture critic heads for the exit, does anyone care? One would suspect most architects would hold the door open and wave him on through. Critics, after all, can be quite nasty and make one’s life work look like so much poop.

So, it depends. When Herbert Muschamp died in 2007 the collective tissue boxes of the architectural profession were emptied as architects of all stripes, especially those he championed, shed rivers of tears. Mr. Muschamp, it seems, was a critic of consequence. People listened to him. What then of his protégé, Nicolai Ouroussoff? (Hereafter, simplified to N.O.) Will be N.O. missed?

More after the break.

By some, definitely yes. N.O. also had his favorites (Gehry, Zaha, Foster, Nouvel, et al). Bias? Critics do not pretend to be objective. Criticism is personal. (Nancy Levinson makes an eloquent case for this in her opinion piece, “Critical Beats”. She quotes H.L. Mencken who called criticism “prejudice made plausible.”) The best critics can acknowledge this while illuminating the more shadowy corners of collective culture as they attempt to narrate the impact architecture has on the psyche. Names are just part of the story. They are often a starting point for discussing architecture that is also anything but objective. Call this being compromised or simply the human condition of being mediated, as Deleuze may have defined it (Deleuze, Gilles. “Mediators” trans. Martin Joughin, in Zone 6: Incorporations. Ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Urzone, 1992), 286.).

To read critiques about critics, one might think N.O. is one of the most hated critics on the planet and that parades will commence once he leaves his desk at The New York Times. It could happen. There is so little to celebrate these days now that we are finished dancing around the bon fire over the killing of Osama bin Laden. Let us then celebrate the figurative death of a critic—death by way of silence. At least until he is resurrected via the monumental tome he is promising to drop on us—“a book about the architectural and cultural history of the last 100 years, ‘from Adolf Loos’s Vienna and the utopian social experiments of post-revolutionary Russia to postwar Los Angeles and the closing years of the 20th century,’ as Nicolai describes it.”(Iovine, Julie. “No More Nicolai: Critic Leaving NY Times”. Architect’s Newspaper, A/N Blog, June 6, 2011).

As Alexandra Lange noted in her scathing article, “Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough” (about which she goes on at length and offers many specific examples of critical ineptitude or inability to live up to the vehement and emotional roughness of iconic critics such as one Michael Sorkin) N.O. may have in fact weakened the case for the survival of critics in general by not making them look good enough and worth the ever smaller portions of our dwindling attention spans.

Despite her attempt, it is not so easy to dismiss the entirety of a critic’s (a writer’s) body of work. It is also not easy to put the so-called demise of architectural criticism on one critic because she thinks his loafers are too loose. She may in fact be guilty of the same crime she accuses him of: selective reading. What is revealed in the slap to the face she has delivered to the oeuvre of N.O. is a writer’s tendency to gravitate toward certain styles. If he is guilty of anything, it is of embracing a style that sets up sequences of atmospheres with little repeated body blows of facts strewn within the hovering fog of language. As a writer, I see in his criticism the formation of scenes, staging he places to situate the buildings under scrutiny in a mental world that transcends their physical surroundings. Perhaps N.O. would be treated less harshly if he were a poet. Leave the poor poet alone, people might say.

To be an architecture critic, though, is to be in the position of easy target. They should all wear little signs on their backs that say “kick me.” You didn’t say this. You said that. You should have said this, but you said that. I don’t know what you said, but you shouldn’t have said it. People love to hate critics. They hate them the way they hate circus clowns. But they are also slightly terrified of them in irrational ways. Is it because they think what critics do is easy? In a sense, it is easy to be a critic, to assess the hard work of others. However, it isn’t easy to be a good critic. Was N.O. a good critic? You will have to be the judge of that.

For architecture, though, there is a need for architecture critics. They are already on the endangered species watch-list. Once the population of major-publication architecture-critics dwindles past, let’s say ten (I’m just making this up but I have a suspicion it’s true because the same holds for when the populations of speakers of endangered languages reach a certain minimum threshold the language is then classified as essentially dead) then we confront a world that is potentially without architectural criticism of the-sort-usually-published-by-major-publications. What then?

Back to the question: will N.O. be missed? Yes. Even by critics of critics like Ms. Lange. The profession will miss him because, as a writer for The New York Times, he brought architecture to the consciousness of the masses. He and other critics are the public’s continuing education in architecture. People take interest in architecture through the medium of language…not just images and not exclusively by directly experiencing buildings (most people do not get to travel to great buildings so they rely on the mediated versions). One less major critic is one less bull-horn (obvious nod to Mr. Bjarke Ingels, but he’s right, architecture needs a bull-horn—it needs volume not just pretty pictures and not just the final result of a building that cannot travel).

So what, you might say. There is plenty of architectural writing on The Web. He will not be missed. But…writing on The Web is, how shall I put it, not literature (not my own of course, wink, wink). Well…it’s not all crappy, but it is different than what makes it through the editorial review process of a major international newspaper. Most of the architectural writing on the web is editorless. This does not mean it is bad. You might say it is less mediated (that word again), less screwed with, more authentic. Sometimes, yes. But architecture on The Web is mostly for architects so this raises the specter of what the message is. What we say to one another can be vastly different from what the culture at large is saying…about us and about what we are saying to ourselves. This leads to forms of criticism that are generally free of criticism and more gleeful description, architecture writers cheering architects in media designed to be consumed by architects. Thus, the demise of architectural writing in a broader, less-ensconced, less rah-rah way spells “L”, “O”, “S”, “S” for all of us—whatever you might think of a critic’s style or approach. And by the way, N.O. was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 so somebody thought he was doing something worthwhile.

So onto the next important question: Is anyone going to take N.O.’s place? Whom would you nominate?


The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates.

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Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Death of a Critic" 09 Jun 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 18 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=142684>