There’s a saying that goes “Those who can’t do, teach.” But many could also claim: “Those who can’t do, critique.” Criticism, particularly Architecture Criticism, tends to get a bad rap for being subjective, impenetrable, and – ultimately – useless. But Paul Goldberger, a champion of the craft, would disagree.
In his acceptance speech for the Vincent Scully Prize earlier this month, Goldberger, the long-time architecture critic for The New York Times and current contributor to Vanity Fair, suggests that Architectural Criticism isn’t just vital – but more important than ever before.
With the advent of visually-oriented social media like Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr, it’s never been easier for the architectural layman to observe, share, and consume architecture. However, in the midst of this hyper-flow of image intake, Goldberger argues, meaning gets lost.
That’s where the critic comes in.
In his speech, “Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter,” Goldberger draws a big distinction between appearance and substance. While new media has certainly democratized the field of architecture, destroying the hegemony of architecture magazines, it has also inundated us with beautiful images, encouraging us to evaluate architecture at face (or facade) value, robbing it of its deeper meaning.
At the same time, there has also been a surge of interest in the general population about the potential of architecture for good: how architecture can shape our cities, form new public spaces, and better our quality of life.
Thus, Goldberger argues, it’s the critic’s job to help the public navigate the flow of images and understand how best to harness architecture in their own lives. By taking a step back, and considering the consequences of architecture in the long-term, the Critic is a kind of “front-line” interpreter, helping people to (1) evaluate architecture for its usefulness, not its aesthetics; (2) understand the forces that often “impose” architecture onto their lives; and (3) empower them to become an active participant, engaging them in those forces so they can better shape their built world.
I’ll conclude with Goldber’s own words, as the Pullitzer-Prize winner puts it best: “Crowdsourcing is not the express train to wisdom. The most popular is not always the best. The new is not always easy to understand. [...] In an age in which attention spans are ever shorter, it is the critic’s job to take the long view. Maybe that’s the most important thing of all that criticism can give us, to help us step back from the noise, to try and maintain the luxury of extended thought, to think long term. Architecture, after all, is about the long term. And it is the critic’s job how it performs its alchemy, how it does its magic, how it affects us, and to encourage and support that process, enhancing the impact of architecture as a resonant presence in all of our lives.”