The following article by Oliver “Olly” Wainwright (Architecture and design critic at The Guardian) was featured on Fulcrum #67 “The End of Critique”, which also included an article by ArchDaily’s co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, David Basulto.
Baubles on Pedestals
It has become increasingly fashionable to trumpet the death of criticism. Barely a week goes by that there isn’t a new blog declaring the end of architectural critique, the slipping of standards, the domination of our screens by an unmediated slew of images.
“Criticism is in crisis,” wail the critics, seeing their traditional role threatened by a torrential tide of websites that funnel an incontinent splurge of unadulterated visual stimulation. From Dezeen to ArchDaily, Designboom to Architizer, we are bombarded with a never-ending deluge of projects, freed from any sense of context or meaning. It is easy to believe the cries that architectural culture is being flattened into a homogenous soup of saturated colours and oblique geometries – a cascade of effortlessly digested eye-candy to be liked, retweeted, pinned and shared across the infinite social media network.
The act of criticism, we bemoan, has become reduced to 140-characters, or the simple act of clicking Like. Comment threads are barely coherent slurs of abuse and tangential rants, rarely the “forums for debate” that our editors like to proclaim. The once behind-the-scenes culture of the press release, issued to journalists to be lazily rewritten, has become open to all. Sites compete to be the first to upload identical information, their headlines and slug-words “search engine optimised” to ensure their place at the top of Google’s rankings.
So what future for the critic in all of this? What need is there for self-indulgent mediation and pretentious posturing, when everything is available, unfiltered, at the reader’s fingertips? Are we to believe the claims that we are entering a “post-critical” epoch? Is writing on architecture really being swept away by this flood of blogs, sliding down the slippery slope to extinction that the profession itself is tumbling?
Looking at national print journalism, it might seem this way, as newspaper critics become an endangered species. There are about five left in the UK, writing increasingly rarely, with most papers giving up on all but the most basic coverage – and the Times losing its critic altogether last year. It follows a similar decline in the States, where the New Yorker lost its long-standing critic, embittered by years of “fighting for space” in an ever shrinking column. The New York Times also dumped its architecture specialist and handed his duties over to the art critic – sparking accusations that the paper could not conceive architecture beyond aesthetics.
But it is not hard to see why national critics are facing an uphill struggle. Newspaper arts sections are in thrall to the hugely more popular subjects of TV, music, film, theatre and books over and above what is perceived to be the fringe pursuit of architecture and design. Siloed into the arts pages, there has always been an overwhelming expectation for the architecture critic to cover only cultural projects – the new museums, galleries, theatres and other glitzy baubles of the boom, of which there are increasingly few being completed. Rarely will an arts editor’s interest be piqued by the idea of housing or schools, town planning or infrastructure – topics banished to the respective fiefdoms of society or education, politics or the economy, where the voice of an architecture critic is rarely welcome.
Yet at the same time that criticism is progressively eroded from the national press, there has been a flowering of independent outlets elsewhere. While the endangered grumble that “everyone has become a critic”, this should be seen as a positive step – a democratisation of published opinion that strengthens the debate. Rather than diluting the authority of the critic on their broadsheet pedestal, the multiplicity of voices increases the clarity of the picture.
The proliferation of quickfire blogs has also led to a renewed interest in long form criticism, seeing a polarisation to the bite-sized and book-length. As the ongoing Archizines project shows – which now has over 100 titles of self-published architectural magazines in its collection – criticism is alive and well. You just might have to look a bit harder to find it.
Oliver “Olly” Wainwright is the Architecture and Design critic at The Guardian