When Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, gives a bad review there is the sense that he is essentially dismantling a building, chipping its façade apart, like breaking down some charade in defense of the public’s honor. Like a hired killer he disappears the architecture, but at the same time heightens its visibility in the culture.
This ability, to provoke in such ways, is precisely why Thom Mayne would like to bar Mr. Hawthorne from taking a crack at reviewing the new building he and his firm, Morphosis designed for the firm’s new offices.
On a recent tour of the new digs, Mayne, as reported in The Architect’s Newspaper, was overheard saying, “There are no good writers in Los Angeles” and “All local writers are horrible.” To add further insult, he wants a science writer to cover it. That should be a short review.
According to the article (and this seems a bit troubling), “Mayne said he would not be allowing a local architecture critic to write about his new building.” Perhaps architecture students should not allow certain architects to review their final studio projects. Could you imagine?
Mayne’s not-so-clandestine attack on Mr. Hawthorne, is presumably in retaliation for a scathing and dismantling review of Morphosis’ Perot Museum in Dallas, Texas. Mayne clearly did not appreciate having his building called out as a sham.
Here are a few of the terms used in that review: “slow”, “disjointed”, “self-indulgent”, “pricey”, “preening”, “cynical”, “paper-thin”, “ghettoized”, “conventional”, “banal”. Though at first glance it appears unnecessarily harsh, this is not some unhinged expression of rage against the building.
Like an architect being precise about the selection of materials and details, Mr. Hawthorne is very specific and thoughtful about each word as he builds an argument against what he views as a hollowing out of architecture where all that remains is a push-me-pull-me skin of effects and the expression of circulation. This is Hawthorne’s reading of the building and he is entitled to it.
Others will certainly come to the building’s rescue. This is not the critic’s job. We don’t read architectural criticism to fall in love with a building. We read it to be challenged by ideas about the building and to view it in a deeper context. We also don’t read criticism to like the architect as a person…or the critic, for that matter.
The violence implicit in the review, though troubling to Mayne, should not be troubling in the larger scope. After all, Mayne’s aesthetic or anti-aesthetic aesthetic is also imbued with violence in a formal sense. It still harkens the deconstruction particular to the 1980’s Los Angeles attack on modernism celebrated in the current SCI-Arc exhibit, “A Confederacy of Heretics”. Mayne is still attacking as he was back then and should expect to be attacked in return. You get what you give.
Of course the main difference between now and then is that in those early days, Mayne and his compatriots, including Frank Gehry, had a Los Angeles Times critic along for the ride as their champion, without whom they may never have gotten above ground as significantly as they did.
It seems the Pritzker incarnation of Mayne would like to put a stop to the sort of discourse that does not agree with his particular approach to architecture, to silence the naysayers, to send them down, for heresy of the wrong sort.
But here is an opportunity. Would it not be better if architects attacked back, engaging critics in intellectual feuds? Architects doing challenging or controversial work should jump at the chance to counter the critics. It’s not quite on the same level as Blur v. Oasis but a good feud between critic and architect could give architecture a much-needed shot in the arm.
Critical feuds drive culture. Art does not advance by praise alone. For architecture to be elevated culturally it must be difficult and contentious, it must be attacked and defended. Not everyone is going to like it. But as long as it doesn’t kill anyone what’s the harm? Let architecture be problematic. At least it makes the built environment more interesting and thought-provoking. Plus, like the American Folk Art Museum, it will eventually get torn down anyway.
Writing about architecture should not be sanitized. It should neither be gentle nor overly deferential to the architect. Thom Mayne has his Pritzker. He can take a few critical lumps and laugh about it—or should be able to. His potential clients aren’t reading criticism anyway. They want a Thom Mayne sort of building no matter what critics or the public may think of them.
Another Christopher, someone who knew a thing or two about artistic feuds, Christopher Hitchens, shared some good tips:
“A really first-rate bust-up must transcend the limits of ‘an entertaining side show’ and involve playing for high moral and intellectual stakes.” And “they symbolize a clash of worldviews and even help define them for the witnesses and for later generations.”
He also says it helps to be British because it is assumed that there exists “the prospect that ‘there will be blood.’ ”
This sort of “there will be blood” approach to critique reminds me of—and this is an obscure reference—my favorite bit of dialog from the film, Bottle Shock: “Why don't I like you? Because you think I'm an ass. And I'm not really. It's just that I'm British...and you're not. "
We avoid confrontation as much as possible in our daily lives, but good writing charges right in and gives someone a bloody nose without so much as a warning. The architecture can take it. It won’t fall down because of it. Good architecture might actually do the same thing.