Can Anyone Win in Architecture Criticism? An Appeal for a "New Sincerity"

Can Anyone Win in Architecture Criticism? An Appeal for a "New Sincerity"

In the mid-1980s, after literature had long been held hostage by postmodernist irony and cynicism, a new wave of authors called for an end to negativity, promoting a "new sincerity" for fiction. Gaining momentum into the 1990s, the movement reached a pinnacle in 1993 when, in his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, pop-culture seer David Foster Wallace, a proponent of this "new sincerity," made the following call to action: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles... These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.'"

Architecture, ever in debt to the styles and ideas of other art forms, could learn a thing or two now from the resuscitation of American fiction at the turn of the millennium. It too is enduring an identity crisis, mired by pessimism and uncertainty - a reality made painfully clear this past January when a New York Times Op-Ed by Steven Bingler and Martin C. Pedersen, How to Rebuild Architecture, divided camps and made the design world fume. In the editorial, the authors spoke vehemently of an architectural profession that has become mired by egos and been disconnected from public needs. Things quickly got ugly, critics wrestled with critics and subsequently the public got involved. What no one seemed to take into account is that this type of hounding is at the core of the problem. In its current landscape the discipline has struggled with its past, been deferential to its present, and wrestled with the uncertainty of its future. In a moment when we have become addicted to despondency, can anyone win?

In his essay, Wallace describes television as “a despicable instrument of cultural decay,” but all the same, one that we cannot bear to live without. The Internet now holds the old reins of TV and poses similar problems. While we have all gorged on the excess of free and fast content online, we have been blinded or more likely are in denial of the tabloiding of digital media. That is to say, flashy headlines and obdurate opinions that ruffle feathers but have little hope of generating a calm and enlightening discussion. While the web has added much gloss and polish to the way we see and read the news, it has plagued architecture and design with the same irony and cynicism that fiction combated in the 1980s, and as the speed and plentitude of information increases at an exponential rate, there’s barely a moment to debate an issue before we are distracted by a newer and flashier headline. In light of this, it becomes much easier to be sharp and cynical than to be soft and genuine. In creating a "new sincerity" for architecture, we will need to replace pessimism with proactivity and replace irony with integrity. Of course, this does not mean that there will be a moratorium on negativity - to be a responsible critic one cannot have a phobia of criticism - but we need to become better at picking our battles rather than searching, always, for the negative critiques and ignoring the positive ones. Realizing that the problem does not begin in one place nor end in another, is neither highbrow or lowbrow, can be simultaneously obscure and blatant, the real necessity is understanding that we – architects, designers, authors, readers, publishers, and commenters – are all held equally responsible, and that a solution to a problem of the masses can only be reached collectively.

"Not Him! Not Her!"

© Flickr user: fordsbasement licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lately there has been a fixation, what amounts to a veritable witch hunt, on cutting down our most prominent architects. Subjects have ranged from the backlash over Frank Gehry’s involvement with the LA River revitalization, to the scorn directed at Zaha Hadid over several controversies, but in particular the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium. In both these instances, what should have been small grievances escalated to all-out persecutions of the architects - so much so, that the real issues or potentials for thoughtful discussion were subsumed by backlashes to the individuals, which sidesteps the issue entirely.

In Gehry’s case, we don’t even have so much as a written description of his intentions, only a summary of his pro-bono involvement in the project, and yet complaints arrived at a blistering pace after the Los Angeles Times leaked the information of his involvement in early August. Even with careful scrutiny, it is difficult to understand exactly what people are objecting to, outside the fundamental issue of a big shot like Gehry taking interest in a project that could have long-lasting implications for Los Angeles and possibly add to the already rich legacy of the 86 year old architect. Poet Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River spurned Gehry stating, “I don’t think it would be too much or too little to say that Frank Gehry has had nothing to do with the L.A. River.” Yes, MacAdams has been involved with the waterway for decades, but it is irresponsible and antagonistic to besmirch Gehry as some outsider attempting to storm the river’s gate. Meanwhile, Mia Lehrer, a landscape architect involved in the 2007 river master plan, welcomed the publicity that Gehry’s name will bring, “He’s a creative dude,” said Lehrer, “So the answer is, ‘Why not?’”

It is understandable to have reservations, and skepticism is healthy, but to treat Gehry’s involvement as such a pointed affront without even a basic understanding of his intentions is just being contrarian. As the River revitalization is intended to be a public place for all, it would be more advantageous to consider how the profile and expertise of the architect might benefit these altruistic goals.

© Japan Sports Council

With a revised design competition only now getting underway, there will certainly be more press regarding the stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but that conversation will likely not include Zaha Hadid Architects. After mounting backlash to costs and biting criticism of its design, the firm’s involvement was officially scrapped in September. New teams of architects and engineers will now vie for a stadium with a dramatically smaller budget and reduced requirement for seating. While it was easy to castigate Hadid’s design, one of the same parametric baroqueness that has become her signature, dissenters seemed to forget that the architect won this competition fairly and created a design with the required scale and occupancy called for in the original brief. That being said, even in renderings (which should have idealized every angle of the proposal) the stadium came across as mountainous and outsized compared to its environment, a problem that was characteristic in many of the designs of the 11 finalists, viewable here on Bustler. Entrants fall into two camps: either they proposed a stadium that was awkwardly oversized, or they corrected this flaw by pushing the stadium underground, solving neither the issue of scale nor cost.

© Zaha Hadid Architects. Image by Methanoia

The real misfortune of this scenario is that Hadid and architecture became the culprits for larger issues within the Olympics. The pomp and circumstance of the Games has risen to an unsustainable level with ineffectual results. Many host-cities contend with a state of extreme atrophy after hosting, where facilities are closed or demolished due to lack of demand. These stories must be known by the Japan Sports Council, making the original design brief for the stadium all the more peculiar. If a leaner and smarter approach the Games is the outcome of the scenario with Hadid, it will be the correct result wrought from the wrong battle. The controversy with the architect was a red herring for what should have immediately shifted to a larger discussion of the aims of Olympics and how we might be smarter about these goals in the future. This is but another instance of irony and cynicism taking hold in a situation that required thoughtful contemplation and sensitivity.

"Okay, You Can Build, But We’re Not Going to Like It"

© Ed Reeve

At his Sugar Hill Development, which opened earlier this year in Upper Manhattan, David Adjaye was victim to the reverse of the criticisms landed by Hadid in Tokyo. The Olympic Stadium was a project most heavily criticized for its program and purpose, while Sugar Hill has been rebuked exclusively for its design. The bulk of the scrutiny being directed at the building’s facade: gray squarish panels that looks slate but are actually precast concrete that has been impregnated with shards of quartz (the facade glitters in direct sunlight), and are imprinted with a rose motif (only visible at certain angles). The flowers are appropriated from moldings on adjacent structures, and the building’s serrated facade mimics the front profile of nearby rowhouses. All said and done, the building looks like two large blocks sitting precariously on top of a precipice.

© Wade Zimmerman

Critics have nonetheless demeaned Adjaye’s design with biting remarks like “Neo-Brutalist,” “a ruined bastion,” or simply, “a prison.” What’s especially vexing is that if this was just another run of the mill housing project there would scarcely be an objection, as if somehow by trying to elevate a unique program with a design to complement is more objectionable than allowing housing projects to continue languishing in a state of banality. It can seem easy to scoff at China’s denouncement of “weird architecture,” but the United States is hardly neutral or accommodating when similar issues are faced on our own turf. In a relief from the barrage of criticism, Mark Byrnes, writing for CityLab, quells savagery with wisdom: “The facade may take some getting used to, but what's happening inside should soon turn the place into a neighbor that's easy to love.”

© Ed Reeve

"We Could Do Better"

A more specific example of this formal backlash is the interminable saga of Peter Zumthor’s redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), for which proceedings began in 2009, when it was announced that museum director Michael Govan was in discussion with the famously ascetic Swiss architect. Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian has characterized Zumthor as possessing “[a] mythic reputation as a reclusive mountain-dwelling hermit, a monk of materials, with standards so exacting that few clients have the patience, or deep enough pockets, to indulge his uncompromising approach.” This is a sentiment which, admittedly, doesn’t give much hope to LACMA’s cause, but it has actually been the responses of the critics and public that have generated the biggest headaches for the museum and architect. The low slung building designed by Zumthor, now in its third major revision, has maintained the look of an oil slick demulsifying from the landscape, and in the last two versions has traversed Wiltshire Boulevard. This structure would replace a trio of buildings designed by William Pereira for the museum’s opening in 1965.

© Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

As would be true of any project of this scale and profile, criticism has been broad, with arguments ranging from preservation of the original structures, to questions of cost, land-use, and color, but most pointedly, to the physical presence of the building itself. Zumthor's buildings are some of the most lauded of the past few decades, and include masterworks such as the Thermal Baths at Vals, the Kunsthaus Bregenz, and the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel. Each different, all arresting, they add clarity to Zumthor’s careful balance of subtlety and nuance mixed with sheer architectural force. In the case of Kunsthaus Bregenz, the architect “parried with locals for ages to get what he wanted,” said museum director Rudolf Sagmeister, in a 2011 profile of the architect for The New York Times.

© Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

The architect’s ways are well known, and therefore it is somewhat surprising that critics and Angelenos would react with such negativity to their receipt of Zumthor’s rarefied attention. In what seems likely to be his masterpiece - or at least his most high-profile commission - it is mystifying that a city with such a storied past of architectural experimentation would have such reservations. Yes, it’s a gamble. But really when is architecture not? The Los Angeles Review of Books critic Joseph Giovannini denounced Zumthor’s design as “Modernist” describing it as “a warmed-over vision, stuck in caution, camouflaged as artistic sensitivity, it even threatens to reverse LACMA’s newly forged charisma: the design is dragging the museum toward mediocrity, sliding it into a yawn.” But if we are to follow the guidance of David Foster Wallace, a “yawn” is the telltale sign of a "new sincerity" and perhaps not the drudgery that so many have foreseen. Speaking retroactively, Zumthor has been something of an anomaly all along, promoting a sincerity through subtlety long before it was so desperately needed. And for this reason, Giovannini’s concern with “sensitivity camouflaging caution” seems misplaced, presumptuous, and a discount to Zumthor’s achievements.

No More Knocking Down

© Flickr user: zokuga licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

On the topic of museum expansions, the Museum of Modern Art’s newest foray has also generated its share of negative press. Many have been outraged by the museum’s demolition of its neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in 2001, purchased by MoMA 2011, and demolished in 2014.

In Delirious New York, among his many poignant remarks, Koolhaas pontificates that “in Manhattan’s Culture of Congestion, destruction is another word for preservation.” Although oxymoronic, the underlying idea is surprisingly clear and prophetic. What Koolhaas means, is that in a culture so obsessed with newness and reinvention, a building that dies is able to live on as the legend and spirit of what originally made it special. Writing for Architect Magazine, critic Aaron Betsky confirmed that preservation would have left the Folk Art Museum as a “relic” unable to achieve a new harmony with the existing MoMA, and would have been a maligned obstacle to new patterns of movement. Diller Scofidio + Renfro are responsible for the Folk Art Museum’s replacement, mainly circulation space and new venues for performance, but part of a larger overhaul that will link existing galleries with their expanded footprints in Jean Nouvel’s neighboring Tower Verre, now under construction.

Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

While it is unfortunate that a location chosen for its proximity to another museum ultimately made the Folk Art Museum a target for demolition, attacking MoMA as a heartless culprit seems misguided. Denouncing the demolition plans in Metropolis, Martin C. Pedersen spoke of the Folk Art Museum as “a stand-in for much larger issues: the future of New York, MoMA's turn away from cultural preservation, the colonization of Manhattan by the ultra rich, the widening gap between them and everyone else.” These are all pressing issues, but it seems reactionary to link them specifically to the Folk Art Museum, especially when the outcome is another museum space and not some playground for plutocrats.

In other recent and notable preservation battles – Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital – the (decidedly more measured) conversation was one of adversity and architectural loss, not a blame game. But in the case of the Folk Art Museum, MoMA has been unfairly labeled as being big and bad enough to take the criticism, and therefore deserving of any and every piece of blame people can find to level at them.

It Must Look Exactly Like The Rendering

Developing strong opinions of projects before they are finished is one of the most pernicious problems of the contemporary design discourse. Renderings have made it easy to be seduced by false interpretations, akin to convincing yourself that a piece of clothing as seen on a model in a catalog or advertisement is going to look as good in your mirror at home. Renderings, like any form of publicity, are a kind of advertising, they are the cereal box image that has been “enlarged to show texture.” Thus it can be frustrating when critics and readers use this propaganda as a faultless barometer for outcomes in built works. It usually comes across like a scapegoat, as if some less-than-clever critic standing with nose raised and making light of the schism between reality and rendering is some kind of profound observation.

© Benny Chan

Most recently this adversity was directed towards The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, specifically the building’s facade, and how disappointingly less-parametric it looks in real life when compared to the renderings created by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. A Curbed Los Angeles article from last December by Benjamin Gross was titled “Broad Museum Reveals Its Newly Disappointing Facade;” others made comparisons to a cheesegrater, the “Eye of Sauron” from Lord of the Rings, and the Death Star, as well as some unmentionables (collected here on Hyperallergic). The facade’s patterning was simplified when feasibility and cost concerns forced a redesign, but this hasn’t seemed to affect the skin’s purpose of being a sun shield to bring indirect light into the galleries. Reviewing the building for The Atlantic, Katharine Schwab affirmed, “The honeycomb facade diffuses natural light inside the building and compliments the skylights on the roof while keeping the Broad’s considerable collection of post-war art safe from overexposure.” So, crisis averted, no? A building’s renderings should be used as little more than a guide or frame of reference; anything more is all but guaranteed to yield disappointment. As a relative of food photography and fashion editorials, renderings are a world unto themselves.

So much pent up hostility makes it seem difficult to operate successfully in the world of design. In light of this, what guidelines might we suggest to reduce this barrage of criticism that makes every move seem like some form of checkmate?

For Architects:

  • Give ample reasoning and justification for key design decisions.
  • Develop a sense of empathy in order to understand which of your design decisions most need explaining.
  • Whenever possible, publish plenty of renderings, graphics and drawings even in the development phase so there is design clarity right from the initial design reveal.
  • Defend your designs, but don’t get mired in controversy.

For Publishers:

  • Don’t make unsubstantiated comments or claims until we know all the facts.
  • If designs are yet to be revealed, don’t judge the success of a design based solely on the previous success of its architect.
  • If designs have already been revealed, an architect’s previous successes or failures are irrelevant to judging the design’s worth.
  • Show a sensitivity to and engagement with the role of shaping the design discourse.
  • Don’t think that being negative makes you or your comments superior.

For Readers:

  • Don’t think that being negative makes you or your comments superior.
  • Don’t trust everything you read, or assume that one source is giving you the full picture.
  • When in doubt, seek out the balanced opinion - it’s more likely to take into account all the facts.

Thankfully, there are instances where these guidelines and the larger goals of a "new sincerity" are already being achieved. Firms like Steven Holl Architects, BIG, and MVRDV provide diverse and thorough packages of graphics, renderings and drawings in the concept stage; adding clarity to design philosophies. Others like Studio Gang, MASS Design Group, and Michael Maltzan Architecture have made adaptability, localism, and humanitarian concerns their top priorities. In the spring, Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney Museum opened to positive reviews from critics, with most taking solace in the gallery design, layout, and amenities, even while they were unphased by the exterior skin and cladding. Michael Kimmelman’s landmark review of the museum for The New York Times, was a triumph of still and moving images accompanied by text; it can and should be the new standard by which future building reviews are judged.

Thoughtful criticism need not always be positive, but it should aspire to be clear, informed, and respectful. Simple changes as advocated above will remove frictions from the design process that are some of today’s core issues and one of the main barriers to progress. This is easier said than done, and not always an absolute possibility, but progress in these areas will be a boon to the achievement of a "new sincerity" for architecture.

About this author
Cite: Vladimir Gintoff. "Can Anyone Win in Architecture Criticism? An Appeal for a "New Sincerity"" 09 Nov 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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