What is an architecture critic? And what makes a critic in the 21st century? Throughout history, critics were the select few who were chosen to describe and evaluate architecture while we waited for their rave reviews or disappointments before we validated our own opinions. Their thoughts and words became design canon and heavy-handedly shaped our profession. This mindset and culture only further contributed to the idea that architecture is an “elitist” practice where a few set the rules and the rest must learn them. While architecture will always have named critics, just as other forms of art and culture have theirs, there’s recently been a push for architecture to transform itself into a profession that designs for the masses and is equally critiqued by the masses.
The reconsideration of the role that architecture critics play in our profession came when earlier this year critic Blair Kamin announced that after nearly thirty years at the Chicago Tribune, he would be stepping down. Almost immediately, names began swirling around of who would replace him. Taking a step back, and thinking beyond who would be the next big name to take the reins and continue the conversation around the importance of Chicago architecture, the larger topic at play is the exclusivity and the limited number of criticism jobs that exist. How does one become “the” architecture critic? What career pipeline or talent trajectory defines those whose opinions have become principle?
This is an absolutely gorgeous low-income housing project. Can you imagine the dignity this brings to families that live there and the surrounding community? pic.twitter.com/R16TBngVad— Michael Schwartz 🟡 (@michlschwrtz) October 8, 2021
If there’s one thing that has pushed the architecture profession as a whole to a new form of subjectification it is the rise of social media and the ease of voicing your opinions, whether trained as an architect or just as a common observer. Even sites like ArchDaily, and articles like this, are a form of critical commentary about how we perceive the shifting trends of architecture and its implications on society. The future of architecture critics who will define how we examine architecture in the future project their thoughts through the commentary that can be easily accessed and casually read- captured in blogs, on Instagram, and through Twitter feeds. You may have never heard of the person sharing their personal opinions or quoting a line from another source, but it’s a more succinct and targeted type of criticism. It’s quick to ask “why?” or “who?”
As we see more traditional criticism decline, and the greater range of voices emerge, it’s important to question how to ensure that we understand how we communicate ideas in a way that they can retain value and legitimacy. Too often, people think that opinions written from a few clicks on a keyboard hold no meaning. Has the viewer been there? Have they studied the subject? Or are these commentaries creating an over-saturation of architectural thought? The role that critics play today is not so well defined- it blurs the lines between amateur and professional. But it is still important.
(sorry tiktok didn’t let me upload- question from @cathal_does_art!) the original design had a moat, too! ##architecture♬ original sound - Louisa
We also need to consider the ways that more formal criticism has driven new ideas and movements on a larger scale. For example. When Donald Trump built a tower along the Chicago riverfront, Blair Kamin’s critique influenced SOM to reconsider its design. Reyner Banham changed the way that many people saw Los Angeles in his writings that praised the “sufurbia” neighborhoods. This problem lends itself to how architects in the future can establish a meaningful body of thought leadership or gather enough influence to push forward just a handful of design points of view. It will become harder to understand what’s good, what’s bad, what’s a fact, what’s an opinion, and what has long-term value. It’s freeing and also a bit concerning. If everyone is able to tweet out their points of view or share a picture of a building they like, how will we ever know what’s driving our profession forward?
As we emerge away from criticism that was once concise, we have to examine whether the saturation is leading us to a sort of architecture wilderness or the ability to focus on a few key themes that are presenting themselves in new ways. What would Banham have said if he was limited to 280 characters of a tweet? Even more, how might he have been influenced differently if he was reading what all of us had to say?