Why Architectural Criticism Can't Work

In response to a recent piece criticizing architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, Places Journal Editor Nancy Levinson extends the criticism to the entire field, questioning whether its global scope is realistic.

Levinson argues that the realm of architecture is global, and expecting any critic to have a global knowledge is simply asking too much.

"I'd like to spotlight an issue that's gotten less attention and which seems to me to underlie the contemporary critical dilemma. This is the rise of the global critic, the critic with the world beat, beaming copy from Beijing, Dubai, Rome, Basel, or wherever the newest icon or latest star is being born. In a sense this might seem a natural progression in the portfolio of the critic - a nimble adaptation to a discipline that's gone planetary. Yet the accelerating globalization of architecture culture has created for architecture criticism an unintentional conundrum, which is that it's practically impossible to produce good criticism on a global scale."

Full Story: Critical Beats



Ouroussoff Confirms Our Expectations

"If we were to reduce Ouroussoff’s output to a list," she writes, "the names would be slightly different [than Muschamp's], but the emphasis remains the same: yes to Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel; no to people you haven’t already heard of."

Ouroussoff confirms this statement with his review in today's Times about a new apartment building in Manhattan by - guess who - Jean Nouvel.

There is a lot of truth to this article's idea that the problem arises from trying to be international in coverage and so following only a few international celebrity architects. But there is also more to it than that.

Another problem is the limited range of Ouroussoff's thinking, which makes him repeat the same formulas endlessly. Eg, today, he says Nouvel's building is wonderful because it is a combination of "glamor and grit." How many times have we heard him use those two words?

And another problem is a narrow-minded modernist esthetic that makes him ignore some of the most interesting work being done today. Eg, Leon Krier could be one of those international celebrity architects. The New Urbanists are doing the best placemaking being done today. But this traditional architecture and urbanism doesn't fit Ouroussoff's dogmas.

When he mentions them at all, he just dismisses them by repeating more of his usual formulas: "nostalgia" and "pastiche."

You can't expect very interesting criticism from someone who doesn't do much more than repeat cliched formulas in the service of a narrow, dogmatic view of architecture.

Charles Siegel

Ouroussoff Does It Again

In today's NY Times, he reviews a design for a new museum in Qatar by - guess who - Jean Nouvel.

Ouroussoff tries very hard to connect the proposed building with its context:
"Inspired by sand roses, the tiny formations that crystallize just below the desert’s surface, the building’s dozens of disclike forms, intersecting at odd angles..."
"the tumbling abstract disc forms recall the ... “apparently haphazard confusion” of the desert dunes."
Which one is it? Do those piled up discs belong in Qatar because they look like desert roses or because they look like desert dunes?

Ouroussoff is obviously grasping at any metaphor that makes them seem appropriate to the site. Actually, they look like an avant-gardist building that could have been built anywhere, from Los Angeles to Beijing.

And of course, Ouroussoff concludes with one of his usual resounding cliches: the building is "firmly pointed toward the future."

Can't the New York Times find a better architecture critic than this?


Charles Siegel

Is Ouroussoff Changing?

I have a feeling that Ouroussoff has read some of these criticisms and is trying to show that his interests are not as narrow as everyone thinks.

His review before last was about a new park on the Brooklyn waterfront. And his last review was about Palladio, no less.

He actually wrote an interesting little essay about Palladio, with a couple of points that I hadn't known previously, and without any of his resounding cliches. He didn't say that Palladio combined "glamor and grit." He didn't say that Palladio was "firmly pointed toward the future." And he didn't say that Palladio's use of a classical vocabulary was "nostalgic" and a "pastiche."

The question is whether he can be equally broadminded about contemporary architects. If he admires Palladio even though he was not gritty, was not pointed toward the future, and used historical elements in his architecture, he should also be able to admire contemporary architects who don't live up to his usual cliches.

I don't think it will happen. I expect that, when he gets back to contemporary architecture, he will write only about the avant-gardist establishment, and he will have the same cliquish, cliched taste as ever.

For his review of Palladio, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/arts/design/09palladio.html
Charles Siegel

Noted Similarity

The critic's response seems very similar to our resonse to catastrophic events. Both stimulate the sense of accountability, but the actions are more like postmortems. A careful look at any recent catastrophy expresses a long list of grave problems.

Rules regarding development along coastlines throughout the Pacific Rim are failures. Read the building codes of Haiti, oops there are none, nor will they change to the benefit of poor residents. Examine levee maintenance, management and construction practices along the Gulf Coast, it continues with little changed other than zoning designations toward industrial uses. Then there is the storage of “spent” nuclear materials and other waste that produce huge brownfields and grey fields, and so on and on. These and many others define costs hidden away in the containment process devoid of viable filters or useful scrutiny. Are they are all deferrals? Is this due to ignorance, or the lack of due diligence?

In my opinion the lack of real improvment in the urban form is casued by a very poor or criminally flawed sense restraint in the use of capital. Would it be possible to produce new powers of containment as a public value? Even though only a few are are outright, culpable expressions of avarice, dismissing development events or their catastrophic resolution as forms of bonded rationality is pointless. There is a line in the sand here, and critics can't draw one, they can only do the autopsy. What is that old line, the patient died, but the operation was a success.

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