Canadian Architect

Feature

Editorial: Architecture Criticism is Dead. Long Live Architecture Criticism!

November 14, 2016
by Elsa Lam

From left to right, Trevor Boddy, FRAIC, Marco Polo, FRAIC, Shawn Micallef, Da-vid Theodore, MRAIC, and Sarah Gelbard take the stage at Pop Can Crit.

From left to right, Trevor Boddy, FRAIC, Marco Polo, FRAIC, Shawn Micallef, Da-vid Theodore, MRAIC, and Sarah Gelbard take the stage at Pop Can Crit.

What’s the state of architecture criticism in Canada? Have bloggers taken the place of journalists? How does social media affect the craft of criticism? Can a scathing review affect the outcome of a project?

These questions swirled through the amphitheatre of Carleton University’s School of Architecture last month, in a gathering that brought together architecture critics (including this editor) and students from across the country for the day-long Pop Can Crit symposium.

Just as art, dance and theatre critics are becoming scarce, Canada has few full-time journalists writing about architecture. But Alex Bozikovic of the Globe and Mail, one of the rare salaried architecture critics, argued that the “crisis of architecture criticism” is an illusion. The Bilbao Effect and the proliferation of such sites as ArchDaily have vastly broadened the availability of architectural imagery. As a result, there are more people talking about buildings, and as Bozikovic put it, “When people talk, we all win.”

The quality and depth of that conversation is another matter, though. Sophie Gironnay, who used to write an architecture column in Le Devoir and now heads the Maison de l’architecture du Québec, championed a higher level of discussion. “What I consider my job is to fight against ugliness,” she said. She pointed to the trained eye for aesthetics, and the serious research into context, politics and process that a discerning journalist weaves into a balanced architecture critique.

That kind of probing analysis can have an impact. For instance, the legendary New York Times writer Ada Louise Huxtable, the first full-time architecture critic for an American paper, was an influential advocate for preserving heritage New York City structures, including Grand Central Terminal.

The symposium delved into the contemporary example of the Mirvish+Gehry Toronto towers to consider the effect of criticism on the final design. But how to untangle the voice of the professional critics from the blogosphere hubbub surrounding the project—and from the complexities of Toronto’s planning approvals? In Canada, architecture criticism can often feel like a single (often faintly heard) voice in the increasingly bureaucratic processes of architectural production.

Even though opportunities for architecture-focused journalism in popular media are diminishing, on the flip side, said Ryerson University’s Marco Polo, FRAIC (and former editor of Canadian Architect), “there is a corresponding increase of opportunity for criticism in academia.” In particular, Canada’s scholars are turning a critical eye to the nation’s modern architecture. This can help the case for the retention of mid-century buildings, especially since academic criticism allows for research-intensive articles.

The subject of criticism is also expanding laterally. David Theodore, MRAIC, who teaches at McGill University, observed a shift of interest taking place—both in the schools and in popular criticism—from architecture towards urbanism. Spacing Magazine is a case in point. Co-founders Shawn Micallef and Matthew Blackett, who also took part in the panels, focus their readers’ attention on overlooked design artifacts in the urban landscape, from parking lots to suburban towers.

The discussion touched on other forms of evaluating the built fabric. Design museums are frequently headed by former critics, who see exhibitions as an effective means of communicating the value of architecture to a broader public; curatorial studies programs are burgeoning at universities. Critic Trevor Boddy, FRAIC, pointed to design firms that engage in critical practice through research-oriented initiatives. Such pursuits are valuable, said Theodore, but are distinct from the discipline of architectural critique.

At its essence, architecture criticism continues to demand a specific skill set: research and analysis, visual judgment, and argumentation using written words. It aspires to help readers see the world around them with fresh eyes, and to provide architects an objective viewpoint on the values underlying their work. It’s a long game, and a cause worth fighting—and writing—for.