Letters (April 01, 2011)

Editor Ian Chodikoff’s “Viewpoint” published in the February 2011 issue seems to want to banish the concept of the “critical” from architecture altogether. Notwithstanding his “sympathy” for parts of my 2004 text “Criticality and Its Discontents,” he cites Bruce Mau to deplore my continuing interest in the “critical.” What is more, one wouldn’t be able to tell from his commentary that most others writing about it noted how I also expressed my own “sympathy” for the potential of the alternative to the “critical” proposed by Sarah Whiting and Robert Somol in the article I was discussing, that is to say the “projective.” Indeed, to indicate just how complex this discussion is, note that one hero of the “projective” architecture Somol and Whiting called for in 2002 is Rem Koolhaas. This same Koolhaas is the focus of an admiring commentary by one of the “dusty” book authors Chodikoff disparaged as no longer relevant: Fredric Jameson (see F. Jameson, “Future City” in New Left Review, May/June 2003). As if this were not complexity enough, Koolhaas is also the former close collaborator of Bruce Mau (see SMLXL, Monacelli Press, 1995). It is on account of such “complexity” that I refuse to reject a “critical” dimension for architecture altogether. Indeed, I continue to admire Koolhaas’s stubborn commitment to an architecture that is both “critical” and “projective.” As for Bruce Mau’s by now rather familiar exhortations to architects to change their ways, it is not clear to me that they have had much positive effect. Indeed, compare Mau’s ongoing polemic with a parallel initiative in architecture: the Aga Khan Award for Architecture program. It was launched to combat two currents in global architecture: first, the unthinking proliferation of corporate modern buildings irrespective of their cultural, social or climatic suitability; and second, the sad efforts of some seeking to resist that implantation, producing only shallow kitsch instead. Today, the Aga Khan Awards rank in similar prestige to the Mies van der Rohe Awards and the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Interestingly enough, in the same issue as Chodikoff’s “Of Critical Relevance,” there appears a project in Saudi Arabia by Canadian firm Moriyama & Teshima Planners in joint venture with Buro Happold that received a 2011 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The published commentary notes their “resistance” to such ideas as bringing in imported plants for the project. Ah, yes: “resistance,” that close correlate to the “critical.” Together with both “invention” and “theory,” they are still essential, in my view, to architecture today.

–George Baird