Of Critical Relevance

Architects are becoming increasingly comfortable with abandoning the burdens of criticality in architectural theory, instead favouring approaches to design practice that are grounded in collaboration and making. Has the allure of opaque architectural theory been replaced by an appetite for honing skills that improve our ability to innovate?

For many years, the academy has been promoting a sense of criticality in architecture, yet there is an indication that this trend is breaking down. Nearly 10 years ago, Sarah Whiting, the current dean of the Rice School of Architecture, began to speak about “projective architecture” as a reaction to a formulaic method of criticism promulgated by theoreticians like K. Michael Hays and architect-iconoclast Peter Eisenman. In 2002, Whiting, along with Robert Somol, published an essay entitled “Notes Around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism” in which they write, “So when architects engage topics that are seemingly outside of architecture’s historically defined scope–questions of economics or civic politics, for example–they don’t engage those topics as experts on economics or civic politics, but, rather, as experts on design and how design may affect economics of politics.” For Whiting, it is important that she not be misunderstood as being “post-critical” but would prefer that we use our intellectual and critical capacities as architects to remain relevant in contemporary society.

As a form of a rebuttal to Whiting and other leading academics such as Michael Speaks who decry the theoretical stagnation in contemporary academia, George Baird, the Toronto-based architect, educator and 2010 RAIC Gold Medallist, published an essay in late 2004 entitled “Criticality and Its Discontents.” One can sympathize with Baird’s fear that the “putatively ‘projective’ forms of practice being advocated by the critics of criticality” have yet to offer  a viable alternative to well-entrenched critical approaches to architecture. Without criticality, Baird feels that “architecture could all too easily find itself conceptually and ethically adrift.” In the January 2011 issue of Architectural Record, Baird reiterated his concerns regarding today’s architect developing an “impatience with dwelling on critical and theoretical concerns–as opposed to considerations having to do with architectural practice,” adding that “the new generation’s emphasis on pragmatic, open-ended architectural concerns could lead to a certain amorality in outlook.” If this is true, then why aren’t we dusting off our books by Italian historian and critic Manfredo Tafuri, French philosopher Jacques Derrida, or American literary critic Fredric Jameson to solve the design problems of today?

Is our profession heading for a disaster as a result of shifting away from tired approaches to critical thinking? Bruce Mau doesn’t think so. In fact, his essay entitled “You Can Do Better” published in January 2011’s Architect magazine asserts that our obsession with cynicism, navel-gazing and self-alienation is a much bigger issue threatening the profession today. To Mau, “Architecture is largely irrelevant to the great mass of the world’s population because architects have chosen to be [irrelevant].” Furthermore, “If you can’t tell the difference between critical and negative, and have conflated the two and built a practice around ‘challenging’ this or that, and are wondering why people aren’t interested–don’t come crying to me.”

While many traditionally minded North American architecture schools continue to disseminate old-fashioned architectural theory, emerging design schools prefer to focus on establishing valuable partnerships to make design relevant and essential to society. Moreover, the practical benefits of rapidly evolving technologies that facilitate cheap and efficient global communication and collaborative opportunities have broadened the relevancy and potential of today’s graduate architects, allowing them to build worthwhile projects in Africa or establish successful global entrepreneurships. Certainly, many of these initiatives cannot be characterized as being “conceptually and ethically adrift.”

New forms of design education are certainly gaining ground. Stanford University’s d.school, the Danish Design School, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow are all aggressively seeking global design talent, and most interestingly, graduates of other schools who are disappointed with traditional design training. The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) offers degrees such as a Master of Design in Inclusive Design, and a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation–both of which intend to offer serious challenges to schools teaching old-fashioned architectural theory.

Life passes you by when you waste time theorizing about it. The real possibilities that the next generation of architects can offer is to capitalize on the design-related opportunities of our time and do what Mau suggested in his essay–“get in on the action and be part of this new world of invention and beauty!”

Ian Chodikoff ichodikoff@canadianarchitect.com