Anarchitecture Criticism: Beyond the Four Forms of Writing about Architecture
Buildings don’t talk, so we have to speak for them. Buildings represent and are present: they are facts, constructions experienced in real time and space; and they represent – when you look carefully enough, how they were made, by whom, when, and why. Of course, sometimes they put on a pretty face that suppresses much of the truth of their construction.
In truth, buildings hide more than they reveal, and thus the true task of architecture criticism is archaeological. You must dig out the constituent parts of the structure, from the materials and systems to the socio-economic and cultural biases and assumptions present in what you are experiencing, to mine their meaning.
In fact, this is the work of architecture. After all, architecture is not building. It is everything that is about building: how it is designed, how it is put together, and how it becomes a part of a discussion, or a way of seeing and knowing your world. Criticism reveals architecture hidden in a building. Like its constituent building blocks, however, it is not a simple or unified phenomenon.
Four forms of architecture criticism
In general, there are four forms of architecture criticism that constitute the mainstay of what we understand as criticism. The first is purely descriptive. This is what we find in the project description written by the architect him/herself. Such a summary is journalistic – it opens with the “who, when, where, what, and why” of a standard newspaper article, it addresses the basic aspects of the building, and develops the basic themes of the building, or shows how they come together into a coherent building. Currently, this is the kind of criticism you can find in most on-line news sites in the “project” section. I am not suggesting that such writing is entirely non-reflexive: most critics working in this mode find a way to describe a building that allows you to understand what their opinion of the structure is.
The second form of criticism extends this description to make it evocative. It is the mainstay of most criticism you can find in magazines and newspapers – as far as such journalism exists. Its purpose is to add to the description, the motives of the architect, the client, user, or the builder – and preferably all of them – using their views to provide a background and depth to the written description. In addition, a journalist working in this way would typically bring in historical precedents or a description of a larger context, physical or social, in order to place the structure in a more extended network of meanings. The writing, however, remains suggestive – not genuinely analytical. It uses associations, metaphors and analogies more often than an incisive dissection of the building and what its meaning might be.
The third form of criticism proceeds further in this direction, by making arguments about how or why the building works. It uses an array of the same methods as evocative criticism, but its sources tend to be academic or philosophical. Rather than quoting the architect, the author might cite Le Corbusier, or show how the building demonstrates Michel Foucault’s theories of power. In this case, the structure under review becomes a building block for an argument that takes precedence over evoking the experiences you might have of the building. The structure becomes a “case study”, as in a business or a law school, or a cultural artifact the critic evokes to make a larger theoretical point about esthetics, ethics, or social realities.
Finally, the fourth form of criticism does not refer to the building at all, except, perhaps, in fragments or quotations. It often combines bits and pieces of various buildings, if it looks at real structures at all. The way in which modern architects have tried to solve the problem of the corner, for instance, is illustrated with examples from the work of Mies van der Rohe and many other designers, but may also be discussed at an entirely theoretical level. In this case, architecture becomes a system of signification or denotation that is, if not completely detached from the building, certainly operates according to principles and towards a result that might not have much to do with the structure itself. This is the kind of work you can find most commonly in academic journals, and it usually has a purely educational purpose.
“Architecture criticism employs other means as well. The most productive may be the independent narrative, which creates a myth or a fairytale that produces a scenography fully integrated into the story it is telling and into the world it wishes to evoke”.
Architecture criticism employs other means as well. The most productive may be the independent narrative, which creates a myth or a fairytale that produces a scenography fully integrated into the story it is telling and into the world it wishes to evoke. This is the province of science fiction and game playing, but also of authors such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Architecture students love it, but I am not sure if it can be called criticism. Perhaps, it is a form of meta-criticism, where words evoke a environment and construct a notional building. If it is the fifth type of architecture criticism, it is the most evocative type, with the largest audience, and the smallest amount of direct meaning (by definition). It digs into our history and our unconsciousness, and projects an alternative reality, but rarely, if ever, addresses social, economic, and political conditions in a direct and productive manner.
Beyond such word-based approaches, there are other forms of evoking and extending the building into architecture. These include installation and performance art, such as the early work of Diller + Scofidio or Alice Aycock, as well as a form of drawing that is not utopian, but truly experimental or, in the words of one of its best practitioners, the late Lebbeus Woods, “anarchitecture”.
“What we do have is blog-based writing, such as the present article that skirts around all of the above topics, without commitment or measurable veracity. This is a genuine fifth form of criticism, but it is weak and undisciplined, although sometimes enjoyable”.
A genuine fifth form of criticism
If I ever wanted to move beyond the second or third category of criticism, in which I, like most writers in the field, spend most of my time, it would by creating a form of anarchitecture. It would be a hybrid of words, drawings, models, animations, and hyper-loops that would extend what buildings are in a critical manner. Many years ago, we believed that the nature of internet-based writing, defined by collage- and warp-speed connection, would enable such a phenomenon. However, it appears that, at least for the moment, such a possibility is precluded by traditions of writing, as well as traditional media divisions and, what is most important, the social and economic system, in which criticism is an adjunct of building, meant to either sell the product or make it function in a series of other contexts, from magazines to classrooms.
What we do have is blog-based writing, such as the present article that skirts around all of the above topics, without commitment or measurable veracity. This is a genuine fifth form of criticism, but it is weak and undisciplined, although sometimes enjoyable. It lets writers play with all forms of criticism, often without bothering with buildings or citations.
Like all architects, who create building blocks for a utopia, even while working with clients, we scriveners believe that we can create anarchitecture while filling real or virtual pages. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this piece, and found it to be productive architecture.
Aaron Betsky – one of the most prominent architecture critics in the world, curator, educator, lecturer, and writer of texts about architecture and design. He is the former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and the current dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin (formerly the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture).