More than one way to skin a building

alexandra lange

What was it?

The first in the new Agenda series of lectures and discussions courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Keynote speaker at the first event held last Thursday was Alexandra Lange, freelance architectural critic and blogger for Design Observer, Architectural Record and The New York Times among others. Joining her on the panel were four local critics Justine Clark (chair), Karen Burns, Rory Hyde and Michael Holt.

The event was well attended, perhaps assisted by the free entry price. As we tweeted on our way in, the regularity of architecture events over recent weeks leaves us in no doubt that the 2013 calendar is well and truly in full swing.

Lange set the tone for the evening, beginning with a sophisticated assessment of the substantial changes architectural criticism has experienced over the past 10 years. As digital media has come to dominate the field, Lange has witnessed a shift in the financial structures that support and fund criticism, a decline in average payments for her articles, corresponding increases in the volume and diversity of writing she needs to produce, the blossoming of online communities she shares with architects and other critics, and the strengthening of relationships with her audience.

The conversation that followed was enlightening, with valuable input provided during both the panel discussion and question time from the floor. Perhaps encouraged by the lecture content, a number of both audience and panel members broadcast a steady stream of 140-character updates on proceedings. Following the #abpagenda hashtag on Twitter as the evening progressed provided bite-sized summaries:

  • @taniadavidge In the shift to online you do not see a building review in the same way as print.
  • @Red_Black_Archi With a change in media we can change what [architectural criticism] is.
  • @msdsocial Downside of traditional critic – a lot of power & big role in the shaping of the city. More critics, more voices, more dialogue.
  • @ammonbeyerle It’s hard not to see how limited it all really is today. Pointless? Think Flinders Street.
  • @_LindaCheng An Urban Spoon of architecture reviews. Great idea for an app! I’m stealing it.

That so many of the architects whom form part of our Twitter community were not only at the event but tweeting about it, served as elegant reinforcement of Lange’s observation that architecture communities have benefitted from online meeting places.

What did we think?

Though the discussion covered a lot of ground, three ideas in particular have stayed with us:

Our experience of buildings is cultural not physical

Hyde noted that the rise of global media has forever shifted our experience of architecture. The volume of buildings we are in a position to visit, mostly in and around Melbourne, pales into insignificance when compared to the volume we experience via books, journals, news bulletins, websites and blogs. We may have never visited the buildings of BIG, MVRDV or Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, yet we are nevertheless familiar with their work and have formed opinions on it.

This imbalance between those buildings experienced in the flesh and those via representational media is not new. However, the proliferation of both online resources and the tools by which to access them has greatly tilted this balance in favour of non-corporeal experience.

Since such experience is strongly influenced by the critiques we choose to read, the blogs we follow and the bulletins to which we subscribe, our experience of architecture is coloured by an unavoidable cultural filter. The people and organisations responsible for the media we read and watch now have a stronger say in how we understand architecture than they ever have before. Like it or not, the way we engage with architecture has become dominated not by the physical inhabitation of buildings, but by their cultural interpretation.

The cult of personality

Burns, a self-confessed member of the pre-digital generation, criticised the manner in which Twitter permits the consumption of architecture. When architects and critics pepper their feeds with personal as well as professional tweets, she argued, we are inevitably drawn into a celebration of their personality, at times at the expense of their work or critical content.

We have a different view of this, one much more aligned to Lange’s position.

We see Twitter as not just an opportunity to broadcast our work out to the masses, or as we have discussed previously, to participate in the solipsism of the polylogue. Twitter is a place for community, the new public plaza or forum. When we read an opinion, it is not obscured but enriched by the personality of its holder: we come to understand the values and interests of the people we follow; we develop an appreciation of their comments’ context; and most importantly, it enables us to establish and reinforce relationships out in the real world.

Discourse is more important than criticism

And finally, a comment from the floor courtesy of Simon Knott, architect and co-presenter of The Architects on Triple R.

In Australia, where architectural discourse in the public arena of any kind is extremely limited, the audience for traditional architectural criticism is small. The unfortunate truth is that few laypeople are interested in the considered assessment, analysis and discussion of an architectural project, certainly not in the same way that they may be interested in the similar criticism of food, literature, film or theatre. Here, architectural criticism’s true audience consists almost exclusively of architects: the critic is thus restricted to preaching to the choir.

Dismissing the power of traditional criticism to affect positive change within architecture, Knott suggested instead that criticism can much better serve the built environment as a vehicle towards wider discourse. In other words, that criticism should first and foremost be an opportunity for advocacy.

Does this mean it should appeal to the lowest common denominator, reduce the discussion of architecture to mere description?

If you have ever spent time listening to The Architects, you will know this need not be the case. Knott, together with Stuart Harrison, Christine Phillips and, from time to time, Hyde, maintain an elevated and sophisticated discourse. They regularly reference the works of other architects, speak about issues of urbanism, design strategy and architectural practice. They assume a certain minimum level of comprehension in their audience. Yet for all this, their show is still approachable: informed and considered criticism nestled within or possibly even masked by advocacy.

We understand that the cosmopolitan cities of Lange’s native United States have an enviable history of architectural discourse within the public arena: the big newspapers have architectural critics on payroll; freelance critics have access to a prodigious number of publishing outlets; design schools teach criticism along with design. The audience for architectural criticism is as widespread as it is for any other art.

Alas, architecture does not enjoy this same elevated position in Australia: the major newspapers rarely publish discussion of architectural works; the readership of the more critical journals is dominated by architects; as demonstrated with the still-secretive Flinders Street Station Design Competition, our State Government is not interested in encouraging public discussion; even the Architects Act prohibits us from criticising the work of fellow architects.

Thus, we echo Knott’s suggestion. It is a sad acknowledgement to be sure, but how can we expect criticism to thrive in Australia, when a public discourse barely exists to start with?

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