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If I say that architectural criticism is dead would that surprise anyone today?

If I say that architectural criticism is dead would that surprise anyone today?

© Curatorial Project, Photo by Tian Fangfang. “I am Interested in Seeing the Future”, Exhibition by Vladimir Belogolovsky based on ten interviews – five American and five Chinese architects, Fab-Union Space, Shanghai, China, 2019

Architecture has always had the power to become one of the utmost representations of an epoch: it materially manifests the spirit of its time. As we have edited, produced, and revisited our collection of magazines, events, podcasts, projects, and editorials, the role that criticism and theory have is indispensable for the confirmation of an architecture culture. Now, we are inviting others to join us and add their ideas, curiosities, and sketches. The Criticism Series asks architecture and thinkers to respond to a single question: What is the role of criticism and theory in architecture today?  The task is left open to include creative and spontaneous responses, building a diversity of voices, published online, that help to question and reinvent the way we use words. The series is a simple gesture that speaks boldly. Our second participant is Vladimir Belogolovsky, the founder of the New York-based Intercontinental Curatorial Project, which focuses on organizing, curating, and designing architectural exhibitions worldwide. He was trained as an architect at Cooper Union and his varied list of publications includes the book Conversations with Architects (DOM, 2015). He curated the Russian Pavilion for the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale. You can read his response below.

If I say that architectural criticism is dead would that surprise anyone today?

By Vladimir Belogolovsky
“I don’t know how to make architecture and I don’t want to know because if I did all the fun and exploration about making architecture would be destroyed.”– Will Alsop (1947-2018)

If I say that architectural criticism is dead would that surprise anyone today? The role of a critic is to point out the possibilities and to compare and contrast precedents. Most importantly, as a critic, you absolutely must maintain your independence. Why do I say that criticism is dead? Because so many publications are no longer interested in anything critical, analytical, or theoretical. They feed the mass generic reader with what is expected—easy and quick consumption of sensationalism and superficiality. Now, what happened to our former critics that used to write for major news media? It is not surprising that many of them ended up working as PR agents for the same architects they used to criticize. And how can we blame them? If architects complain that there is no money in architecture by contrasting their earnings with those of their clients, then how much money is there in criticism? In any case, the leash has become too short for any kind of constructive criticism, as it is its subject who is the first to read it. But let’s pretend that the critics are given carte blanche. Then what? There is such confusion out there about the current architectural production. There are too many preferences and it is hard for critics to find consensus just about anything. That is, of course, if the subject they discuss is architecture, meaning forms, materials, textures, quality of light, etc. That is why so much of what we understand as architecture is now brushed away with focus on issues rather than aesthetics, craftsmanship, theory. I am talking about pragmatics, problem-solving, social aspects, sustainability, ecology, economy, and so on. Of course, all of these subjects are very important, and they always were, but now they have become dominant in the profession and at the expense of everything else.

Since 2002, I have interviewed over 350 leading international architects. I always ask them to list a few single words that describe their architecture. Until five years ago, each of my interviewees would provide me with unique terms. They were anything from “speed,” “aligned precision,” “misalignments,” “complexities,” “deep structure,” self-referential,” “notion of randomness,” “clarity,” “pursuit of ambiguity,” “incomplete,” “provocative,” “fun,” and “forget gravity!” to mention just a few memorable examples. When I ask the same question now, no matter where I am in the world, the answer is consistent and singular: “nature.” It is also accompanied by “context,” “brief,” and “budget.” Common ground used to be the last thing any of these architects wanted, context was the architects’ body of work, not literal site conditions that now serve as the key reference. In four years, since 2012 David Chipperfield’s Common Ground Biennale to 2016 Alejandro Aravena’s Reporting from The Front Biennale the architects have regrouped, aligned, and completely transitioned from being ego-centric to eco-conscious. Architecture is no longer about buildings, it is about creating engaging environments. A building is a platform where many things could happen. Architecture is no longer about artistic expressions, individual findings, identity, form-making, etc. Instead, it is about problem-solving, collective approach, social engagement, etc. Anything heroic, futuristic, and iconic has become suspicious, dangerous, even immoral and unethical, while anything that’s nostalgic and hidden behind a tree and a bench is credible and desirable. So many young architects told me, “I don’t like theory, I don’t like anything that’s not grounded in real life. The world is so full of problems. We must address them.” Look around—we are constructing concrete buildings, brick buildings, wood buildings, glass buildings, we decorate them with grass and trees… But is it architecture? What is architecture? Do we even care anymore? Where do we go from here? I say we rediscover the individual. We celebrate the diversity. We fight the anonymity. Architecture needs theory. A building without theory is just a pile of bricks.

As a critic, I can’t tell the architects what to do. I don’t want to do that. There is no checklist that can qualify a building to be called a great work of architecture. If I come across a building that’s memorable, that’s making me wonder, that to me constitutes a great work of architecture. To me, architecture is like literature that has many genres, styles, stories, and authors. Buildings are not just platforms for things to happen. A building can resonate power and even magic. In gifted hands, architecture can be as beautiful as nature and as harmonious as music. There is no architecture without authors. An architect is an author who can create a world that never existed before. We all worry about pragmatics, but I worry when so many of our leading architects talk about their work in exactly the same terms. Imagine all books having the same beginnings and ends! Imagine all buildings focused on solving the same problems in exactly the same ways! I see my role as a critic to confront the architects. I want them to tell me their intentions and I want to discover as many such intentions as possible and let the world know about them. I want to take all these intentions out of context and mix them up for our students and young architects to rediscover these bits and pieces in their perpetual quest and desire to reinvent architecture in every possible new and unique way. Utopia is not dead. Architecture will never die.

Read more in the Criticism Series!

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