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On Criticism, Lateness, and Huxtable

On Criticism, Lateness, and Huxtable

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. The first participant, who is also featured in our first issue, is Mimi Zeiger. Mimi is a Los Angeles-based critic, editor, and curator. Her work, situated at the intersection of architecture and media cultures, includes the co-curation of the United States pavilion of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale and the publication of the book Tiny Houses in the City (Rizzoli, 2016). Her response to the prompt was originally presented at the Ada Louise Huxtable and the Formation of the Architecture Critic Workshop held at the Getty Research Institute in June.* Published here for the first time, it inaugurates what promises to be a fruitful series exploring criticism and architecture today.

Questions of criticism in relation to time have been on my mind lately. So, I wanted to start with a quote from Huxtable taken from her 1969 review of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction published in the New York Times under the title “The Case for Chaos”:

“Today’s theory is tomorrow’s practice. With the speedup characteristic of our age, it has a way of becoming today’s practice. Any thinking feeling citizen involved with his environment in this latter part of the twentieth century (that’s right—latter—with all the “projections” to the one awesome remote year 2000 no more than comfortable middle age for the present generation) must know the wave of future or succumb to the undertow of the past.”

— Ada Louise Huxtable, New York Times, January 26, 1969

The word “speedup” jumps out from the text, capturing in easy prose a period, like ours, a bit overwhelmed by new technologies and media. Speed, a measure of time, is the interface between theory and practice.

Also notable is Huxtable’s conflation of the reader and the critic under the same heading, a thinking feeling citizen, and then she goes on to position this citizen in relation to chronological time: “…we must know the wave of the future or succumb to the undertow of the past.”

To me, this phrase suggests that the citizen (critic and reader) is responsible to history and required to anticipate possible outcomes. (I also love the use of “wave” here, as language in advance of “surfing the internet.”)

Accelerationism hangs over our age as pennant and warning: the speed of 5G networks: good; the speed of Arctic ice melting: bad. Within this culture, architecture criticism has tried to keep pace. There’s a demand by publishers and readers alike for critics to file stories quickly—to not only know the wave of the future, but also to paddle like hell to catch that wave, stand up on the board, and take a selfie.

I’ve been in architecture media for more than two decades, however, this spring, I let a couple waves pass and I didn’t weigh in on LACMA or on Hudson Yards in a timely manner.

That said, these two projects on two different coasts have stayed with me as a provocation since they both raise the same question: When is the right time for criticism?

Lengthy reactions to Peter Zumthor’s misguided design for LACMA suggest criticism is an anticipatory prophylactic used to protect citizens from bad decisions. Over the past few years, episodic criticisms (much of the word count by Joseph Giovannini in the Los Angeles Review of Books) follow every design iteration as the requisite renderings are made public: from the black flower, to a black bridge, to a white bridge, to a smaller white bridge with less square-footage than promised.

In 2014, I argued for a master plan of the new LACMA, since the larger urban needs of Miracle Mile were not addressed. Five years later, the same issue remains, however, LA County and museum director Michael Govan have continued to push the project forward. As a critic, I ask myself, in a kind of what-would-Ada-Louise-do fashion, should I weigh in again? How often or to what degree should a critic advocate for or against any particular proposed project? Can anticipatory criticism steer important civic conversations?

Meanwhile, the pile-on over Hudson Yards insists that the ribbon cutting is the moment for blood sport. Each critic jostling for a speedy barb and a hot take. The 25 billion dollar development has been called “cheap,” “heartbreaking,” and “Little Dubai.” The Shed by Diller Scofidio and Renfro was described as billowing dry cleaning bags, while people climbing Heatherwick’s The Vessel were seen as ants crawling on a rotting Doner kabob.

Readers, myself included, couldn’t turn away, glued to our phone screens like the gif of Michael Jackson eating popcorn. But while the weeks between the opening of Hudson Yards and the opening of The Shed were packed with criticism blasting the skyscrapers, shopping mall, art installations, and lack of New York urbanism, with the exception of Huxtable’s 2008 critique of the glitzy development in the Wall Street Journal, very little had been written about the master plan in the years proceeding the opening.

More than a decade later, in 2016, Aaron Betsky used The Vessel as a jumping-off point when discussing the possibility of installation art taking over a role that architecture once played in liberating or unifying a public. His mention of Hudson Yards was just as background: a Manhattan office development. Then in August 2018, art critic Claire Bishop carefully eviscerated the premise of The Shed, which takes inspiration from Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, largely and purposefully giving the architecture a cold shoulder as she wrote: “The architecture of a space matters less than how it is used—this should be obvious to anyone.”

KPF’s 10 Hudson Yards—the chunky glass skyscraper opposite 30 Hudson Yards, the one Oliver Wainwright wrote looked like an angry chicken—was completed in 2016. Nearly all of the critics and architecture publications failed to provide critical coverage of the construction of Hudson Yards prior to the spring scrum. Does this convention of timeliness, then, of waiting for press release, press tours, and VIP events, actually serve criticism?

It could be argued that spectacle, where ink and pixels whip up excitement amongst an architectural readership, is the pinnacle of design criticism. Architecture is given public judgment, and with that judgment comes relevancy and meaning. We tell ourselves that this is debate. And debate, even if borderline clickbait, is healthy for the overall discourse. But these dust storms are hardly the bromides we’d like them to be. They rise into little tornados that sweep across social media but rarely touch down to do any damage or provoke change.

Critics are neither historians nor trendsetters, but our relationship with time encompasses past, present, and future. LACMA and Hudson Yards illustrate temporal struggles. The “when?” poses as much challenge as the “why?”. Are our go-to approaches—anticipatory or timely—robust enough in the face of projects with increasingly complex financial and political stakes?

Maybe, instead of speeding up, we should slow down and privilege complexity and depth over the urge to be first out of the gate. What kind of criticism comes from lagging behind the beat?

Scholar and critic Jane Rendell, in writing about feminist practices and critical spatial practice, argues for criticism that is “objective and subjective, distant and intimate,” and I would add even past and future. In addition to the known critical act of observing (or reporting), she says that spaces can be dreamed, remembered, and imagined. Each of these shifts in the relationship between the critic and time is important as they, as she writes:  “challenge criticism as a form of knowledge with a singular and static point of view located in the here and now.”

I often think about a scene in City of Gold, the documentary about the late, great food critic Jonathan Gold (a Pulitzer winner like Huxtable), where he talks about his own challenges with deadlines. He would go back to restaurants many, many times before sitting down to write his review, and then he’d be plagued by procrastination, drawing out the deadline until the very last minute. For Gold, the iterative cycle of returning and tasting, of talking and sharing, of lollygagging and procrastinating is a way of knowing. He’d wait months before reviewing the hot new restaurant and would review mom-and-pop taco shops in the San Gabriel Valley with the same attention, if not more, as a star chef.

Architect and fellow design writer Wendy Gilmartin recently reminded me that Gold’s procrastination was not about being lazy, he was productive doing other things: daydreaming, playing music, being with family and friends. The temporal parameters of that “slow drag,” the time it takes for an article to percolate, is a time of creative connections and extra-disciplinary exploration free from the expectations of the news cycle. For Gold, it’s what made his writing so rich. His food criticism contained expanses of urbanism, politics, and pop culture. It contained joy along with expertise.

In closing, I want to posit a last thought about architecture media. In archival documents, correspondence between Huxtable and her bosses at the Times, she argued that the pace of the times demanded more coverage of architecture.

But today, do we have to be so fast? Or catch every wave?

As culture refuses to slow down, can we re-value a criticism of lateness?

Huxtable noted that today’s theory is today’s practice. In theorizing the future of criticism we are practicing a criticism of lateness. As we look at the past contained in her archive we allow ourselves to reflect (or even daydream) without succumbing to the undertow of the past.

* Originally presented as part of the Ada Louise Huxtable and the Formation of the Architecture Critic Workshop held at the Getty Research Institute, organized by Maristella Casciato and Gary Fox. Participants included: Barry Bergdoll, Maristella Casciato, Pippo Ciorra, Meredith Clausen, Gary Fox, Ann Harrison, Anne Helmreich, Thomas Hines, Mary McLeod, Barbara Penner, Emily Pugh, Peg Rawes, Suzanne Stephens, Wim de Wit, and Mimi Zeiger.

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