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As I noted a few months ago in Are architecture reviews critical?, so-called architectural criticism is invariably anything but critical. It’s usually not even analytical.

The editor of Australian Design Review, Simon Sellars, responded to my argument in his journal and got straight to the point. There’s no getting around the fact that architectural criticism, he says, is “a peculiar act of collusion between architect and reviewer”.

Collusion? Mr Sellars explains how reviewers are beholden to architects for information on the building and for getting access to it. The architect usually owns the rights to the plans and paid for the photographs that are mandatory for architectural publications. Here’s the money quote:

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For all of these reasons, there is an unspoken burden of responsibility on the reviewer to not shed blood, to not stick the boot in, to not claim that the building doesn’t work or has failed its civic or public function, to skirt around the issue of how it has failed the client or the taxpayer. After all, the architect’s eyes are watching, and to be quite blunt, architects tend to inhabit thin skins.

There’s a real tension here because genuine criticism is deeply rooted in architectural tradition and in the architectural psyche. Architects see themselves at least partly as artists (some almost entirely) and robust criticism has always been part and parcel of the modern arts discourse.

Architects care deeply about how ‘good’ their work is, hence the proliferation of peer-judged state and national architectural awards for specific buildings. The student architectural “crit” is also central to the way architects are educated.

There are few other student courses where one’s personal creations are subjected year-after-year to often hard-hitting public review by fellow students, staff and visiting experts. This is real criticism, both positive and negative. It’s how architects are bred.

Architecture is a practical discipline, so a culture of review can be socially beneficial. An ethos of improvement that includes authentic criticism can aid innovation and efficiency by providing feedback on design, construction and management issues for the benefit of the wider building industry.

But the desire for a culture of recognition – which necessarily implies objective evaluation – comes up hard against commercial realities. It also comes up against the natural human desire to avoid adverse criticism.

There are difficulties in fostering a genuinely critical culture in an industry that has pretensions to art but is nevertheless firmly based in the world of business. Negative comments about buildings are likely to be seen primarily as putting architects livelihoods at stake.

That makes it hard for reviewers to address “the work and its merits and flaws”, as American architecture critic Daniel Mendelsohn puts it. Some architectural editors and writers respond to this dilemma by making a virtue of the absence of genuine criticism – ‘bloodsport’ is distasteful, they say.

This is a false argument though. Only a tiny proportion of criticism in other disciplines with a more robust tradition of review, like literature, is nasty and brutish.

Others respond to the quandary by arguing that architecture criticism isn’t really about being critical – it’s really about the writing. For some it’s fine writing for its own sake. For others it’s like a lot of travel writing – the building is essentially the prompt for digressions into a range of other interesting but safe topics.

I have sympathy for editors and architects. I expect barristers would react badly to critical public reviews of the way they conduct cases too. But barristers don’t see themselves as part of an artistic tradition that nominally embraces criticism.

There are a number of changes I’d like to see architectural journal editors and writers put in place.

First, there are areas where architectural reviewers can politely identify failings in a building as safely as they can acknowledge virtues. These are mainly going to be matters of fact, like whether or not a building really achieves its claimed environmental performance.

Second, reviewers should look at the building as the creation of multiple players rather than as the conception of the architect acting in isolation. As well as reflecting reality more closely, it diffuses the accountability across client, regulators, builder, and architect.

Third, if it isn’t genuinely critical, it shouldn’t be called ‘criticism’ or ‘review’. These words should be removed from the lexicon of general architectural writing and reserved for the real thing.

Fourth, universities should be far more proactive in critically assessing the performance of buildings. They have the institutional standing and skills to undertake objective, long-term evaluations of buildings and assess the relative contributions of the various players.

That architectural schools haven’t been more imaginative in leading this sort of work is, frankly, appalling (how many post-occupancy studies have been done in Australia?). The value of learning from what’s actually been done is obvious in many other fields but not, it seems, in architecture.

Finally, I’d like to see journals either ditch or compartmentalise the marketing and promotion articles, and give more space to explaining the design process. I’d like to see architects (and other players) justify their design decisions, explain the constraints they acted under, and indicate alternative solutions they considered and rejected.

This isn’t as demanding as a genuine independent no-holds barred review, but it’d certainly be much more analytical than what we get at present. It could be constructed in the tradition of a “crit”, with an interviewer (say) controlling the direction of the conversation and asking the salient questions. The architect’s protection is the words would all be hers.

Architects love to look at photographs and diagrams of buildings and to a certain extent they can interpolate the relevant drivers of the design in their own heads. It would be a much more useful aid to innovation though, and certainly more certain, if they were told precisely why each decision was made.

I don’t mind if journals want to publish articles that read like advertisements, travelogues (“archilogues”?) or even belle-lettrism, but let’s be clear about what genuine criticism is and what it isn’t. And let’s encourage more explanation from architects and other players, as well as lots more formal evaluation from archi schools.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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