Architectural Record asked me to opine on What’s Next for criticism, as part of a year-opening package. I’m not sure my interview as edited answers the question (or that I did answer the question) but it offers a sampling of my thoughts and hobbyhorses, including fear and loathing of digital renderings, using your platform for good, and wistfulness that people might actually want to read criticism. More of what I have had to say on the topic here.
Alexandra Lange: While architectural criticism seems to be a shrinking field, we still need it. So I hope new media channels can deliver it to people who want it. For decades, however, people have wondered why there isn’t more criticism in architecture magazines. It seems to be due to the conflict between boosterism of the profession and criticism in the same pages.
AR: What about blogs? Do they free up criticism?
AL: With blogs, architecture suffers from the problem of gee-whiz images, only some of which are real. Architecture could become focused too much on images, especially now when less is being built.
Ironies abound that this interview appears in AR, currently in search of a new editor-in-chief and a new mission. Also that I am currently writing a book on architecture criticism, but my editors suggest the word “criticism” not appear in the main title.
It seems all too appropriate that this interview was published on the last day of 2010. As I say in the text, 2010 was the year I was planning to stop being a critic.
AL: I started blogging in June 2009, when work was slow and it was driving me crazy not to give my opinions. I did it for free to have a platform. The piece that brought the most attention—plus other commissions—was the criticism of Nicolai Ourroussoff [New York Times architectural critic]. I felt I had nothing to lose, and at that time was thinking of leaving criticism. I wrote out of a sense of frustration: here was someone who has a great platform and was not using it.
But I got distracted.
I was already on the road (now snowed in in Vermont, with grandma, hot chocolate and plenty of cookies), but on Friday Mark Lamster and I handed out a few year-end awards.
Best Use of a Pritzker Prize: I.M. Pei scotches the fourth, 400-foot-tall Silver Tower proposed by NYU, suggesting only beloved elder statesmen of architecture have the power to slow the university’s spread. [AL]
Best Show: MoMA’s revelatory Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, curated by Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman. Honorable mention: Chaos & Classicism at the Guggenheim, America’s Mayor at the MCNY. [ML]
Bad for Women in Architecture Award: “Bits of the sandwich were falling out of her mouth as she spoke, in a husky voice.” From John Seabrook’s profile of Zaha Hadid in The New Yorker, “The Abstractionist.” [AL]
Good for Women in Architecture Award: SANAA, the Japanese firm led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, wins the Pritzker Prize. Can Denise Scott Brown get hers now too, please? [AL]
About the third question everyone asks about my book on the pioneering design store Design Research was the one everyone really wants to ask: where, today, can you shop like D/R?
The short answer is, you can’t. I’ve complained about how design appreciation these days seems entirely focused on shopping, and described a few places where shopping is still sociable, but the mix of price, information and scale at D/R doesn’t happen in the little beautifully curated shops along Smith Street or in the glacial chains of modernism. And besides, who shops like that anymore? The real merchants have moved online.
One student asked about Etsy, and for this I had a ready answer: Yes, I think Etsy preserves a little of the consumer joy and discovery of D/R in its heydey, along with the color that seems drained from much mass-market apparel and housewares. And yes, I think the site is doing its best to create sociability in an online environment. That they need their own merchants to subdivide the plenty is clear: that’s the point of the Treasury (I made one, featuring yellow, here) and the new Taste Test. Let’s get the modernists away from the knitting as soon as possible.
For our latest Lunch With The Critics, Mark Lamster and I toured Rafael Moneo (and company)’s Northwest Corner Building at Columbia University, a pink-granite and stainless-steel structure that is the last piece of the original McKim, Mead and White campus.
Alexandra Lange: I have to admit that I’ve been prejudiced against this building for a while. Its Broadway facade — pink diagonal saw-tooth granite on the lower two floors, stainless steel diagonal louvers above — seemed so cluelessly forbidding, I had written the building off as an oncoming PR disaster. I wrote earlier this year about the b.s. quality of the ground-level transparency at Barnard’s Diana Center across Broadway — it may be literally transparent, but you can’t get in from the street; but still, it seemed insane for Columbia to continue its walled tradition onto its last open corner at 120th Street.
Mark Lamster: How well it works as a pathway remains to be seen; there aren’t too many better options, so I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this one. The switchbacks are perhaps lamentable, but an unavoidable cost of a restricted lot, the major grade shift from street to campus, and the imposition of the you-can’t-touch-it gymnasium. And I’m not quite sure that marble is so funereal as you suggest. Columbia spent a good deal of money on all that stone, and I think that speaks to their aspirations for the room as a civic space. With some attractive Columbia students lounging about the French seating and sipping lattes, it might be a good deal more appealing than you suspect.
Read the rest here. There were other critics on our tour who should be weighing in soon.
This week in the Observers Room, a satire of decor (see, even the coats are getting into the act) and an inquiry into the current state of boring.
Throw Pillows As Character: Most contemporary novels feint at design particularity with brand names, but Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand offers a series of lived-in living rooms, golf clubs, seaside promenades and estates.
On Boring: Editors keep telling me my architecture pitches are boring. But aren’t fermentation, translation, math equally so? Who decides what’s dull?
And for those who can’t get enough gift guides, as research for an essay on design and social shopping, I’m making treasuries, svpplies and lists of likes on various sites. Themes to date: yellow (inspired by a previous post), and designy things for kids that kids actually like. We’ve received way too many expensive, stylish, thoughtful toys that sit on the shelf while the $1 Hot Wheels race around.
Jane Thompson and I appear on this week’s Design Matters with Debbie Millman, a half-hour(ish) podcast distributed via Design Observer. We taped the show last Friday, and it was a lot of fun. So nice to be asked for your opinion.
The main topic of conversation is our book, Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, but we also covered Marimekko, Jane’s brilliant career, design retail today, and why I write about the 1950s so often (it’s not just nostalgia, it’s personal).
I hope you will listen.
All those Gift Guides must have gotten to me (The Atlantic’s was particularly ridiculous and useless: Vespa, tech, tech, tech, book, book, book, nailpolish), since I was spurred to make a gift recommendation of my own over in the Observers Room. But then, two days later, I reverted to my natural Scrooge.
Little Boxes: AMAC Plastic Boxes just happen to be one of MoMA’s Humble Masterpieces, but I didn’t know that when I lined them up on my bureau as a child. Their cheapness, usefulness, brilliant color and crystalline shape makes them an object for the ages.
No Rest at the Last Supper: “Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway” is indeed a dud: cheese-tastic, bombastic, didactic.
At Observers Room this week, my take on the “modern” holiday card, and a completely non-digital network chart from the Noguchi Museum.
Sans Serif Seasons Greetings: ‘Tis the season when the minds of parents of small children turn to holiday cards. What are the mass market choices for the design-minded?
A propos of this, Burning Settlers Cabin considers the pastel tree.
Networks Before the Internet: Network charts — like this one from the Noguchi Museum’s new and excellent exhibit — are a bit of an obsession for mid-century design historians. They are a quick and pseudo-scientific way to show how small and intertwined were the worlds of mid-century art, design and architecture.