Architecture and Criticism: By the People, for the People?

Frank Gehry flips off a reporter who challenged him of practicing "showy architecture. . Image© EFE Frank Gehry flips off a reporter who challenged him of practicing "showy architecture. . Image© EFE

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Architectural Criticism that's Not Just for Architects."

In case you hadn’t noticed the world is going from paper to pixels. You’re reading this, here. Everything is changing, and that includes how we talk and think and write about architecture.

A recent essay showed me the impact of how the not-so-new media has changed our sense of what architectural criticism—really any criticism—is and what we expect from it. A few weeks ago, Kate Wagner, creator of the wildly popular blog “McMansion Hell” and contributor to Common Edge, wrote a piece for Vox.Com on Betsy DeVos’ new summer home in Park Township, Michigan. The internet exploded.

Her send up of the bloated home had clear allusions to her disdain not only for excess and conspicuous consumption, but also for DeVos herself and by extension for the entire Trump Administration. Rather than simply decrying the aesthetic funkiness of a rich person’s McMansion, Wagner’s article was full-throated cultural outrage that surfed the energy of the Resist Movement—and its reception was in full accord with the many and growing non-architectural pieces that call out the Trump train wreck.

Amid the thousands of gleeful tweets and “comments” that followed, was one by Paul Goldberger: “@mcmansionhell brilliantly takes down Betsy DeVos, showing once again that she is one of our sharpest as well as most entertaining architecture critics.”

Arguably the world’s most famous architecture critic, who made his bones in print, conferred upon Wagner his own identity of “architecture critic” (on Twitter, of course). Not just a smart, funny, personal blogger, she is using architectural analysis to describe our greater culture, and doing so in an immediate, relatable voice.

That’s why I had Wagner on my radio show, “Home Page” before her most recent internet explosion, and asked her why people loved her blog: “I think people enjoy the blog because it’s talking about architecture in a way that is not patronizing, which is frankly not common. That might be a bit of a diss, but I am referring to the architecture blogs.”

Courtesy of Flickr User Andrew Guyton. ImageMcMansions such as these are among the types of buildings discussed on McMansion Hell Courtesy of Flickr User Andrew Guyton. ImageMcMansions such as these are among the types of buildings discussed on McMansion Hell

Wagner’s voice is sharp, witty and among the brightest of this emergent internet-based architecture criticism. You don’t need to be a member of the AIA to receive hundreds of articles, images, and projects a day. Once there were half a dozen pre-eminent architecture print magazines, now the few left are struggling to stay alive on paper while scores of web presences make the scrolled review of images on a device the norm. This new world is in contrast to the longer paper screeds of the past, often filled with arcane and impenetrable critical writing, geared to the narrow field of architectural academics.

I am published regularly in ArchDaily; wrote for Archinect and HOUZZ before that, and any number of smaller venues. The instant response and mass love/hate or indifference (easily the worst of the three) of the Internet is quick and intense. The comments are unedited and often dazzling in either their brilliance or addled incoherence. This is, believe it or not, a clear virtue.

This recent torrent of expression highlighted how the Internet has transformed the way we exchange architectural thoughts and responses. Universal, instant, fully revisable, everything on the Internet is in real time and essentially free (a problem for another day’s discussion).

In clubbing the baby seal of obvious excess, Wagner mocks the gross in the DeVos house but shows how the overblown can also be grotesque because it reveals the venality of its builder. The reaction to her piece went beyond a critic revealing the negative truth about a building—it was a mass wave of likes, shares, comments, and retweets that flamed and trolled on everything Wagner addressed, not just the aesthetics of the home. It was architecture criticism that transcended architecture.

This wider perception of buildings goes beyond aesthetics, and it’s what explodes on the Internet. But it is not just Wagner; there is a wave of blogs and websites focusing on Brutalism as an architectural expression of cultural ideology. In these sites architecture evidences a worldview as much as the specific aesthetics of any building. Brutalist websites, such as #SOSBRUTALISM and “Fuck Yeah Brutalism” are as positive as “McMansion Hell” is negative. These blogs embrace the universal intentions and social vision that spawned Brutalism, and are almost nostalgic in their glowing regard for buildings that most civilians (i.e. non architects) believe failed miserably.

Courtesy of Flickr User Ádám Szedlák. ImageThe Alexandra Road Estate by architect Neave Brown; an example of London's brutalist architecture. Courtesy of Flickr User Ádám Szedlák. ImageThe Alexandra Road Estate by architect Neave Brown; an example of London's brutalist architecture.

This new era of internet criticism reminds me of Postmodernism, when books by Vincent Scully, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and Tom Wolfe ripped the existing status quo with insight and wit. Postmodernism was crib-killed or committed suicide by its own absurdities, but its alt-architecture criticism was refreshing, provocative and expressed the 1960’s counterculture message of “Reject Authority.”

Some say the aesthetic product of Post Modernism was shallow at best. To me its reactionary impact was based in commentary. It burned bright for a couple of decades because of its place as part of the worldwide cultural revolution of the mid-century. I believe that upheaval will considered a tiny ripple when it’s compared to what emerging technology portends for our profession—and that includes criticism.

Maybe this new criticism is just in its awkward adolescence. The joy of instant, real time presentation of unlimited length, universal availability and immediate correction of error, is a fantastic way to communicate. But the ability to link to live sites, images, video, and news makes the indirect page-bound world of traditional journalism quaintly tactile.

These coming changes are not just about what is produced. Ultimately the methods of creation change what is what is created. Current culture is rejecting Gilbert & Sullivan eight-part harmony in favor of a cappella singing; reflecting the fact that the ability to read sheet music is vanishing from the creation of music. Music is made in several ways, but the ear to mouth of a cappella is defeating the mind-to-hand of making music off paper. 

Losing the beauty and circumspection of print architectural journalism will be a loss, a loss I feel with each missing newsstand. Fully formed arguments, paper-framed in a bound context, with targeted photos and other graphics, still exist, but like “drawing” it’s a dead-method-walking. Of course the fun and conversational tone of “McMansion Hell” may not the way that all future criticism will follow, but the few remaining print magazines will, finally, become beloved footnotes and the burgeoning digital formats of architectural journalism will change architectural criticism far beyond what we see now.

Perhaps the line between analysis and commentary is blurring. Perhaps architectural criticism, like journalism itself, is evolving into a place of dialogue and reaction rather than the attempts at intellectual analysis of the print era.

Four generations ago Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message.” It’s clear that the millions today engaged in seeing, reacting to and thinking about architecture in all the places like “McMansion Hell” were not part of Architectural Record’s audience 20 years ago.

And maybe that is a good thing.