On February 25 of this year, Joseph Rykwert was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Since his book on the primitive hut is a key text in my research – as you may know from my earlier post on Rykwert – I was keen to attend some of the honorary events organized in London in the days before the award ceremony. Sadly, the lecture Rykwert was to give at the RIBA on 24 February was already sold out,[i] but I could still visit a two-day event called Critical Juncture.
It turned out to be such big fun that I decided to write a series of blog posts on it. A novice to the scene, I was struck by the confessed societal engagement of many of the speakers – which is largely absent from my own predominantly generation X environment. Then again: most of the speakers were specialized in theory and criticism more than in history, which leaves some more room for personal opinions I suppose. Plus, most of them were from a generation that witnessed the sixties and seventies with their own eyes, the most recent Golden Age of societal engagement.
The prologue was a CICA session at the Architectural Association dedicated to the current state of architectural criticism. As it turns out, architectural criticism today finds itself at a ‘critical juncture’ – as the CICA press release put it: ‘Outlets for independent criticism are shrinking; architects increasingly self-publish monographs without independent critical commentary, the informed criticism of buildings and cities has a marginal existence on television and online, and so on. Is it ‘condition critical’ for those who write on the built environment?’
If all critics are as vocal as Michael Sorkin, I think architectural criticism is very much alive today. He gave the opening lecture of the session, packing it with aphorisms – ironically, ‘the critic is not an architectural barista, brewing up steaming cups of architectural truth’ was one of them – that I can’t resist quoting here profusely. Observing that architects have embraced the theoretical as a road to formalism (‘modernism is dead; long live modernism’), he lamented the fact that they seemed to ignore societal circumstances in the process (‘the greatest minds of my generation are building for MONEY’). Whose interests are served, and how they shape relevant issues: that is the domain of the architectural critic. Or in Sorkin’s signature style: ‘Our job is not questions of status, but to HELP SAVE THE WORLD.’
Questioning the current vogue for parametric – i.e. computer-generated – design methods, big in the very AA where Sorkin delivered the lecture, he expressed his doubts about the ‘eugenic overtones’ encountered in this self-generative approach (‘are computers now meant to DREAM for us as well as to DRAW?’). Parametric design reminded Sorkin of total design: it is seeking all-encompassing control, moving from relative to complete autonomy.
Meanwhile, parametric design produces beautiful images, but no effects that cannot be reached more easily by other means. As a side effect, architecture students these days seem to be more concerned with procedures – ‘how did we make it’ – than with effects – ‘what does it do’. The meaning of the artefact as a central concern is increasingly displaced by the procedure that produced it, but, as Sorkin pointed out: ‘people have to LIVE IN IT’, and ‘YOUR parameter, after all, can be MY nightmare’. In the same vein, he warned that ‘smart cities’ could easily escalate into ‘cities that know too much’.
He therefore proposed a ‘post-functionalist quantitative criticism’, focusing on that which raises a functionalist program to the aesthetic. After all, a cat can be skinned in many ways, but some outcomes are nicer than others: the architectural critic’s function is to single them out. Still, it is not an easy task: critics usually ‘arrive too late on the scene to a zillion-dollar pile where their opinions have zero impact.’ Nevertheless, he closed off with four commandments for the contemporary critic: to not just acknowledge politics; to bridge the qualitative and the quantitative; to focus on REAL outcomes for REAL people; and above all, to engage in ‘tireless propaganda for the GOOD, the JUST, and the FAIR.’