Thursday, May 18, 2006

Raising hell? Allan Temko and the "foxes" critiquing architecture today

So, are architecture critics raising hell the way Allan Temko used to? Not quite, according to those gathered two weeks ago for the 2006 Temko Critics Panel in honor of the recently-deceased San Francisco Chronicle critic, who felt that architecture criticism should not be reactive but proactive, to “get in and fight before the damn thing is built,” as Daniel Rose, chair of the Forum for Urban Design, said in his introduction.

In Temko’s 1/26/06 obituary in the Chronicle, former Chronicle Executive Editor Matthew F. Wilson said, "Allan had a dramatic effect on the skyline of San Francisco and beyond. Architects, city planners and politicians took his criticism very seriously. Often when there was (an official) plan and he espoused a different approach, things got changed."

The panel included Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe, John King of the Chronicle, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, and Paul Goldberger of the New Yorker. Robert Ivy of Architectural Record moderated the session, sponsored by the Forum For Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. But the panel—despite prediction of a “smackdown” on the architectural blog The Gutter—was mostly a cordial affair. Some differences (and some chuckles) emerged, but the panelists were more united in a weariness toward the coarse collective culture than frustrated with architects or, dare we say, developers. (And, no, the issue of Atlantic Yards didn't come up--until I raised it after the fact with the moderator. Scroll down.)

Back to the 60s

When Temko, who Ivy (right) described as “a humanist and also a firebrand,” joined the Chronicle in 1961, it was the year of the protests against the planned Madison Square Garden as well as the publication of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The world is a very different place--is there a role for a proactive critic? Responded Campbell, “I don’t think it’s a very meaningful distinction. A reactive story… is an opportunity to make a proactive case.” He reminded listeners that, unlike with a film, nobody buys a ticket to see a building. “You’re doing it to generate a conversation.”

Goldberger agreed, saying the critic has an important role responding to proposals and plans. He doesn’t do it as much as when he wrote for the New York Times, given the format of his magazine column, “but I deeply believe a critic has a social responsibility to respond to what’s been proposed.” He noted that he did such writing about the plans related to Ground Zero, collected in his book Up From Zero.

Ouroussoff observed, “You really don’t have to look at a painting you don’t like,” but architecture is unavoidable.

Critical intervention?

Do critics try to affect the outcome? “Not just of that situation but the program in general,” said Campbell (right). Part of the critic’s role, added King, “is fighting for the cause of good urban design.”

“I have killed buildings,” Campbell said, citing a proposal that was “so outrageous”—a 1000-foot tower in the wrong place. “You want to evaluate the process as well as the product. You want a fair and just process.”

Others were more measured. Said Ouroussoff (right), “I do feel uncomfortable as a critic with the idea of killing things. What we want to do is get the dialogue going… We don’t know where creativity is going to come from. If we are advocates, we’re advocating for architecture, not for architects or architectural firms.”

Goldberger agreed with Ouroussoff. “I’m not that interested in killing buildings so much as raising the level of dialogue.”

The absent critic from Chicago

Ivy observed that Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune sees his role, in part, as to keep “ugly buildings from getting built.” Later, King cited Kamin as the contemporary critic most in Temko’s spirit, but noted that architecture is more central to Chicago’s identity than in other cities. Kamin, added Goldberger, “has the clearest social slant.” (Scroll down for King's coda on Kamin.)

Kamin’s collection, titled Why Architecture Matters, was reviewed in the April 2002 issue of the New Criterion by Brooklyn-based critic Francis Morrone (who just happens to be a member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's new advisory board).

Morrone quoted Kamin: Activist criticism is based on the idea that architecture affects everyone and therefore should be understandable to everyone. It analyzes architecture as a fine art and as a social art, placing buildings in the context of the politics, the economics, and the cultural forces that shape them. Activist criticism invites readers to be more than consumers who passively accept the buildings that are handed to them. It bids them, instead, to become citizens who take a leading role in shaping their surroundings. Its fundamental purposes are these: to stop hideous buildings and urban spaces from disfiguring the landscape, and to introduce constructive alternatives into the public debate.

He further quoted Kamin (right):
When you are an activist critic, you do not wait for mistakes to happen and then bemoan the results after the fact. You whack at the offending party with the journalistic equivalent of a two-by-four. In addition to hammering away at bad plans, however, an activist critic is obliged to point the way to good ones. Besides the two-by-four, in other words, the tools of the trade include a searchlight.

And Morrone took a swipe at some Times architecture critics, including then-critic Herbert Muschamp, a controversial figure (about more later): And unlike [first-ever Times critic Ada Louise] Huxtable or Goldberger or the man presently installed at The New York Times, [Kamin] ventures about his city, to its neighborhoods and ghettoes, and writes with as much seriousness of those places’ humble streets and houses as he does of the big, brand-name buildings downtown.

Who’s the audience?

For whom do critics write? “The intelligent lay public,” said Goldberger (right), noting that architecture has become more central to the public discourse. Later that was modified to “the moderately intelligent lay public.”

Ouroussoff pointed out that tastes can change: “Part of what we do is defend the right of certain kind of ugly buildings to exist.” He recounted an anecdote in which Frank Gehry reminded an audience that, at one time, everyone thought his work was ugly.

King (right) said he’d be happy to write about architects like Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, and Gehry. “You go out to the suburbs….the basic build quality is horrifying,” he said, noting that his column on the passing of Jane Jacobs focused on a series of big boxes. “How do we get the moderately intelligent lay public to say, ‘You’ve got to think about what’s happening on a large scale.’”

[Here's Geoff Manaugh's response to the panel, arguing for a broader role for critics, on Bldgblog:
If a critic can get people to realize that the everyday architectural world of garages and malls and bad haunted house novels is worthy of architectural analysis – and that architecture is even exciting to discuss – then maybe the trade journals can get some of their subscribers back. At the very least, it's worth a try.
Even if that means saying: Gee, the new Home Depot sucks.
]

Buildings in context

How does architecture criticism relate to the urban situation as opposed to individual buildings? “You don’t review a building the way you review a play,” said Campbell, noting that there are numerous possible buildings to write about. “What you’re trying to do is use that building to fly some issue that you think is important,” Campbell said.

Goldberger picked it up, “You write about a building inevitably both as a physical object, as a social object, and as an object in an urban context.” He added that critics would not want their individual pieces to stand for the sum total of their work.

Ouroussoff added, “There are thousands of buildings you can write about. Part of the job is to decide what’s important, what’s not, and why…. You’re looking for ideas. For me, the thing that I find I’m most uncomfortable with is that formulas become static very quickly for what cities should become. You’re always looking for ideas, and you want to give those ideas traction."

He continued: "And that’s about opening up the debate and the discussion, and seeing if there’s a different way to make cities. That Jane Jacobs model of a city, or a part of a city, is just part of the equation. In L.A., you know, [Reyner] Banham’s idea of a city was radically different. And they can all coexist. And it’s about putting those ideas out there… and then, sometimes, some things are just beautiful and you want to write about it.”

Indeed, Banham once said he learned to drive so he could "read" Los Angeles in the original. Ouroussoff's words sounded like a defense of his contrarian column on Jacobs.

Has the role of criticism changed?

Campbell hearkened back to Huxtable (right), the Times’s first architecture critic, who began work in 1963. “What was so good was not her understanding of the esthetics of architecture but her understanding of architecture as part of a larger social, political, and economic world that she understood very well.”

He contrasted her work with that of Lewis Mumford of the New Yorker, “who never talked to the owner or the user or the architect.” Goldberger countered that Mumford’s work still stood up well, even if he disagreed with it.

Campbell observed that Huxtable was a “hundred percent proponent of modernism.” These days, he said, it’s very hard to be so certain of a movement.

The infamous Muschamp

Former Times critic (1992-2004) Muschamp, an over-the-top presence, generated the most gossipy moments, after Ivy observed that the critic once stated that “his role was to have a sexual experience about architecture.” The crowd--maybe 25 people--tittered.

Campbell took the bait. “Herbert believed architecture was practiced by 40 or 50 people around the world for an audience of 5000,” he said, adding that, by ignoring “the experience most people have,” Muschamp “helped created the world of starchitects.”

“He didn’t create it on his own,” countered Ouroussoff, noting that all critics are a product of their times. “No one else was looking at that work in that way. In a lot of ways, he had a very narrow perspective. He turned everything into a subjective experience… But I think he was trying to open up… architecture and a way of engaging it that he felt had been lost.”

Goldberger said of Muschamp, “He certainly rode the trend and pushed it forward.”

An aside: the Times succession

Muschamp's focus on starchitects didn't go unnoticed. According to one analysis, the critic mentioned Rem Koolhaas and Gehry in more than one-third of his articles. After Muschamp's departure was announced, the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) sent an open letter to the Times encouraging the hiring of a more wide-ranging successor:
Many critics today, however, take just the opposite tack--clinging to the heroic ideal of the architect as the master, and holding on for dear life to the traditional view of the architectural masterpiece as a triumph of abstract ideas and ideals. We urge the Times to name a new architecture critic willing to engage with these new currents in design. America's most influential architecture writer should be ready to critique this emerging movement, criticize it, prod it.

I suspect PPS is disappointed, as at least one critic calls Ouroussoff "Herb Jr." Ouroussoff doesn't strain for pop culture metaphors and he doesn't flaunt his personal connections to architects as blatantly as Muschamp--who was widely accused of playing favorites. Then again, Ouroussoff has been chided for encouraging starchitects as well, and was quite chummy with Gehry at their Times Talk appearance in January; he even defended Gehry by denying that the Atlantic Yards plan would contain a superblock.

Exerting authority

At the panel, Ouroussoff acknowledged that the advent of blogs and other voices made the critics’ traditional platform less stable: “The authority has to come from… the understanding of the work, the depths of the arguments that you bring to it.”

Campbell, “I think the most valuable thing we do is help create the careers of young architects.”

The Times now has its first reporter covering architecture, Robin Pogrebin. “I think that was an important step for the Times,” said Ouroussoff, noting that other cultural pursuits, such as film, have long been treated as news.

“I think editors sometimes have a hard time understanding what an architecture critic does,” he added. “You know what an art critic does, you know what a film critic does…. It’s not as clear what an architecture critic is doing and why it’s necessary. Because architecture in the mindset of a lot of people belongs in the real estate section. It’s not that it’s not being covered; it’s not being covered critically. It’s about economics, about business…but to say it’s also about something else, social issues, esthetic issues, that’s a big shift.”

Does the boom in real estate lead to more discussion about architecture? Not quite. “There’s this outpouring of interest,” Goldberger said, “but it’s at a lower plane.” Both he and other panelists grumbled about the “dumbing down” of discourse.

Goldberger observed, “The risk of engaging too much in, say, the world of real estate writing is it’s really about consumer culture, and then, architecture criticism becomes, in a very pernicious, way, forced back into…. a ‘consumer guide’…And I don’t know if that’s what we want architectural criticism to be.”

Finding the subject

Choosing his subjects, Ouroussoff said, is “a question of scale and balance.” When he took the jobs, he said, “I wanted to travel all the time,” to look at what’s going on here in relationship to what’s being built in Europe and Asia and elsewhere. “At the same time, you have a responsibility to cover the city you’re living in.”

Do critics seek buildings to amplify their ideas and thoughts? “I think you have it backwards,” said Campbell. “You start with an object, then begin to figure out what kind of ideas may be embedded in them.”

At newspapers, said Ouroussoff, critics “are driven by the news—what’s in front of your nose.” He said he did seek a shift in scale, from writing about an individual project “versus how do you rebuild a city like New Orleans.” One privilege of the job, he said, is “you’re paid to educate yourself… to fly around the world and look at buildings.”

“You can’t go into this with this sense that you already know what you’re going to see when you walk into the building,” he added. “You go in hoping to be surprised, to see something you’ve never seen before. In a lot of ways, we just feed off what the architects are doing.”

Foxes, not hedgehogs

One audience member observed said that all the panel members were foxes (who view things in an eclectic manner), in Isaiah Berlin’s famous formulation, unlike Temko and theater critic John Simon, who were hedgehogs (who see things via one organizing principle): “You read them not to know how they would react… but why they reacted that way.”

In conclusion, Ivy said he was surprised at the unanimity expressed. “I think we do see things in more subtle shades” than Temko, he said. His summation: “Having said that, as you travel about, from city to city, not only nationally but internationally, we are struck by advances that we see, in waterfronts and urban transit and multimodal living, and we’re still stuck with a preponderance of very ugly buildings, and mistakes, egregious individual and collective decision making. That calls for someone to call it down… as well as an opportunity for admiration, and”—in a nod to Muschamp—“for having a sexual experience with a building.”

Paging Ada Louise

The Q&A moved too swiftly for me to raise a question, so I checked afterward with Ivy by e-mail, asking what the responsibility would be for critics to evaluate not just the architecture but the process for getting it built, such as the use of eminent domain or a developer’s mailing of a deceptive flier (right), two issues that are part of the Atlantic Yards dispute. He wrote:
My response is that critics are people: their responses differ with the times and the people they are writing for. Allan Temko was a product of the 1960s and saw many issues as clear battles, much as Jane Jacobs confronted Robert Moses on the future of Houston Street or others on the diminution of the quality of life in the Village. Ada Louise Huxtable has come as close as any critic we still have who confronts the reality of New York, including the specific motivation and machinations of the development community, including issues like the use of eminent domain to achieve private profit.

Huxtable, now 84, writes only about six pieces a year for the Wall Street Journal. Still, a profile in the 12/19/05 New York Observer stated:
That patrician-populist perspective leads her to upbraid the star-chitects who have invaded New York recently, concentrating on expensive condos rather than on civic projects or affordable housing.

A 12/19/05 profile in Metropolis, headlined Ada Louise Huxtable: History, quoted her extensively:
Here she is on the West Side stadium debacle, pulling no punches: "...there is something profoundly wrong with the city's planning policies. To put it plainly: There are none; there are no land-use principles, no guiding priorities, no design guidelines where they are needed. Construction projects, often of enormous size and impact, are developer generated and initiated, within a narrow spectrum of private interest, and the bigger they are the better the city seems to like them."
While other architecture critics are inclined to fetishize the breakthrough building-object, and only reluctantly and timidly permit themselves to be drawn into broader issues of city and regional planning, Huxtable has no fear of taking on these matters.


Criticism and Atlantic Yards

Needless to say, no critic has written anything about the absence of planning and public insput regarding the Atlantic Yards project. In fact, two days ago, Sun critic James Gardner waded into Gehry's new designs but was unable to coherently describe the basic political battle or even the site itself. So how could he be expected to write about the developer's p.r. strategy or use of deceptive renderings?

Muschamp and Ouroussoff have issued raves (see Chapter 14 of my report), even as they each made a basic factual error. Muschamp ("Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden," 12/11/03) called the site "an open railyard." Ouroussoff ("Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn," 7/5/05) wrote that "the development would be built on top of the Atlantic Avenue railyards," thus taking Forest City Ratner's suggestion that the 22-acre project would be limited to the 8.3-acre railyard.

Will future coverage not only get the basics right but engage the broader issues?

A coda from King

After I wrote the above report, I found John King's 5/9/06 reflections on the forum, headlined What we miss when we look to the Big Stars, in the Chronicle. King allowed that the sober discussion missed something:
And the single word that defines this is one that didn't come to my mind until too late: responsibility.

King continued, pointing out a misinterpretation of Kamin's goals:
Those stakes are immense: You can make a forceful, articulate case for a high quality environment where you and your readers live. The flip side is, it's possible to become detached, so dazzled by stylistic innovation that you come to see buildings as artworks rather than as pieces in an ever-shifting puzzle.
That detachment was most obvious when panel moderator Robert Ivy, the editor of Architectural Record, mentioned how the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin once wrote that part of his job was to try to stop "ugly" buildings. Panelists emphatically disagreed, saying the last thing a critic should be is a fashion cop. After all, Frank Gehry's buildings were considered ugly once; so was Rockefeller Center when the plans were unveiled.
But I'll wager that Blair wasn't talking about "ugly" buildings that are authentic examples of architecture reacting to today's world. He means the host of buildings erected without a shed of ambition except to make a quick buck: venal, calculated, amoral impositions on the landscape.
They go up in every city. They're unavoidable. And when they rise on prominent sites or take on mammoth size, they scar our civic landscape for years to come.


A flashback: Ouroussoff on elite architecture

In a 12/1/02 commentary for the Los Angeles Times, headlined "At the elite's altar; Why have U.S. architects largely left behind the idea of work with a social impact?" Ouroussoff wrote thoughtfully about the broader challenges:
Today, architects working in America are confined to serving a relatively small and entrenched elite -- the corporate kingpins and aging philanthropists who typically make up the boards of the country's major cultural institutions. The success of the conservative political agenda has meant that the kind of visionary public works projects that remain possible in Europe are no longer part of the public dialogue here. The nation's faltering economy, meanwhile, has resulted in cuts in philanthropic spending.
The result is that architecture risks being reduced to a purely aesthetic game -- one that offers the veneer of progress without its substance. At best, the high end of the profession is able to produce the occasional transcendent masterpiece. At worst, it functions as a mere plaything for the rich and their institutions.


His piece was cited in an interesting essay by James Russell in the March 2003 issue of Architectural Record. In the piece, headlined Where Are We Now? Architecture’s Place in an Era of Evolving Values, Russell makes an important point about Gehry's iconic museum in Bilbao:
(For all the attention the Bilbao Guggenheim has garnered, it did not on its own transform the city. A program of public investment in airports, a subway, and other cultural facilities reinforced the job the museum did of putting the city on the map.)

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