May 292004

In her cheery new book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs writes, with disturbing matter-of-factness:

Another form of architects’ self-regulation is to ban criticism of another’s work, especially criticism that can be heard or read by outsiders. This is why one reads few critical reviews by architects of new buildings, in comparison with reviews by writers, say, of books, drama, and film, or by musicians of musical compositions and performances. Architects’ mutual protection from adverse notice extends, when possible, to criticism by outsiders as well. When I was hired as an editor and writer by an architectural journal, the editor in chief gave me quickly to understand that I must shun critical comment. Otherwise, he explained, not only would our magazine stir up an unpleasant ruckus, but all architects, including those whose work was most interesting, would refuse us information and permission to publish their designs — a death sentence for the magazine.

…Almost always we published only proposals, buildings, or projects we could unreservedly admire, or that the editor in chief unreservedly admired, ignoring others. So for an architect to get his work published in a journal where it could be seen by clients was a compliment, rather like a low-key award. We were attuned to reputations within the profession, and we bowed obsequiously to fashion (a word we never mentioned; architecture has styles, not fashions), as did the architects themselves. Leafing through design and architectural journals a half century later, I see that they still abide by the familiar restrictions.

People get their knickers in a twist when a slick like Vanity Fair writes its advertisers up fawningly. Business has leached into editorial, the horror, the horror! Yet here we have an entire profession engaged, for fifty years, according to Jacobs, in the systematic practice of omerta. I don’t follow the architectural literature, but I know some of my readers do. Is this true? And if it is, why isn’t it a scandal?

  12 Responses to “Ahead, She Says”

  1. Briefly, it’s self-definingly true. Architecture journals are publications for the profession, their very raison d’tre being to present new work and ideas deemed worthy of notice by other professionals. It’s neither their function nor mandate to operate as critical vehicles except in the abstract (i.e., in a general, theoretical way).

    Hardly a scandal. Scandal would be if they operated in any explicit way as purveyor of critical comment for or against individual buildings or architects. That critical function is handled by the architecture critics of the non-professional periodicals, as it should.


  2. Yet the criticism comes nonetheless, but not from that particular quarter.

    I am reminded of the critique of the Metropolitan Opera House upon its opening by Philip Johnson. The arch was an unnecessary neo-classical element. Then he designs the AT&T building.

  3. Jacobs is correct.

    Architects, no matter the forum, will rarely say anything useful about others’ work. They’ll say plenty behind closed doors but never, ever in public — and it is not courtsey to other architects which is at issue but scaring off clients by becoming a center of a controversy and by impliedly criticising the client for having been so foolish as to have hired the first architect at all.

  4. No, Jacobs is not right. Like all zealots, when her cause requires it, she’s intentionally misleading (surprise!).

    There’s an excellent reason why practicing architects don’t negatively criticize one another in public: There’s no possible way to do so without appearing to be thoroughly self-serving.

    See how that works?


  5. AC:

    So, a poet who also is a critic of poetry is "thoroughly self-serving"? An attorney negatively commenting on another attorney’s performance is self-serving? A doctor testifying in a malpractice suit is self-serving? HMMMM….

    Those in the profession are often (though not always) the most qualified to judge that profession. It’s at least worth asking about…

    It’s also like saying that oil companies can never have an objective opinion about air pollution. An argument does not stand or fall on WHO makes it, but the evidence and logic with which it is made. Right? Can’t we still get the benefits of the evidence and logic that architects may uniquely be able to provide?

    Before they all disqualify themselves in a orgy of mutual backscratching, toadying, and "professional courtesy," why don’t they take a chance and tell us where they stand, even at the risk of offending some of their colleagues?

  6. AC’s point is an interesting one but so full of fallacies — factual and theoretical — that I wish I could spare the time to deal with it.

  7. So, a poet who also is a critic of poetry is "thoroughly self-serving"? An attorney negatively commenting on another attorney’s performance is self-serving? A doctor testifying in a malpractice suit is self-serving?

    Non sequitur. Poets do not have to vie for exclusive customers, either generally or on a poem by poem basis, if I may speak in such terms. Attorneys and M.D.’s deal in objective matters, and have measurably objective standards by which to assess performance, and determine malpractice if it exists. Architects have no such measurably objective standards by which to criticize other architects and their architectural creations (as opposed to the mechanical and structural aspects of their building; another matter altogether) as architecture per se is exclusively a matter of aesthetics. Even a building’s functional aspects are, at bottom, an aesthetic matter; a balancing of the architect’s aesthetic vision and sensibilities against those of the ones who will actually use the building.

    And while all architects truly worthy of the name are poets, unlike poets they *do* have to vie for exclusive customers (clients); sometimes generally, and on a building by building basis always, and clients are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Any public negative criticism on the part of one architect against another and/or his buildings — which criticism by its very nature would have to be aesthetic criticism with all the manifest subjectivity that entails — could be seen *only* as a grossly self-serving tactic, as I noted previously; not only by other architects, but most importantly and to the point, by potential clients as well. It’s a no-win situation. Why would any sane architect involve himself in such a potentially catastrophic undertaking?

    The answer is, none would. And in the same circumstances, neither would you.


  8. AC’s point is an interesting one but so full of fallacies — factual and theoretical — that I wish I could spare the time to deal with it.

    Well, sir, since you made the charge, *make* the time.


  9. AC:

    ALL professionals are in competition with one another (that’s why I used doctors and lawyers as examples), and all professionals will call what they do an "art." (Indeed, many choices professionals make are every bit as subjective as you think the whole of architecture is.) Finally, of course, that architecture is non-objective is not an obvious given, but something for which you must argue. (As it stands, I disagree entirely with your position on this.) The "functional" elements, e.g., whether my bedroom gets the morning sun or whether I have enough closet space, etc., are every bit as "objective" as the "objective" aspects of law or medicine, and, as I say, even those areas are loaded with what you would call "subjective" elements.

    If professionals do NOT critique one another’s performances, that’s when the subject truly becomes "subjective," but only because those with the knowledge to make it "objective" are hiding the ball…for economic motives…hmmmmm…..

    Why are architects so "special" again?

  10. A.C:

    O.k., let’s even assume that architecture — even the structural engineering aspects of it — are all "subjective." Does it not assist the potential client to know what Architect A’s purely subjective take on Architect B’s work is??? How does it hurt the client?? Doesn’t it give the client more information, albeit about "subjective" matters? And are those with the bucks to commission an architect really gonna be taken in? THEY won’t know the difference between what you call "subjective" vs. "objective"? Or do you just want to keep them in the dark about even that..well, after all, it’s just "subjective"?

  11. Aaron, as to your specific question, "Why isn’t it a scandal?" — Maybe so few people ever hire an architect for anyone to care what architects think?

  12. Late to the party: was painfully separated with computer for 8 days (shakes, involuntarily right-hand clicking, mood swings, nagging headaches – whole set. I’m better now, thank you much)
    Here’s something on the subject I’ve read that I agree with:

    Go to any party — architects, fashion designers, mathematicians — and you’ll hear the same thing, and usually so subtle, so sophisticated: "Well, I enjoyed the piece, but I thought it was a little derivative", "The building is interesting on its own terms, but it isn’t very well integrated with the neighborhood." Tiny sprinklings of corrosive doubt, offer by people gnawed by envy, and seized on by those made sick by over-exposure to quality.
    So when my turn with the magic wand comes around, I’ll use it to turn the snarkiness dial down, way down. Criticize, sure — if something’s bullshit, say so, and if you have an insight about how something might be better, sing it, and sing it loud. It is New York, after all. But when you feel yourself about to criticize something because you just can’t stand how good it is (and you know you do this, we all do), at that moment, stop.
    Stop, because it will turn you into the kind of small-minded champion of mediocrity we all came here to escape. Every day, you’ve got a choice — am I gonna be one of the 45, or am I gonna be one of the 7 million. And being snarky about other people’s good work ain’t gonna help you with that.

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