Actors and Vehicles of Architectural Criticism


The following text is issued from the call for papers for the second of three international events organised by the Mapping Architectural Criticism project, to foster scholarship on the history of architectural criticism and facilitate exchanges between scholars active in this field of research.
Conceived as milestones of the research project, these workshops intended to go beyond somewhat widespread interpretations that invoke either the specificity of architectural criticism or its partial overlapping with other forms of writing. The workshops also wanted to challenge simplistic views that suggest the crisis of architectural criticism if not its entire demise.

The second international workshop – Actors and Vehicles of Architectural Criticism – was held in Bologna, at the Università Alma Mater Studiorum, on October 4th and 5th, 2016. More than 15 scholars participated in the event.

Here you can download the full call for papers and the program of the symposium.

Actors and Vehicles of Architectural Criticism

On the occasion of the second international workshop, the Mapping Architectural Criticism research team intended to took into consideration the actors and the vehicles of criticism, meaning with these terms both the agents of criticism (critics, architects, historians, publishers, photographers, institutions, etc.) and the media through which criticism is disseminated (press, photography, exhibitions, etc.). The workshop aimed to expand the knowledge about the specific functions of these actors and their networks and to outline their mutual relationships. A specific focus was kept on the links between the actors, the media of criticism, and the historical contexts within which they materialize, as well as the cultural, intellectual, and institutional milieus from which they originate.

Actors of criticism

The first of the two sessions of the workshop intended to broaden the notion of “actor” of architectural criticism, not only to encompass critics or authors(the same notion of “authorship” in criticism might be subject to question) but also to include professional and academic institutions, publishers, and the various specialists who are involved in the actual production of professional publications.

One of the primary goals of the event was to scrutinize the profile and the “professional” specificity of the critic, who is neither necessarily a historian nor a theorist, considering it an excessively narrow approach to define such a profile on the basis of a corpus restricted to architectural historians and theorists. Instead, the session intended to promote the investigation on a broader range of critics, whose writings are sometimes limited to newspapers or architectural magazines and who have been until now largely overlooked by architectural historiography. The goal was twofold: on the one hand, to cast light on more “ordinary” criticism; on the other, to question the role of the critic, delineating the often-overlapping boundaries between his or her activity and status and those of other “architectural writers”. The main questions addressed here were: what kind of competencies does the critic share with other “writers” (the historians, the theorists, the socials scientists, etc.)? Which are the specificities of the critic’s practice? To what extent can this practice be called a “profession”? Proposals were invited to go beyond the analysis of works by critics as “authors”, so as to include papers dealing with the activity of publishers, owners of journals and, to a lesser extent, photographers and graphic designers; the examination of the actors and the practices of “other” forms of criticism, such as radio broadcast or TV programs, in their interactions with architectural criticism was also encouraged.

Papers interrogating the role played by architectural publications’ editorial boards and scientific committees, and their influence on the forms and contents of criticism and on the editorial choices, were also considered.

Finally, the session aimed to give proper attention to the role played by institutions. Several professional associations (such as the AIA or the RIBA) and academic institutions have played over time a significant role in supporting, controlling or publishing architectural journals. The questions that were posed here included: to what extent have these institutions fostered criticism or, on the contrary, hindered it? Proposals were allowed to interrogate the influence exerted on the evolutions of criticism by these publications and, more broadly, by professional associations and departments of architecture. Apart from papers on specific case studies, the session invited contributions that explored the interrelations between different types of actors and agents, such as critics, publishers, and institutions. Papers devoted to networks of criticism, and to international exchanges and transfers, were welcomed as well.

Vehicles of criticism

Architectural publications
This session was open to proposals dealing with the influence on the forms, discourse, and contents of criticism from the part of specific types of journals, from daily newspapers, to cultural magazines and building construction periodicals. The session wanted to put into question the categories that recurrently describe the so-called “typologies of criticism”: “savant” vs. popular, professional vs. layman, formalist vs. technical, etc. Is it possible to identify a relation between types of publication (daily newspapers, cultural magazines, politic magazines or professional periodicals, etc.) and the statuses of the critical discourse? And to what extent do these publications and their target readerships influence or create specific forms of criticism?

New media
The session would equally like to stress the role of the “new media” (on-line magazines, blogs and social media). Questions were raised, such as: by modifying the status of the critical discourse and influencing the circulation or reproduction of texts and images, are “new media” simple vehicles of criticism or do they also contribute to produce and foster specific forms of criticism? Numerous aspects characterizing the working operations of these emerging media remain largely ignored, such as the extent and size of their audiences: do these media reach broader or different audiences than those to which traditional newspapers and magazines are geared? Do they offer to the “public” a better access to professional or specialized debates? Which kind of interrelation do they produce with the sphere of public debate? These emerging media tend to raise — once again — the recurrent opposition of “savant” criticism vs. popular criticism, whatever the conceptual limits of these two notions are. These two notions were therefore subject to question in this session.

The image as a medium for criticism?
As a different vehicle of architectural criticism, the session would like to pay attention to the photographic image and, more generally, to the visual components of architectural criticism.

Since the 1980s, the history of architectural photography has been largely developed by historians of photography as well as by architectural historians, with a peculiar emphasis on the aesthetisation of architecture through these media; drawing on the notions of publication and “publicity”, conceptualized respectively by Hélène Lipstadt and by Beatriz Colomina, some scholars have then focused on the role played by photography in the mediatisation of architecture; more recently, the material and visual characters of architectural books and periodicals have begun to be analyzed using approaches borrowed from visual studies. The session wanted to draw from this corpus of studies a possible definition of “vehicle” of architectural criticism.

Multiple questions were addressed, such as: beyond the pure “indexical” value exploited by the operative criticism of the avant-garde movements, can photography be considered a specific form of architectural criticism? And is it possible to give a definition of what architectural “visual criticism” is? Proposals were expected to not limit their investigations to architectural periodicals, but to focus also on the role of photography and other visual aspects of the production of specialized publications (graphic design, typographic setting, etc.) in the construction of a critical reading of architecture.