Architectural Criticism: Part of Public Debate or an Autonomous Discipline?

Research

The following text is issued from the call for papers for the first 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 first international workshop – Architectural Criticism: Part of Public Debate or an Autonomous “Discipline”? – was held in Rennes, at the Université Rennes 2 and at the Archives de la Critique d’Art, on January 18th and 19th, 2016. More than 10 scholars participated in the event.

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

Architectural Criticism: Part of Public Debate or Autonomous Discipline?

On the occasion of the first international workshop, the Mapping Architectural Criticism research team intended to address the following questions: to what extent does architectural criticism share common questions, protagonists and medias with the public sphere, with the “public debate”? Or conversely, has it an exclusive relation to the professional or the academic sphere? In this case, does architectural criticism tend to become an autonomous discourse, if autonomous exclusively refers to architectural theories/ histories? Does it refer to extra-disciplinary concepts? The various nature and degree of such an autonomy could be examined in different historical, institutional and cultural contexts: to what extent is architectural criticism autonomous from social uses, from the architectural design, and its economic production?

More precisely, the issues of the relation between architectural criticism and public opinion or public debate, and of the reception of contemporary architecture in the public sphere, were discussed in different ways: its connection to preservation of heritage, its relation to the judgment/evaluation of architecture and the evaluation criteria, and its relation to the so-called “crisis” of criticism.

Heritage

In Europe as well as in Northern America, preservation of historic buildings and ancient city centers are a focus of interest for an increasingly large audience. By contrast, except for certain public controversies and polemics (regarding, for instance, issues of preservation in the context of urban renewal, from the 19th century to the present), the relationship of contemporary architectural design to a “large” audience does not seem so easy nor so immediate in the eyes of architects, critics and commissioners. In different cultural traditions, this interest – as revealed by public media – and the roles of architectural criticism differ. To what extent may criticism be considered as an agent of mediation of architecture towards a “large audience”? What are the specific vectors of architectural mediation towards the public?

Presentations were invited to stress the issue of architectural criticism in relation to polemics on preservation, from the 19th century to the present.

Evaluation and criteria

Secondly, the issue of “public debate” has also to do with the evaluation of architecture. “What is good architecture?” was the title of a recent special issue of the TU Delft periodical Oase. This interrogation is (at least) twofold: on the one hand, it may refer to the evaluation of architecture and of its social uses (see Saunders, Judging architectural value, 2007). On the other hand, it refers to the set of criteria and values defined in relation to a corpus of architectural theories.

Presentations were encouraged to stress the issue of judgment and different criteria in architectural criticism.

Crisis

Last, the issue of the architectural mediation towards the public may have to do with the so-called “crisis” of architectural criticism, whether or not this crisis is real or fictitious. Many authors (critics, historians or architects) have stressed the origin of this “crisis” in three phenomena of the 1980s and 1990s.

First, since the 1980s they denounced the collusion of criticism with the professional self-promotion of architects, with « urban marketing » of cities and the political and institutional communication policy of cities, regions and states.

Secondly, a whole generation of scholars who were critics as well as architectural historians (as Reyner Banham, Manfredo Tafuri, Peter Collins and others) has gone. Furthermore, many contemporary critics or even architects deplore that the “heroic” critic or the critique engagé has now disappeared: their prerogative, to name and designate groups of artists or architects, used to mark the foundation of artistic avant-garde movements and reinforce, even artificially, their coherence. Such a pessimistic vision of criticism is rather widespread in the architectural discourse, namely in the architectural press, which from the beginning of the 20th century regularly denounces the absence of efficiency of architectural criticism and even declares its “death” (see for instance Martin Pawley, The Death of Architectural Criticism, 2008). It may be compared to the discourse on the “death” of art criticism, broadly disseminated among art critics and historians (see Rainer Rochlitz, James Elkins, etc.).

Thirdly, the absence or the rarity of clear-cut theoretical positions in the contemporary architectural debate – according to Ignasi de Sola-Morales (Differencias, 1995) “illegible” since the 1980s and 1990s – as well as the disappearance of groups and movements, of “theoretical” controversies, after the debates about Postmodernism and about Deconstruction, are sometimes invoked as a reason of this “crisis” of criticism.

This “crisis”, as well as the uncertain boundaries or on the contrary the growing gap between a “critique savante” and a criticism intended for the public sphere, are to be explored, in the present day and in history. By questioning the crisis of the criticism, the aim of the workshop was not to produce typologies; rather it intended to shed light on the interrelations between media and the public and the various kinds and types of criticism.

 

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