The following text is issued from the call for papers for the third 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 third international symposium – Toward a Geography of Architectural Criticism: Disciplinary Boundaries and Shared Territories – was held in Paris, at Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art and Académie d’Architecture, on April 3rd and 4th, 2017. More than 15 scholars participated in the event.
Toward a Geography of Architectural Criticism:
Disciplinary Boundaries and Shared Territories
On the occasion of the third international symposium, the Mapping Architectural Criticism research team intended to debate two key questions related to the geographies of criticism: what are criticism’s disciplinary boundaries and which territories has criticism shared from the last decades of the 19th to the end of the 20th century with other disciplines?
In the first place, the symposium interrogated the overlapping of architectural criticism with different kinds of architectural writing, in particular those pertaining to architectural history and theory, but also those stemming from disciplines as diverse as sociology, anthropology, and philosophy.
The symposium was equally aimed at highlighting the relationships, the common terrains, and the conceptual tools that architectural criticism has in common with other genres of criticism, such as art criticism, music or film criticism, and literary criticism.
The term “territory” is used here to refer primarily to the various disciplinary fields on which criticism relies and from which it borrows its concepts and patterns of interpretation, as well as its intellectual tools. The term “boundary”, for its part, is used to denote the zones of exchange and confrontation between criticism, history, theory and other types of writing on architecture, as well as between architectural criticism and other forms of criticism. The main aim of the symposium was to map these territories and delineate these boundaries.
Intellectual territories of architectural criticism:
mapping disciplines, concepts, and “critical tools”
Defining the nature of criticism — that is, outlining its boundaries, designating its tasks, and determining its object (the techniques, programs, forms, constructive solutions, or social uses of architecture) — has been variously attempted, in past and recent times.
Many of those who have tried to give a clearer definition of criticism seem to have often failed to get past the preliminary question concerning its disciplinary frontiers as well as its perimeter, thus illustrating the semantic uncertainty that surrounds the term. This uncertainty does not simply concern the question of where criticism ends and parallel disciplines begin: the definition of “architectural criticism”, in fact, indicates alternately a profession (if one refers to the critics and their activity), a set of social practices, or a discourse on architecture within academic institutions — with a wide range of disciplinary orientations (history, aesthetics, sociology, anthropology, to name only a few). Moreover, architectural criticism encompasses multiple registers of discourse, from manifestoes to aesthetic analysis, architectural description, and technical specifications. Architects and architectural critics, for example, put forward the specific nature of architecture — a multifaceted endeavor involved in economic, technological, social and urban practices — to explain the difficulty of setting the boundaries of architectural criticism and itemizing its modes of writing. Defining the frontiers and delineating what criticism encompasses largely depends on the disciplinary standpoints adopted. Moreover, the frontiers and the perimeter of criticism vary from one cultural context to another.
In order to foster a debate about the disciplinary territories of architectural criticism, the symposium intended to “map” these orientations, registers of discourse, and set of activities.
The symposium’s primary goal was to scrutinize the overlapping and blurred boundaries of criticism with other kinds of writings on architecture. Among the questions the event intended to pose were: does criticism borrow parts of its concepts and patterns of interpretation, modes of description, and schemes of narration from other better-defined or more “canonical” types of architectural writing like architectural history and theory? Or, does it connect to domains of knowledge like sociology or anthropology?
Paper proposals were expected to investigate the “migration” of concepts from one field to another, together with their subsequent transformation, and to scrutinize criticism’s borrowing of conceptual tools from history, theory, anthropology, etc.
Proposals were also expected to put into question the “typologies” of criticism — in particular, the categories that recurrently describe the so-called “typologies of criticism”, such as “learned” vs. “popular”, professional vs. layman, formalist vs. technical, etc. — and the criteria on which these typologies are based.
Architectural criticism and “other” forms of criticism
The above-mentioned term “territory” equally relates to the boundaries and frontiers that criticism shares with other fields of knowledge and artistic expression. By exploring this aspect, the symposium aimed to question the opposition between two distinct conceptions of architectural criticism, one as “a type of criticism” and the other as an autonomous or disciplinary discourse. Peter Collins emphasized this opposition between these two conceptions by stating that architectural criticism “… is an activity which must be considered sui generis” and exclusively linked to architecture rather than “a species or aspect of a general activity called ‘criticism’”.
Architectural critics have underlined the possible links between architectural criticism and literary criticism (“the source and mold of all other forms of criticism,” in the words of Yorgos Simeoforidis). Historians and critics of architecture are generally less inclined to establish parallels with art criticism, often rejecting it as a possible “source and mold” for architectural criticism. The rejection of any possible analogy with art criticism is based on a truism: architecture cannot be reduced to a form of visual art, given the multiple frameworks (aesthetic, technical, social, economic) it encompasses.
On the opposite, architects and architectural critics often put the accent on the similarities between the fields of architecture and music, or architecture and cinema. Starting from this assumption, they more willingly put forward the comparison between architectural criticism and music or film criticism. Is such parallel grounded on shared notions, rhetorics or theoretical tools, which are common to both fields? This part of the symposium was open to proposals that analyzed these similarities and overlaps between different fields. It was equally open to specialists of art criticism as well as criticism of music, film, and literature, in order to animate a debate on the possible relationships between various forms of criticism and their shared territories.
By addressing all these questions, the symposium intended primarily to interrogate the multiple definitions of architectural criticism, without giving any prescriptive or normative definition of what “good” or “real” criticism might or should be.
These issues could be approached from different cultural and geographical standpoints, in an attempt to help sketch a vast set of definitions of criticism, closely related to various cultural and intellectual traditions.