The move earlier this year of Paul Goldberger from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair has sparked discussion about the state of architectural criticism in the mass media, much of it in the vein of "the sky is falling." I wonder if the gloom is justified.
Writing about architecture for a broad public has always been a challenge. Thoughtful commentators such as The Wall Street Journal’s Ada Louise Huxtable; the late David Dillon, who wrote for The Dallas Morning News in my own hometown; and The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman are rare. The challenge has nothing to do with their level of erudition and expertise, but where they fit in the current landscape of public commentary.
These folks and others typically share print space with food, music, art, and theater critics—and the fit is uneasy at best. A review of a new restaurant or the opening of a play will tell readers whether it’s worth their time, and writers who cover these beats straddle the divide between buyers and sellers.
The precarious finances of printed publications may go a long way toward explaining why editors are disinclined to give precious column inches to thoughtful writing about architecture. It doesn’t feed the bottom line, unless the publisher has a passion for architecture. Unfortunately, in a world driven by shareholder equity, supportive media barons are hard to find.
Being grouped with writers who work the culture and lifestyle beat raises additional issues. In those sections, it doesn't always make sense to write about public policy or placemaking, certainly not when architecture is treated as a subcategory of sculpture. Hanging around on the lifestyle pages also feeds the cult of celebrity and the beast of fashion, where novelty is everything.
Clearly something new is called for, especially at a time when the public's interest in architecture has never been greater. If you define the public's interest in architecture strictly in terms of how many column inches the subject receives, you would think that not many people cared. But factor in the explosion of blogs and apps that focus on architecture and a different picture emerges. Even the most superficial surfing of the Web reveals the public's hunger to engage others in how we’re shaping our communities, and how this in turn affects the quality of life.
Pointing out that the rigor of these conversations is all over the map simply states the obvious. Even at its best, the online chatter can sound like an echo chamber, where we tune in only to those who confirm our biases. It's part of the atomization of modern communications.
In order to break out of the echo chamber, we—along with our unsung architecture critics—have to lead the conversation and set the table for community discussion.
If I were developing an education curriculum for architects, I would require public speaking. This, as much as our knowledge of the science and art of architecture, prepares us to engage in discussions where citizens and policymakers come together—from neighborhood meetings about a new park to federal legislation about preservation tax credits. My colleague Mickey Jacob, FAIA, puts it this way: "Show up and become known in your community."
We need not despair about the state of architectural criticism in the mass media, nor the creative chaos of the blogosphere, where discourse is fragmented and heat supplants light. There are more of us in communities of all sizes than there will ever be commentators. We have the power to raise the level of public discourse about the way we design and build, and how that makes a difference. But first we have to show up.
Join our conversation at aia.org.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President