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Edith, My Dear. David Wild. (Courtesy of the artist.

Journal of Architectural Education,

pp. 2021 2009 ACSA

The Craft of Criticism


The Craft of Criticism

University of Pennsylvania

In the preface to an anthology of Russian

literature, Vladimir Nabokov stated that he had
not found a single page of Dostoevsky worthy
of inclusion. This ought to mean that
Dostoevsky should not be judged by each page
but rather by the total of all the pages that
comprise the book.
Jorge Luis Borges1
crisis, critic, critical, criticism, criticize, critique:
1. crisis is the L. trans. of Gr. Krisis, a sifting,
from krinein, to sift . . .
2. Gr. Krisis has adj. kritikos, able to
discernjudgediscuss, whence a critic . . .
E. Partridge2
Of the many approaches to the problem of contemporary architectural criticism one could take in
a study as short as thisstating its purpose, distinguishing it from other forms of writing or
speaking, or describing its history, current state,
and prospectthe line I will follow is practical. I see
criticism as a craft, practiced with its own instruments and operations. Written criticism will be my
principle focus, but I also have in mind what
a teacher or designer says when faced with a project
that needs a sifting of good and bad decisions
and alternatives. I believe professionals and professors, no less than writers, practice this craft and
must. Without it, projects do not progress, students
fail to learn, and scholarship loses its bite. I am
hardly original in arguing for its necessity nor the
first to aver its advantage in professional practice.
The English poet Alexander Pope described criticism as the handmaid of the muse.
Despite this precedent, my coupling of criticism and creativity is likely to be rejected in some
quarters, particularly among those who claim or
advertise originality. According to a conception of
artistic work that emerged in the romantic period
but is still promoted today, inventive works result
from experimental or exploratory exercises not in
the scientific but the open-ended sense of the

word. Unlike controlled experiments, creative

explorations are uncertain of both their direction
and outcome because they are essentially spontaneous or said to be. Exercises that are unplanned
and unforced are also unaided by reflective
judgmentespecially judgments offered by
someone other than the designer. Rulings of all
sorts are not thereby excluded; since the Mannerist period, creative artists have been allowed
judgments of the eye. Intuition may well be the
base line of artistic criticism, if, indeed, it warrants
that name. The argument in favor of untaught and
unreflective invention parallels the idea that individuals trained in design go into teaching (into the
studio to give crits) because they lack the talent
for creative practice. Accordingly, criticism is a
symptom, if not a cause, of creative impotence.3
I hope to show this premise is false, and that there
is an imaginative, productive, or creative core to
criticism, that it, too, is a way of making, even
of world making. I also maintain that architecture
is enriched by the critics craftwhich means,
incidentally, the field is impoverished by its
Special pleading might seem to be required
for architectural criticism for still another reason:
the nature of the architectural work itself, the
buildings relative permanence, easy accessibility,
and plain visibility. Consider the topic comparatively. Scheduled forms of artI mean performances that begin and end (music and dance)
together with those that function largely aesthetically (poetry and painting)seem to invite
and benefit from criticism more than architecture.
Criticism rewinds the clock of the first pair, as the
buildings stones simply stay put, and assessment
and interpretation familiarize the second two, with
the buildings easy accessibility as their model. But
temporal and aesthetic are only two of the kinds of
distance that criticism in the other arts overcomes.
Paul Celan, the great twentieth-century German
poet, once described his verse as a message in
a bottle. Hans-Georg Gadamer, explaining how

such a communication must be read in order to be

understood, conceded that the reader (who wants
to learn, not merely confirm) must ponder, guess,
and restore the poem, until finally one has
deciphered it and can properly read and hear it,
perhaps even correctly.4 Gadamer did not
exactly say, but time with Celan suggests that
poetic messages are always incomplete and that
finding the bottle and pulling the cork are part of
the interpretation. Knowledge of German language is necessary for reading Celan, likewise
French for Rene Char, and English for Seamus
Heaney, just as it is for reading newspapers, but
understanding their poetry requires slightly more
penetration. Patience allows a fuller grasp, and
slow reading helps. Imagination is even more
important. By imagination, I mean the manner of
wondering that repeatedly departs from and then
returns to the text in order to discover the wide
spectrum or full amplitude of its implications.
Patient imagination cannot be avoided because
the sense of a poem is rarely grasped all at once;
its meanings emerge successively and accrue only
after a number of hearings or readings. For Heaney, particular poems are preoccupations.5 His
term suggests long-standing, nearly unending
interest; maybe also the need for deciphering, as
Gadamer proposed, deciphering that criticism can
surely assist. The same could be said for paintings,
for they, too, appear before us as messages in
a bottle (found in a museum and opened with
fascination), that encourage repeated interpretative viewings. The best ones supply new meanings
continually. Greatness in paintings and poems is
measured by their unlimited generosity and their
unstinting donation of sense. All they require is
that one keep looking or listeningcritically.
Other kinds of artistic work also seem more
dependent on criticism than architecture. By comparison with the relative permanence of buildings,
plays, dances, and concerts begin, develop, and
come to an end according to a timetable that is
more or less well known in advance. The end of bad
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The Craft of Criticism

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ones, for example, cannot come soon enough. But
good or bad, the ends of so-called temporal works
are generally followed by retellings, assessments,
comparisons, and interpretations, in other words

criticism, which intends praise or its opposite, also

appropriation, and better understanding. Inhabitation, the basic modality of architectural sense, is, by
contrast, unscheduled. Admittedly, programs (which
unfold in time) are furnished and accommodated by
built works, but their unfolding intends repetition
without end. What is more, prolonged experience
induces familiarity, which in turn seems to obviate
assessment or render it gratuitous. At least, that is what
a preliminary reflection on criticism in architecture, as
opposed to the other arts, would seem to suggest.
Yet, despite the different ways the various arts
present themselves to experience, buildings share
with poems, paintings, and performances the fact
that the good ones are always more interesting than
they first seemed, as if the offerings that initially
seemed so obvious secretly sheltered others that
were not. This is partly a function of size. All the
settings contained within a building cannot be
apparent in an instant. The same is true of the
buildings more localized qualities. My first point is
that the buildings very spatiality, its spread, or
combination of settings naturally gives rise to criticism. Prosaic inhabitation neglects conditions
beyond its immediate frame of reference. While preoccupied with the menu before the meal, I have little
interest in the kitchen, still less in the storage room,
and none at all in the yard behind. The use of one
room, not the others nearby, assumes a hierarchy of
interests, whereby the first matters a great deal and
others hardly at all. Criticism overcomes this neglect
by constructing a more compete image. Construction
or compensation such as this can be called the
recording function of criticism, by means of which an
intelligible wholeness is set out, and the full range of
the ensembles significant aspects are registered for
study and understanding. Recording gives the work
a different kind of durability than its materials allow.
Although stone and steel are hardly ephemeral, criticism, particularly written criticism, endows the work
with an even greater permanence. Such was Victor
Hugos famous observation on architecture after
Gutenberg: the book of stone, so solid and so

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enduring, was to give way to the book of paper, more

solid and enduring still . . . who does not admit that in
this form thought is infinitely more indelible.?6
Recording also involves a process of conversion
through which the works spatial and material qualities are translated into another medium: written or
spoken language.
But the execution of this first task leads to
a second. Recording merely prepares the site for
creating a critical account. A reconstruction must
follow the initial report. During this step, the labor of
noting a projects particular aspects gives way to
imagining their coherenceand not only their
physical coherence. Critical reconstruction results in
a new view of the project, one that is more complete
than the grasp that inhabitation provides but not one
that is as excessive as the results of thorough
recording. In point of fact, some anticipation of
a possible reconstruction is required for the selection
of conditions that should be recorded. More importantly, this second step is productive, for it results in
an image that cannot be directly observed in the
work itself, even though its adequacy is always
measured against the work.
The third operation that is essential to criticism
is one that I will call repositioning. Obviously, every
built work has its own location in the town or landscape once it is built. Most projects are designed for
single sites too. The positioning accomplished by
criticism is less territorial than cultural; its function is
to locate the work among others of its kind, those
that are similarly great or poor. The chief difficulty of
this step is that there is no absolute standard or
canon against which determinations of standing or
rank can be made. Criticism, as far as I understand it,
is a way of developing or discovering the very conditions on which its own assessments are made. I
realize this is paradoxicalfounding a judgment on
premises that are being discoveredmaybe even
illogical. Nevertheless, it is by means of the work
itself (not some theory of it) that the critic understands a little more clearly some basic questions
about architecture and its place in the world.


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Having briefly introduced these three operations

recording, reconstruction, and repositioninglet me
now explain them more fully.
To be helpful and persuasive, criticism in architecture must be adequate to the projects unique
aspects. Criticism does not offer general theories,
impressions, or common opinion, or not these alone,
if they have a place at all.The adequacy of an account
is measured by its accuracy with respect to the particular work being reviewed and the sufficiency of the
information that account records. For example, we
expect criticism to provide us with correct and reasonably complete information about the several
agents responsible for the design and construction of
an interior, a facxade, or a courtyard. Information of
this kind is explanatory and should possess a high
degree of transparency. Similarly, we expect criticism
to provide us with a clear record of the spaces,
materials, and uses that are particular to the project.
Received wisdom is inadequate because it is often
deficient of detail and oversupplied with assumption
and inference. The task the critic takes up is to set
the record straight and present as complete a picture as possible.This takes work. Visits must be made,
interviews conducted, and documents reviewed so
that the story one provides is reliable. Close observation is also required; likewise, openness to
unforeseen evidence. But given the potential abundance of information, discernment is necessary too.
The critic must determine which facts are significant,
which is to say, which are necessary for the construction of an intelligible picture. Under my next
heading, reconstruction, I will explain how decisions
about relevance set limits on the objectivity of critical
writing. But before that, the matter of conversion
requires elaboration.
Critics verbalize architecture. This process may
be seen as analogous to other types of recording,
a photographic or audio transcription, for example,
by means of which a composition of sights or sounds
is converted into a form that is more permanent and
widely accessible. An obvious case is the recording of
a concert performance. Such a recording changes

something enjoyed (or suffered) by a few for a while

into something widely accessible and permanent. The
conversion that occurs in architectural criticism is
from visual to verbal kinds of sense: the street that
surrounds us is transcribed onto the page, and the
facxade before us is reformatted for discussion.
Obviously, an abbreviation of qualities is required for
a translation of this kind, even some violence to the
original, but compensating for whatever is lost is
a gain in accessibility, for a verbal record can be
shared more widely than the street or facxade itself.
Here, the word original must be put in quotation
marks because few designs, if any, are developed in
the absence of criticism, which means there is no preor nonverbal project, untainted by reflection, despite
claims for creativity free from reflective judgment. As
a form of recording, criticism is the discursive path by
which particular projects enter into a community of
discourse, one that is much wider and more inclusive
than the circle of individuals who have visited
a building. Writing for others, the critic acknowledges
and extends architectures public dimension, a dimension I think essential. That transcription involves
abbreviation cannot be denied. Nor can the risk of
partiality be avoided, for verbalization depends
entirely on a reduction of the incidents and aspects
encountered in prosaic experience. Adequate
recordings are those that reduce the likelihood of
misunderstandings that result from the selection of
details and their re-presentation together.
Even though careful recording is necessary for
the development of criticism, it is insufficient. Nor is
the most intelligible text the one that supplies the
greatest amount of information about a building.
Perhaps it will be a little confusing to describe the
process by which a useful account is formed as
reconstruction because the work that serves as the
target of criticism has been constructed already, at
least designed to some level, otherwise there would be
nothing to criticize. But insofar as some and not all the
aspects of a work are selected for consideration, one
can say that criticism remakes the project, offering
debate and interpretation a new form. I had this step

in mind when I stated that imagination is required in

criticism. It also reaffirms the works presence in the
public domain. The skills that accomplish reconstruction are different from those of recording. Observation
is not chiefly important; instead, selection. Next,
connections must be formed or continuity must be
established between selected elements or aspects,
creating a configuration.The critics objectivity reaches
its limit at precisely this point, but it is a limit that is
internal to the process, for selection was already
involved in the decisions about which facts should be
recorded and whether or not the project itself even
merits criticism; after all, not all projects are equally
interesting, let alone significant.
If not all of the facts that can be observed are
equally important in the development of a critical
account, which details, views, situations, and events
in the built work should be raised to the level of
significance? There is no simple answer to this
question nor one that can be generalized for a wide
range of projects. A double contingency governs
decisions about suitability: the particularity of the
work and story it tells (as recounted by the critic).
Certain aspects are retained in the record because
they are the ones that belong together in the makeup
of a readable picture. An important aspect of readability is continuity among the parts of the project
that have been highlighted (even if the basic premise
of the project is spatial discontinuity or fragmentation). Commenting on the facxade of the American
Folk Art Museum in New York, Billie Tsien said she
wanted the buildings front to say: Look at me, Im
not what you think I am. What can criticism offer in
response to this hint about the designers intention?
For something intelligible to be proposed, the right
documents must be assembled and interpreted: the
buildings longitudinal section needs to be studied,
also some of its construction details, likewise the
schedule of finishes for its materials, and a plan of
the buildings several entrances, together with views
through them, a map and views of the street and
plaza at the front, and so on . . . all the documents
that hang together in an intelligible account of the

facade. Other details, photos, or drawings, despite

their factuality, may well be distracting; not wrong,
just unhelpful. The architect herself would have
selected a set of documents that supported her
reading, and in so doing would have been authoring
criticism, thus remaking the building as an image to
be discussed in what I called the community of discourse. The subjectivity of such a selection and
reconstruction cannot be denied, but it is one that is
constrained by the evidence on record. Alsoand
importantlythe stories criticism presents are for
others to hear and read, others who may or may not
know the building being described, but do know
something about architecture and the world in which it
is built. Reconstruction is thus also relocation, whereby
the single work is repositioned among others of its
kind; not just those that are similarly good or bad, but
more largely those one can call other works of architecture. At this point, criticism invokes basic premises,
which are fundamentally philosophical.
If conventional norms of a buildings durability,
use, and appearance are thought to form the horizon
of assessment, no special training or faculty of
apprehension is required for architectural criticism.
We all do it when faced with the buildings we live in,
visit, or simply observe. There is no problem here.
Widely shared knowledge of typical situations allows
each of us to say the materials of this building are
flimsy, the rooms of that one awkwardly arranged,
and the imagery of a third out of place. Yet, criticism
that deserves the namebecause it enriches the
disciplineis something different. Everyday or preprofessional judgments are not wrong, just lacking in
penetration, for the norms they presuppose are
themselves subject to criticism. Certainly, conventional norms are subject to change. As long ago as
the eighteenth century, David Hume argued in his
short treatise on taste that standards vary over time,
even though they appear to be both obvious and
natural at their historical moment. The paradox of
criticism is this: the grounds for assessing single
works are both assumed and redefined in the process
of developing criticism.

Although singular, every work under critical

review is repositioned among others; not only those
that are nearby physically but works of its kind. What
Aldo Rossi said of typological comparisonit takes
for granted its own principles of associationcan
also be said of criticism: comparison presupposes an
insight into likeness. The significant difference
between the professional and the nonprofessional
critic is that the former operates within a wide
horizon when judging the qualities of the particular
project while the latter, by contrast, makes assessments within a more local framework. Wider scope is
natural to the critic because both the craft and the
vocation arise out of a deep interest in the field as
such, which is to say, architecture itself. The critics
concern is with the work as a work, how it contributes
to the discipline as a whole, and how our understanding of architecture is enriched or deepened by
the project under consideration. Moreover, the critics interest in the field extends a more basic interest
in the world to which the work contributes, the world
or culture we have inherited and would like to improve.
When it is done well, criticisms readership is not limited to professors and professionals. What is more,
when they read it, architects themselves are led to
consider the building in its wider context, to consider it
historically, environmentally, and politically. That task
gives criticism its world-building function.
Although criticism is neither philosophy nor
theory, it implies both. If less profound than those
two, its interpretations have more immediacy and
effect, for conclusions made about specific projects
not only allow designers to redefine the premises on
which they work but also indicate the bearing those
projects have on the world in which the project has
been realized. When critics compare single buildings
to others, the nature of an architectural work is seen
anew. Conventional knowledge is not annulled but
altered, for new possibilities come into view, and old
assumptions (old premises, norms, standards) are
discovered to have limits. Again, repositioning of this
kind is not theoretical; nor, must it be said, is it
empirical or objective. Although the craft of criticism

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at its highest level reaches the frontiers of both science and philosophy, it takes its bearings from points
of reference that have been established in the actuality of the project, at the pace and in the prose of
everyday life.
1. Jorge Luis Borges, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
2. E. Partridge, Origins.
3. This indictment is introduced and rejected by T.S. Eliot in The Use of
Poetry and The Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), p. 20.
4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gadamer on Celan (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1997), p. 63.
5. Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 19681978 (New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), p. 11. He confessed to liking poems
that caused him to reflect on preoccupying questions. Another one of
his titles, Finders Keepers, expresses the same fascination.
6. Victor Hugo, This Will Destroy That, in Notre Dame de Paris (1832)
(London: Heron Books, nd.), pp. 175, 182.


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