Who critiques the critics? Well, Jack Hughes has a try. He's interested in the pack mentality that raises some architects to prominence, and dashes others to pieces. Or worse ... that ignores vaste swathes of what gets built.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Nobel Prize

Architects and critics are obsessed with prizes, so maybe, on the strength of Philip Nobel's recent dissection of their mutual back-slapping tendencies (see yesterday's post), I should institute a Nobel Prize for Craven Criticism.

However, I don't think Chris Ayres -- LA Correspondent for the London Times -- would have won it for his piece at
TIMESONLINE on Frank Gehry. His is just Dumb Criticism, utilising a technique that would be an insult even to Paris Hilton. He's never read any other interviews with Gehry, evidently: asking him to tell the story about the carp in the bath-tub, and registering Frank's reaction to the question -- "Oh, that's an old story", and "[heavy sigh] you don't want to go into all that, do ya?" -- without a hint of self-awareness. And he clearly has no conception of how an architect works: asking why there is cardboard all over the floor, and then wondering why Frank leaves the room for 15 minutes. Still, it neatly puffs Pollack's Sketches film about Gehry, just released in the UK -- which I suppose is all an LA Correspondent is for.

This is the Toby Young school of car-crash journalism, and sheds no new light whatever on the "Great Man". Is there any new light to shed? you might ask: I'm sure Tom Dyckhoff -- the Times's real, and rather admirable, architecture critic -- will do a better job in finding out, after spending two whole evenings conducting public interviews with the architect: last night and tonight.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Architectural Criticism: Good and Bad

It's rare to find a piece of architectural criticism as altogether heartwarming as the one that appeared on May 18th in Metropolis Magazine. The author -- the smart, Brooklyn-based Philip Nobel -- addressed the artificial "bidding up" of architects' reputations, which "the critical establishment" indulges in to make its predictions look sound, and city administrations allow to happen so they can cash in their share of the "Bilbao effect", or whichever effect they are sounding off about right now.

What ensues is a refreshingly clear-headed take on NYC-based DS+R's new ICA building in Boston Harbor. In Nobel's view it is "disappointing", with a "grand gesture to the sea" (a cantilever that succeeds in throwing a harborside public space into the shade) to please the picture editors, undermined by a non-too-well-groomed, poorly-detailed, rear end. Elsewhere problems of the architects' own making are badly resolved; "details are sloppy throughout". It is, he concludes "a botched box".

Such honesty is a rare thing, and will probably earn Mr. Nobel exclusion from one or two parties in future.

What about the redoubtable Robert Campbell of The Boston Globe? Similarly party-shunning, or toe-ing the party line? The latter, unfortunately. Campbell calls the building "inventive" and "interesting" (which, charitably, might be considered damning with faint praise). He remarks on its intense invovement with the sea, but says little about its relationship to the land. He is enthralled by the technology of the cantilever in a way that Nobel resists, and waxes lyrical about a folded hardwood plane that runs up through the building -- which Nobel terms "an image ... a fake". He also quotes the architects own words uncritically rather too often, and takes their side on an unfulfilled (and rather barbarous-sounding) ambition for one of the windows.

Could do better, Robert.

The vulpine Hugh Pearman covered the building for the English Press. Curiously he offers a costing for the building which is over 50% higher than the one provided by Campbell: $65m as against $41. In other respects, though, he's Campbell's doppelganger, though with an enthusiasm tempered by an amusing lightness of tone and sly wit.

So is Pearman in the pocket of these future starchitects', as Nobel would have us believe? Well, the article begins "When Elizabeth Diller - Liz to those who know her ...". You decide!

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

In or not in the vernacular

The Holl additions in Kansas also raise an important issue which is not discussed enough in a climate of "Starchitecture": how new buildings can feed into the "vernacular".

My sense is that any building as intellectually rarefied, and aloof from practical building considerations, as the Nelson-Atkins additions can have little to say to local building culture. Most critics agree that Holl has succeeded here in bleeding out the unwelcome physicality from his building (in the early twenty-first century we regard brick and stone buildings with as much distaste as high-fat meals) to leave behind only those twentieth century nostrums: "space and light" (see, for example, Cathleen McGuigan's piece in Newsweek). The vast majority (eg. Blair Kamin in The Chicago Tribune) luxuriate in its liminality: the magic revealed when it is poised, at dusk, between light and dark. So what is there for the local vernacular to feast on?

Kamin insists that Nelson-Atkins is "important for the broader direction it suggests". But suggests to whom? Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post is of the opinion that Holl's achievement is not easily repeatable, comparing it to something like Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, which he feels is repeatable. This is plausible, given that the origins of the mature Gehry style lie in what Hal Foster characterised as "a funky LA vernacular" of "cheap materials associated with commercial building - exposed plywood, corrugated metal siding and chain-link fencing."

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Heaven and Holl

We are clearly at some kind of tipping point. The simultaneous launch of Stephen Holl's Nelson-Atkins expansion in Kansas City, and Daniel Libeskind's "crystal" centrepiece to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), has given critics ample opportunity to reflect on the age of the icon being dead -- or, at least, the kind of icon ROM represents, as there is something of the icon about Holl's structures too.

The virtual unanimity of praise heaped on Nelson-Atkins by the critics has revealed another kind of unanimity, in critics' reactions to the original 1933 museum which Holl has extended. More than one critic calls it a "temple of art"; it is by turns "austere", "distant and unapproachable", "sacred and inviolate"; a "folly" with "high-minded language about art and humanity carved into its stone walls", and with a metaphorical "do not touch sign" placed upon it by the trustees. And it's not only the trustees who have put up such a sign: not one critic can contemplate an extension to the building that might have adopted the same classical, disciplined, bounded language as was used back then. Paul Goldberger in The New York Times opines that Holl's free-form, half-submerged glass lanterns which spill down the east side of the museum is a finer homage than copying could ever have been, bestowing "a kind of perpetual gravitas" on the older building.

Stuff like this is so contradictory. If the building is so goddam "austere" and "high-minded" why should the architect be praised for accentuating these qualities? And if its "gravitas" really does deserve being preserved in perpetuity why shouldn't a new extension seek a similar gravitas, using similar means, rather than slipping and sliding to avoid direct engagement?