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.

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!

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