WAF Newsletter - If criticism is the answer what was the question - March 2021

If criticism is the answer, what was the question?

Jeremy Melvin, 23 March 2021

I make no apology for returning to the theme of criticism in this Newsletter, as three recent or upcoming events highlight particular forms of the many that criticism can take, writes Jeremy Melvin.

The first was an online launch of Douglas Spencer’s book Critique of Architecture, which took place on 16 March, the second is the Robert Maxwell Memorial Lecture, being given by Kenneth Frampton, scheduled for 22 April (register here), and the third, an exhibition on architecture and criticism which runs at Stockholm’s Färgfabriken until 18 April, with an outing in Copenhagen scheduled for later this year.

For Spencer, formerly ensconced at the University of Westminster and the AA, now safely tenured at the University of Iowa, and Frampton, another left-leaning Brit who took refuge in American higher education decades ago, an important role of criticism seems to be to ‘call out’ the links between architecture and neo-liberalism, as well as other bugbears of fashionable opinion, such as racial injustice and economic inequality. The architecture and criticism exhibition takes a rather different line, with six critics writing a text to which selected architects try to provide ‘form’.

Given that there is no ‘right’ and equally no ‘wrong’ way to engage in critical activity, these approaches, however eccentric, deserve to be welcomed – with some reservations. With the first two they hinge around the concept of ‘neo-liberalism’, which is often invoked but rarely defined. It all too easily becomes a portmanteau curse that only needs to be referenced in order to condemn whatever is attached to it – from investment banking to Patrik Schumacher’s parametrics. If only those who invoke the term would engage in robust discussion, firstly of what it is or at least what it means to them, and secondly taking on board advocates of approaches they term ‘neo-liberal’. Despite cancel culture such advocates do exist, so critical insights into what they offer would be far more profound than assuming they don’t. It would at least open up a still little-ploughed furrow of the relationship between architecture and economic processes. Unfortunately, most architects and architectural commentators think capital refers to the bits on top of classical columns.

The exhibition’s conceit follows an almost diametrically opposite path. Here, superficially at least, the relationship between architecture and criticism is closed and prescribed. The texts, as I understand it, were specially commissioned for this purpose and none of them is from a writer of fiction. It has a whiff of the 1980s when all but the least trendy design tutors were inviting their students to design ‘something’ based on their reading of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – a reimagination of the reimagined retelling of Marco Polo’s reimagined description of Venice for the benefit of Kublai Khan. All very post-modern, even for those who would not think of inverting ionic capitals or putting eggcups on top of buildings.

All that aside, there is clearly much to be explored in the relation between spaces as envisaged in literary form, and spaces intended to be given physical form, or at least a drawn or digital simulacrum of it. But the exercise is cut off at the knees if the literary devices emanate from people who habitually think about the modality of architecture – its wrestle with symmetry and gravity, as Hegel might have put it – rather than that of literature. Surely the whole point is to explore the differences, perhaps finding common ground between the two different registers of thought. The danger is that these texts become no more than glorified attempts at brief-writing, while the potential of literature to give new insights into architecture is compromised.

From the position of an academic, criticism is, for Spencer, a primarily theoretical exercise to develop tools for challenging the status quo. As an aim that is entirely valid, but being an academic involves a hindrance, in that it requires (especially if you want to be considered for tenure) delving into diverse, complex and sometimes contradictory lines of thought in order to prove the validity of your approach. Not surprisingly, many people get lost. To assess this properly is beyond the bounds of this piece (see disclaimer at the end), but Spencer seems to inoculate himself against it by force of character as much as force of intellect. At the online event, not one hint of self-doubt about the validity and righteousness of his work surfaced, which is to some extent admirable.

The problem, at least from where I sat, is that he wrapped himself in the carapace of wokish thinking, that holds that we are in a crisis brought about by neo-liberalism and that the result is an inevitable focus on racial injustice and economic inequity. His assertions might have had greater impact, indeed might have risen to the level of arguments, if he had not just defined the terms but also unpicked some of the contradictions. Racial injustice long predates what I think he means by neo-liberalism. Social inequity is, perhaps, even older; to the blame the former for the latter is at best to mix cause with effect and at worst is utter gibberish. Maybe this is resolved in the book.

He has a point though, in suggesting that architecture is a sort of index of these conditions, and so is a fecund field for examining them. The awkward moral position of architecture here acquires some value. And from that point might spring another thought: that architecture, as well as being the embodiment of such problems, might also help to chart a way through and beyond them, both through its practice and through its products.

To do so, however, would require a more imaginative and even sympathetic take on the forces of global capital. This would have to start with a recognition that like architecture, and however flawed and compromised it is as a social tool, it might contain part of possible solutions. The history of big pharma since World War II may offer a clue here. While distribution and cost of its products are certainly an issue (not least for the wealthy EU), those products have also eliminated smallpox, significantly reduced polio, and helped to mitigate HIV/AIDS across the world, as well as helping us to manage many more minor ailments. Much of this has come about because, while big pharma follows the laws of near naked capitalism, much of its endeavour is underwritten by governments, in terms of both input (research) and output (socialized healthcare providers as buyers).

The question here is what happens in between, and why do states not control the entire process? The answer to that is long and complex, but perhaps best summarized by Jane Jacobs in her late (and largely overlooked, at least in the UK) book Systems of Survival. In it she argues that human behaviour falls mainly into one of two syndromes, guardian (largely derived from military and governance) and commercial. Both have different attributes, strengths and weaknesses and set different patterns of behaviour, but each is equally important for society to thrive. There is even a possibility that they may amalgamate, under particular conditions and purposes, into hybrids. Certain aspects of big pharma may be one flawed example; Roosevelt’s New Deal and its segue into the wartime economy that out-produced the axis powers, another. The point here is that public/private partnerships can be highly successful, at least in achieving the ends they are designed to reach.

Moral precepts Table from Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs 

The UK was of course the US’s junior partner in World War II and followed a similar economic line – derived from Lloyd George’s organization of the economy in World War I. Lurking beneath it and the New Deal is the friendly spectre of J M Keynes, the high priest of partnership between governments and the private sector, and creative adaptor of capitalism to social ends in almost every field from culture to full employment.

This settlement is, I suspect, something to which Kenneth Frampton is sympathetic. Like so many of the generation who came to adulthood in the benign post-war years. Setting aside the Cold and Korean Wars, his views are shaped by an era when both main political parties agreed on an interventionist role for the state, with architecture a function of that settlement. According to the flyer for his lecture, he will ‘advance a critique of the current malaise in architectural education and of the equally debilitating state of contemporary practice’. Nor has he had to look far for a culprit, the ‘Neo-liberal impulses’ of the ‘current post-modern tendency to reduce architecture either to design of spectacular sculpture at a gargantuan scale or to the application of Building Information Modelling technology in order to favour the maximization of profit.’ Really? Is BIM relevant to such simple sloganising?

In any case, both deprive ‘modern architecture of its former ameliorative character, namely the formulation of the building task in a socio-ethical and spatially innovative manner’. Surely BIM is an aid to that end rather than a hindrance. And if there was an awful lot of pious cant in the 1950s about architecture as amelioration, the sad reality is that it was often far from that, largely due to poor construction. (It might be said that the Douglas Stephen Partnership, for whom both Frampton and Robert Maxwell worked, was an honourable exception).

Frampton’s limitations as a critic are immediately apparent in what are perhaps his two best known works. The title of his Modern Architecture: a critical history, as anyone who has spent five minutes in an undergraduate history seminar will know, history is inherently critical – of its own modality and assumptions as well as its subject matter. A non-critical history of modern architecture would be meaningless if not impossible.

But he likes the word, since it also pops up in Critical Regionalism which really did no more than dress up ideas that people like Otto Koenigsberger had been putting forward for years, that modern architecture, like almost every other mode of architecture, is best when its takes account of local conditions. Lutyens knew that. So did the Parler Family who built numerous gothic cathedrals across central Europe. Even the arch-modernists Le Corbusier and Max Fry came to realise it. Again, I suggest, the word critical is redundant here, because any intelligent designer would act critically in relation to influences, whether regional or of any other sort.

In annexing the concept of the critical to his work, Frampton perhaps seeks to wrap himself in the aura of Ellsworth M Toohey, the fictional critic (though supposedly a meme for Lewis Mumford) in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In what might be held up as a bible of neo-liberalism, Toohey sets out to destroy the reputation of its main protagonist, the self-driven genius Howard Roark. Toohey/Mumford may not have been big on spatial innovation, but socio-ethics was certainly their bag. Indeed the only meaningful definition of that term might be found in Mumford’s prolix and copious oeuvre, if only someone had the time and patience to look.

Underlying these diverse views there does lurk a common thread. It is that the closest to perfection possible in contemporary architecture (which may not be very close) is captured in the work of Caruso St John and their followers. Whatever merits that may have, the idea that such varied attempts at critical endeavour should end in the same place is as disturbing as the Pevsnerian belief that all roads to good architecture culminate in modernism. The path to reach the end may be more etiolated, but it is nonetheless, like the Whig interpretation of history, historicist.

Disclaimer: the author has not read Spencer’s book, nor seen the Stockholm exhibition and at the time of writing the only indication of the content of Frampton’s lecture is the flyer for it. So this text should not be seen as in any way an attempt to comment on those in an authoritative way; rather, it uses the commentary around them to raise more general points – about which discussion is welcomed.

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