Judgment, criticism and dialogue
Jeremy Melvin, 14 June 2020
‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction’.
Towards the end of last year I was invited to talk about World Architecture Festival to the Cape Institute of Architects in South Africa, writes Jeremy Melvin
The invitation led me to reflect on what WAF is, from its origins to what it could be. I have lived with WAF for well over a decade, for at least a year before we launched the first festival in 2008 in the wake of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse. It could and should mean many things to many different people, but from my position as curator one particular strand stands out: that is how it promotes a particular approach to assessing and promoting architecture.
There is, at least from WAF’s point of view, no single ‘right’ way of going about the production of architecture. We strongly believe in its plurality. If this were not the case our claims to be a global event would be undermined, as sites and briefs in different parts of the world, with varied building cultures and traditions, demand carefully crafted individual approaches. However, if WAF is doing anything, it is engaging in the two connected though sometimes conflicting practices of making judgments, as well as of criticism more broadly. One way of looking at the Festival is that it is the largest annual international forum for displaying and debating architecture among architects: much of the thinking and explaining is carried out through speech. Hence the title of this article, ‘Judgment, Criticism and Dialogue’. I want here to stress the importance of the last.
WAF’s judges are asked to consider deeper questions about architectural quality than personal taste, in what comes close to an attempt to identify underlying principles that might suggest how buildings of very different natures from more or less anywhere in the world might be judged on a ‘level playing field’.1
People making up their minds during a presentation at WAF 2018
In this endeavour judges are fortified by a set of notes written by the design consultant Peter Stewart. But beneath this is the point which struck me: that all the thought put into the judging process both by judges and entrants can be summed up in the quote from the great Russian literary theorist and thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)2.
Production, Energy and Recycling - Completed Buildings category winners Bratislav Toskovic & Mauro Nottegar from Parviainen Architects presenting their project, Länsisalmi Power Station at WAF 2018
Why should Bakhtin, who is not generally placed in the canon of great thinkers about architecture (whatever his status in other disciplines), offer anything to WAF? That can, I think, be quite easily answered. WAF judging is, as Bakhtin would have appreciated, is a ‘dialogic process’. From the spoken presentations – supported by illustrations, or the other way round – to the post-presentation dialogue with the jury and their subsequent deliberations in private, it is an attempt to uncover and recognise the best project in its category. In the context of WAF, if not in philosophy more generally, it is a version of ‘truth’.
A dialogic presentation at WAF 2018
Adrian Forty skewered the paradox at the heart of how architects use language in his book Words and Buildings,3 when he included a picture of a bellicose-looking Mies van der Rohe saying ‘Build, don’t talk’, while clearly, with cigar clutched in one hand and shaking his fist with the other, talking.
Whatever conclusion is reached is achieved through dialogue – and all the messy inaccuracies and infelicities of expression, potential misunderstandings, heights of rhetoric and non-sequiturs it inevitably implies. No one was more aware of these flaws than Bakhtin himself: for him, it was precisely this variety that made it so powerful. Dialogue could contain many different ways of approaching ‘truth’ and allowed for the diversity of different voices. This underpinned his concept of ‘heteroglossia’, literally ‘many languages’, which he saw as best exemplified in the medium of the novel on which he expended much of his intellectual efforts.4
Jeremy Melvin in discussion with Rem Koolhaas, Founder, OMA at WAF 2018
Dialogue cannot embody the clear logic of Euclidian geometry or Cartesian calculus, all too often seen as the exemplary attribute of western philosophy.5 But it does have something far more appropriate to architectural criticism, and that is its capacity to address imperfection and lack of logic, which whatever architects themselves may claim for their own work, is evident in even the greatest buildings. Their claims for greatness would be far weaker were this not the case.
Cindy Walters, Co-Founder and director, Walters & Cohen Architects, Michael Heenan, CEO, principal, Allen Jack+Cottier Architects and Li Wan, Postdoctoral fellow, The Chinese University of Hong Kong on the judging panel at WAF 2018
In a review of a symposium to celebrate the work of Joseph Rykwert, held on the occasion of his RIBA Gold Medal award in 2014, I tried to explain the epistemologically fluid nature of criticism as a practice: ‘Criticism is not, nor can it be, definitive. It is personal, subjective and immediate, susceptible to attack and prone to revision . . . Depending on wide and eclectic knowledge that is necessarily shallower than academic disciplines demand, it helps to stake out the territory for more detailed and focused analysis…’ The purpose of criticism is, I believe, to ‘create bridges of understanding between the processes of production and the rest of society; that is, to explain or at least introduce architecture and architectural ideas to clients, politicians and the public, and to calibrate architectural discourse within a broader mix of cultural disciplines’.6
All this may seem to put criticism at odds with judgment, as the latter does seek to be definitive, at least in the minds of judges. But the affinity lies in the method of achieving a conclusion more than in the end reached. For Anglo-Saxon legal systems depend on the spoken word, on the cut and thrust of courtroom argument and cross-examination, as on written interpretations of statutes.
This has some advantages, as the Chilean architect Enrique Browne explains in discussing his court house in the southern city of Valdivia7. The building came about, Browne notes, because after the fall of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, the new constitution introduced a very different concept of law. This would be based on spoken rather than written argument, partly to facilitate fair access for much of the population which was illiterate. The location in Valdivia was also significant, as it brought the legal system to the south of the long, thin country, where much of the population is indigenous, among whom illiteracy and other forms of deprivation are more common than among their fellow citizens of European descent.
The relationship between criticism and judgment was alluded to, albeit satirically, by the poet Coleridge (1772-1834) in his critical work Biographia Literaria (1817). He lamented, ‘Poets and philosophers, rendered diffident by their very number, addressed themselves to “learned readers”; then aimed to conciliate the grace of “the candid reader”; till, the critic still rising as the author sunk, the amateurs of literature collectively were rising into a municipality of judges, and addressed as the town! And now finally, all men being supposed able to read, and all readers able to judge, the multitudinous public, shaped into collective unity by the magic of abstraction, sits nominal despot on the throne of criticism. But, alas! As in other despotisms, it but echoes the decision of its invisible ministers, whose intellectual claims to the guardianship of the Muses seem, for the greater part, analogous to the physical qualifications which adapt their oriental brethren for the superintendence of the harem’.8
Coleridge was not alone among creative artists in regretting the supposed ability and credibility of ‘amateurs’ to engage in criticism. But it is notable that he uses a legal metaphor (‘a municipality of judges’) and even by implication suggests that such judges might evoke the notion of democratic decision-making (‘addressed as the town’ – understood as an electorate). We might remember that Coleridge, having lost his youthful radicalism, became, like his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of the founders of modern conservative thought.
Mun Summ Wong, Founder, WOHA, Ellen van Loon, Partner, OMA, Ian Ritchie, Founder, Ian Ritchie Architects, Christoph Ingenhoven, Principal, Ingenhoven Architects and James Timberlake, Principal, Kieran Timberlake on the WAF 2017 Super Jury
Here we may find ourselves between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one side is a retreat into conservatism; on the other an anarchic and uninformed critical apparatus that is all too often seen as credible. WAF has the potential to navigate these turbulent waters, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Its judges have all proved themselves capable as architects or commentators. Both as individuals and especially collectively, they represent a wide body of achievement, knowledge and experience. They are not, pace Coleridge, a ‘municipality’, but a faculty. And above all they seek through dialogue which accepts and embraces difference and diversity, if not ‘truth’, at least sound and informed judgment which sets the tone for all other discussions, formal and informal at the Festival.
1 By this phrase I mean something quite different to the meaning ascribed to it by M Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and how he is using it to try to impose a particular form of settlement on the UK.
2 The quote at the top of this piece comes from the English translation of Bakhtin’s 1963 revision of his 1929 book on Dostoevsky – his first major work, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, as Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p110.
3 Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings, London, Thames and Hudson, 2000, p12.
4 Bakhtin’s formidable linguistic ability formed his concept of heteroglossia. It manifested itself throughout his life. As a youth, he and his brother Nikolai (a White Guard who was forced to flee the Soviet Union once the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, and subsequently a professor of philology at Birmingham University having completed a PhD at Cambridge) pooled their pocket money to pay a Greek tutor. When in 1969, having lost one leg and in imminent danger of loosing the other, Bakhtin and his wife were moved thanks to the intervention of a student of a colleague to Moscow for medical treatment. She mentioned that ‘Daddy’ might be able to help. ‘Daddy’ turned out to be Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB and subsequently Soviet leader. He arranged for the Bakhtins to be treated at the Kremlin Hospital, reserved for the most privileged Soviet citizens and foreign communists. Staff there were reluctant to see the Bakhtins – whose disheveled appearance led them to conclude were Old Communists who had done something very important in 1917 – leave, as he could translate for foreigners. Even if he did not know their language, a day or two’s study would generally give him an adequate grasp. See Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin, Cambridge Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984, pp336-7.
5 Consider, for example, Beaaarghtraaaaaghm Russell…. Consider also Nietzsche’s salutary opening statement in Beyond Good and Evil, ‘Supposing truth to be a women – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?’, translated RJ Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973, p13.
6 See Jeremy Melvin, ‘Critical Mass’, in the Architectural Review, 7 March 2014, https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/reviews/critical-mass-committee-of-architectural-critics-conference-critiqued/8659868.article
7 For a discussion of this building, see Jeremy Melvin, ‘Building Profile: Court of Appeals in Valdivia’, in Architectural Design, Vol 73, no 4 July/Aug 2003, pp103-8.
8 See ST Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, JM Dent and Sons, London, 1906, chapter 3, (p34 in the reprint by David Campbell Publishers, 1965).