Off-Duty and Losing Power?

Ulf Meyer
27. October 2021
Screenshot from keynote lecture by Ruth Verde Zein on Saturday, October 16, 2021.

The International Conference on Architectural Criticism took place online over four days in October, with dozens of academics addressing the theme “On the Duty and Power of Architectural Criticism.” Ulf Meyer watched the proceedings and sent us his impressions.

What do architectural critics talk about when they meet? Do they critique each other, or do they critique the critiques? Judging by this year’s meeting of CICA (the International Committee of Architectural Critics / Comité International des Critiques d'Architecture / Comité Internacional de Críticos de Arquitectura), they do neither. The international conference, spread over two weekends (October 9-10 and October 16-17), was focused on “the duty and power of architectural criticism.” It was organized by Wilfried Wang from the University of Texas at Austin, with each day given its own sub-theme within the larger theme: “Origins and Approaches,” “High Culture in Conflict,” “Criticism and its Effects,” and “Explicit Criticism.”

The conference kicked off with a keynote given by Kenneth Frampton in New York. Introduced as “the greatest architectural historian since Sigfried Giedion,” he set the tone for the conference of high-level architectural historians comparing their notes. Critics — in the journalistic sense, at least — did not participate, and the crisis of architectural communication in the age of user-generated content and the dominance of Instagram and other digital platforms were not even touched upon. But the ivory tower can be a great place, and the participants argued that professional critics are not the only critics of architecture — and may not even matter at all. Rather, the assumption was made that architectural historians, preservationists, and even architects themselves practice a sort of critique: of the buildings they alter or even of the designers of the original schemes, and thereby were labeled as critics. 

Posters for days one and two of the CICA conference. (Poster design by Leila Zein Telles)

It was irritating that when day-two keynote speaker Zheng Shiling, an architect from Shanghai, praised the Chinese system of “critique through competition juries,” none of the attendees dared to raise an eyebrow, let alone a voice. Zheng suggested “the death of criticism” because it is more comment-oriented than theory-oriented, too popular and too media-focused; architecture has become “more sculpture-like,” according to the senior professor. For Zheng, architectural designs should ultimately be judged by the Communist government of China and its staff. But of course, even if the judgment of the juries was qualified, it would only deal with a select few prestige projects, those dropped by foreign starchitects across China. After all, architects are a rare species in China, where there is one trained architect for every 40,000 citizens; compare that to one architect for every 400 citizens in Italy.  

Carlos Eduardo Comas, in his witty lecture on the second day titled “Niemeyer Do(o)med: Remembrance of Planes Past,” tried to prove that architectural design itself can be a critique. When he explained Paulo Mendes da Rochas’s rather insensitive remodeling of the Oca Museum in Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo (designed in 1954 by Oscar Niemeyer), Comas introduced “remodeling as criticism” — in this case a rather unsubstantiated one, unfortunately. Comas argued that designer and critic are “not different persons, but different clothes of the same person.” After all, “everybody is a little poet and a little mad man,” a Portuguese proverb suggests. But architects, of course, avoid evaluating colleagues' work for fear of reprisals.

There was a consensus amongst attendees that critics should “know more than, but do not need to be architects” to have firsthand knowledge of matters. “Description before judgment” was the tagline that Louise Noelle Gras from Mexico, a session chair on day two, used. “Critique is more risky than commentary,” she said, but Michael Sorkin’s mantra that she also quoted, “our job is to help save the world,” seems a little old school.

Posters for days three and four of the CICA conference. (Poster design by Leila Zein Telles)

The most valuable part of the four-day CICA conference were the sixteen papers (four per day) given by an international gathering of academics: from Morten Birk Jorgensen on the Viking Ship Hall in Roskilde, Denmark, to Blazej Ciarkowski on the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk, Poland. Lynette Widder’s discussion of Hans Schwippert's Bundeshaus in Bonn, Germany, was as revealing as Alexandra Staub’s talk about the greenwashing of the new Bank of America Tower in New York, as was a trio of Turkish academics critiquing the New Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture.

It was Ruth Verde Zein from São Paulo, whose keynote opened the third day — and who opened a can of worms — when she questioned the wisdom of the architectural canon of modernism that is largely defined by white men and mainly includes the work of white male architects. These assertions made the star of the conference, Kenneth Frampton, look older than his 90 years. Even now he holds on to the understatement that he is “neither a critic nor a historian nor a theoretician.” But the supposed “Golden Era” of architectural criticism and its figureheads (Lewis Mumford, Stanislas von Moos, Ada Louise Huxtable, Nicolai Ouroussoff, and Bruno Zevi were names he mentioned) are a thing of the past; so is Frampton’s system of categorizing the world into countries and their architectures, and the Euro- and Western-centric world view.

Videos for the four days of the International Conference on Architectural Criticism can be watched on YouTube via the CICA conference channel.

For William J. R. Curtis, who also participated in the conference, “history is a working hypothesis”; compare that to Walter Benjamin’s view that “critique seeks the true content on a work of art.” Curtis’s statement has aged better than Frampton’s narratives of progress and the heroic journey of modernism. The Western canon of architectural history may be “limited, skewed, excluding and biased,” as Curtis said, but it still prevails. For Curtis, critiques and critics should be “informed and precise but they cannot always be correct.” For Marina Waisman, the Argentinian critic and unofficial hero of the conference who was mentioned in the talks by Verde Zein and other speakers from Latin America, “a critic is not a describer; a critic’s role is to judge.”

Discussions about “inclusion and exclusion” are as necessary as they are tiring. When there is no “objective criticism,” we should try “operative criticism,” as Manfredo Tafuri said. Maybe criticism is “merely a poorly paid, decorative legitimation for hyperbolic practice” and “incisive architectural criticism is rare,” as Wilfried Wang put it in his introductory remarks to the CICA conference. But criticism might also find a new niche in the world of user-generated, free media — since there is a point at which even architecture students grasp that the colorful pictures on Instagram can only take you so far.

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