J-Term Roundup - Criticism Workshop

During the January term, current Loeb Fellow Alexandra Lange offered “Criticism Workshop” to introduce students to reading, writing and revising architecture criticism. The class made a site visit to the new Tata Hall at the Harvard Business School, followed by a writing assignment in which students produced a critical piece on the space.

Lange’s teaching draws upon her varied experiences as an architecture and design critic: her work can be found in Domus, New York Magazine, the New Yorker blog, and the New York Times, among many others. Her 2012 e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism explores the messages underlying physical spaces of companies like Facebook and Google.

I spoke with Lange about the writing process, the J-term class and her thoughts on new media–like Twitter and Instragram–as they have become popular tools for communicating sensations of interior and exterior built spaces.

Jen Saura: When you are writing a piece on a particular space or building, what is your architecture criticism process?

Alexandra Lange: It's a version of the field trip, but typically by myself. I go and walk around, inside to outside and back again, pausing when needed, usually scribbling observations in a notebook. Since I started using Instagram last year I usually take and share photos as well, but those are more reportage than notes. If I can I like to start writing about the place as soon as I get home, while those observations are fresh. I rarely refer to my notes, but can recreate the ideas once I've written them down.

JS: How did you get started writing architecture criticism?

AL: It has always come very naturally. I was already thinking about architecture criticism in high school, though I didn't start reading a wide range of critics until I was living in New York in my 20s. A few of my undergraduate architecture classes at Yale touched on criticism, particularly a lecture class with Alex Purves, for which I wrote a critique of the interiors of McDonalds, and a non-fiction writing class with Fred Strebeigh, for which I wrote a critique of the Yale School of Architecture, then in a very bad state.

JS: You took your J-Term students to get a tour of the brand-new Tata Hall at HBS, designed by William Rawn Associates—how did you frame the criticism of this building for your students?

AL: On the first day of the class we read a series of articles and reviews about the design of campuses in general, and dorms in particular. Campuses are really small (and sometimes not so small) cities, and I thought it would be helpful for students to think about the building in history and in urban space rather than as an isolated object. That gave them a lot more options in terms of setting the scene for their review, and choosing a distance from which to consider it.

JS: What do you think was the most important takeaway for your students?

AL: In general the feedback I get is that students find the structure very helpful: how to approach a building, ways to organize and edit that material, models to consider.

JS: Tell us about your use of new media like Twitter and Instagram. How are you using these tools as an effective means of telling the story of exterior and interior spaces?

AL: I love Twitter. For whatever reason, I find it very easy to say things in 140 characters, and I was always the sort of person that wanted to pass on recommendations for things to see, to read, to do. It's important to me that most of what I recommend is free and open to all: I'm not taking people behind locked doors but pointing out the humor and interest in everyday design. The photos I take are another way of doing that: they aren't professional, and I can get as close or as far away as I like. I also make a habit of taking photos of graphics and signs, which often point to failures in the architecture. If the organization is intuitive, it shouldn't need a sign.

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