One does not typically associate criticism with Valentine’s Day, but in an unconventional turn of events, this past February 14th marked the final day of the What Criticism? symposium at the GSD. Organized by current Loeb Florencia Rodriguez and sponsored by the Fellowship, the symposium sought to untie what architectural criticism means today and what it holds for the future. The day’s event brought together a broad range of critics of the built environment, including past and present Loeb Fellows Alexandra Lange (LF ’14), Inga Saffron (LF ’12) and Andres Lepik (LF ’11). Cynthia Davidson (LF ’88) gave the keynote address and subsequently met with Loebs and members of Women in Design.
The symposium began with an introduction by Rodriguez, who questioned the idea of a singular form of criticism and asserted the impossibility of what she calls “its pure existence.” In four sessions, the daylong event explored a diversity of topics within the realm of design criticism, such as “the impossible friendship” between critique and its object, criticism as love, forms of the uncertain, and finally, dissemination versus cultivation. Furthering the notion that criticism is no longer reductive or singular, the symposium cast a broad net in terms of the current platforms, subject matters, and models of practice of the critics.
In the session, “Forms of the Uncertain,” Andres Lepik, Inga Saffron and Michael Kubo discussed the place of the uncertain in contemporary criticism. Lepik and Kubo both approached the discussion from the curatorial perspective, identifying moments in the history of art exhibition in which the traditional model was broken open and the unexpected presented itself. Through analysis of innovative shows at MOMA–Marcel Breuer’s “House in the Garden” exhibit, as described by Lepik, and Arthur Drexler’s 1979 “Transformations in Modern Architecture,” by Kubo, critics inserted the uncertain into design dialogue through what Kubo calls “a rejection of lineage.” As scholars of curation and curators themselves, Lepik and Kubo call on these seminal exhibitions to shape how they structure their own. For Kubo, “Transformations” introduced the concept of the catalog to curation. For Lepik, Breuer’s show questioned the preciousness of architecture by erecting a prefab house on sacred ground in the courtyard at MOMA. By pushing the limits of curatorial expectation, Lepik says, we learn that “there is power in the bark.”
Saffron, the architecture critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer for the past decade, offered a vastly different vantage point on the place of the uncertain in criticism. For her, uncertainty abounds. There is the uncertain value of architecture in the public dialogue, the uncertain future of important buildings, the ever-in-flux future of Philadelphia’s skyline. In light of these uncertainties, she describes herself as a “translator who turns design-speak into something vivid and compelling.” In this sense, she acts as a mirror to the city, making clear the implications of change and the impacts of new buildings on the life of the city as a whole. As a critic, she is free from the constraints of objectivity that bind traditional journalists. As she says with a smile, “I am never neutral.” Ultimately, she sees the value of her role as a critic (and particularly one that writes and is responded to online) as validating members of the public to act as critics too and giving a certain weight to public opinion on public buildings.
In the final session of the day, “Dissemination versus Cultivation,” Rodriquez led a roundtable discussion on the state of the publishing in digital age and the impact platform has on content and receptivity. The panel included writer and editor Meredith Tenhoor of Aggregate and blogger Michael Abrahamson of F*ck Yea Brutalism. Abrahamson, who posts one period photo of a brutalist building every day to his subscribed fan base, likened himself to a “crate digger,” a vinyl record aficionado driven by “a desire for novel sound.” This prompted an interesting discussion on the place of slowness and repetition (two things Abrahamson credits for the success of his blog) in a digital era structured around rapidity, volume, and heterogeneity.
The day closed with a call for action from Rodriguez. She spoke of the shifting definitions of many of the buzzwords used throughout the day: distraction, agitation, desire, radicality. “We need a new vocabulary,” she stated. The end of the conference circled back to its beginning, replacing a singular view of criticism with an ever-expanding lexicon and modes of practices.