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Allison Arieff & Her Readers on Design and Architecture

Why Don’t We Read About Architecture?

Buildings are discussed — indeed aspects of them obsessed upon — but almost exclusively in the context of economics. This building went over budget, that surplus of houses led to the foreclosure crisis, that condo broke the record for residential real estate, etc. To the layman, then, architecture is conveyed as little more than something that costs a lot and causes a lot of grief, rather than something with the potential to enhance our daily lives.“Buildings are everywhere,” writes Alexandra Lange, “large and small, ugly and beautiful, ambitious and dumb. We walk among them and live inside them but are largely passive dwellers in cities or towers, houses, open spaces, and shops we had no hand in creating.”
But as the architecture and design critic Lange points out in her new book, “Writing About Architecture,” we need to engage our citizenry in architecture in ways that move from passivity or accusation (i.e., Nimbyism) and to do so we need more … architecture critics.

Of course, the reverse has been occurring over the last decade. You can almost count the number of architectural critics at major newspapers on one hand, and while there’s been an explosion of opinion design and architecture blogs in recent years, they tend to preach to the converted or veer, with few exceptions, toward noncritical celebration or gleeful snark.

It was Martin Mull (or Steve Martin or Laurie Anderson — check out the
 discussion of quote provenance here) who said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” To ruin the analogy further, writing about architecture is like mangling language, and far too often the experience of reading architectural writing feels about as pleasurable as tooth extraction.When I spoke at the D-Crit program at the School of Visual Arts last fall, many of us agreed that 24/7 media carries some of the blame — it’s hard to be thoughtful when you’re writing five blog posts a day — but there’s no shortage of reasons for the current dearth of insightful architectural criticism (like the current dearth of architectural projects, for instance).
To wit (with all apologies to the author, who will remain unidentified):
ANALYSIS: a territorial and social fragmentation, a typical “no-man’s land” undergoing the urban exodus, the settlement of the old and inactive persons, the absence of public place in the body scale substituted by the car. PROBLEMATIC: How to attract a new living to facilitate the social and urban mixity?
We can’t entirely blame the perpetrator of this crime, for it is this style of writing that is rewarded within academia. Indecipherability signifies superior intelligence. (The field of architecture is not alone in this — just ask this former Ph.D. grad student, who shudders at sentences she wrote while under the heady spell of such Continental theorists as Barthes, Derrida and Foucault.) And while I’m not suggesting we hew toward the lowest common denominator, architects and those who write about them are doing themselves a disservice by insisting on the impenetrability of discourse.
Why? Compare the above author’s approach with the one taken by the urban idol Jane Jacobs, who was uniquely successful in using her love of her surrounding built environment to make the case for preserving and expanding it. She writes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:
The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers. (How do they eat so much candy so early in the morning?) … When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s ….
The advertising man David Ogilvy wrote, “Never use jargon words like reconceptualizedemassificationattitudinallyjudgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” It is admittedly unfair to compare these two snippets of writing but I’ll do so to make the point often forgotten about criticism: it should elucidate (not obfuscate) if it has any hope of making an impact. In the end, who would garner support at a city planning meeting? Both authors are talking about the same thing, but it’s evident who is making a better case. The former is worried about the “site condition”; the latter is successful in speaking to the human one.
In “Writing About Architecture,” Lange recognizes the stakes inherent in the act of describing place. While she certainly is pushing writers, readers and her students to aim for clarity in criticism, Lange goes much further, arguing that architecture critics be invested intellectually and emotionally in the world that surrounds them. The iconic critics Lange celebrates enliven the spaces they write about — whether they love them or hate them. They notice things. They’re steeped in history, in context and provenance. They take their time. They make the reader want to experience the spaces described.
See for example, this paper’s former architecture critic, the late Herbert Muschamp, writing about Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997:
If you want to look into the heart of American art today, you are going to need a passport. You will have to pack your bags, leave the U.S.A. and find your way to Bilbao, a small rustic city in the northeast corner of Spain. The trip is not convenient, and you should not expect to have much fun while you’re there … [but] those who visit Bilbao, however, may come away thinking that art is not entirely remote from matters of life and death.
And Michael Sorkin shows, in this 1985 Village Voice review of the Whitney Museum, how a building can be described vividly — no obfuscation required, no need to hide his delight, just clear description and unbridled enthusiasm:
The Breuer Whitney is a masterpiece … Breuer divided his Madison Avenue elevation into three parts: a thin concrete wall butted up against its neighbors: a narrow zigzagging band containing among other things, the great stair; and the main stepping mass, housing the galleries, to which are affixed the winning “eyebrow” windows, apt symbols of museum going.
Many of the writers Lange includes in her book offered perspectives that not only helped shape local and national conversations around design and the built environment, but affected outcomes as well. It’s rarer today that a piece of criticism might have that effect, rare that such pieces appear on page one. There is an amazing kaleidoscope of good writing about buildings online — though there’s also an infinite number of outlets for the dissemination of not-so-good writing.
Architecture, writes Lange, “is the art you cannot avoid” and it carries a burden that the other arts don’t — it must reconcile aesthetics and ideas with user functionality. A painting or a novel need only please or provoke its audience; it doesn’t then also require setbacks, parking minimums and LEED certification. Fewer of us are affected — or even in regular contact with the other arts — while all of us are inextricably connected to the built environment.
Bold, opinionated, thoughtful words about the stuff that surrounds us might result in better buildings (and cities and suburbs, infrastructure and parks). And the importance of that can’t be stressed enough. Because, as Ada Louise Huxtable, another of Lange’s heroes, put it in one of her perfectly titled essays about the importance of successful planning in New York (this one: “Sometimes We Do It Right”), “It only takes one opening in the wrong place, one ‘bonus’ space placed according to current zoning (read ‘business’) practice, to ruin it all.” Architecture critics, Lange rightly concludes, can act not just as writers but as advocates, and, in so doing, can “try to make it better.”

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
I have a master's degree in architecture, and I don't read about architecture. One of the things I discovered in architecture school is that the profession is heavily populated with pretentious, loudmouth fakers.

I knew one architecture professor who spouted utter nonsense. Not just ideas that I disagreed with--sentences that did not make sense. Occasionally, I'd run into him and converse with him, matching his way of talking, for as long as I could stand to. I'd make up drivel in a sort of free-associative, quasi-poetic way. Maybe a shrink could have derived something from my statements, but I had no idea what they meant. Lots of big words, signifying nothing.

The professor would nod and smile and reply in kind. After a few minutes of this, I'd have to retire to the nearest ladies' room--where of course, he couldn't follow--to laugh for a while. Unkind, but I was about 25 and not especially tolerant of phonies.

During the years I was working in the field, my boss and I were a well-respected team in a very specialized field. One day we were summoned to a conference at the office of a very prominent LA architect, whose name I won't mention. Very narcissistic guy. Several self-important associates.

The conversation at that conference table was so full of baloney that my boss and I were astonished. We lamented later than we couldn't even kick each other under the conference table when someone said something idiotic, because the table had a glass top.

ChristopherSan Francisco
As an architect who's practiced for nearly 20 years I'd like to point out a few other germane facts about the profession itself that contribute to a poor built environment. Essentially, that it's a wonderfully complex subject for studying, but it's a damned hard business in practice.

Firstly, in addition to external societal and economic factors, good buildings are simply incredibly hard to deliver. For any substantial project, the road to completion includes increasingly complex client needs, expanding building codes with added green building measures, coordination of up to a dozen sub disciplines and you still haven't properly considered the aesthetic sensibility, livability or graciousness of the project . Then the construction process itself has many opportunities to compromise generous intentions.

Secondly, the range of aptitudes required to do all this is uniquely broad. On any given day, an architect needs to have professional level skills in contract negotiation, complex 3d geometry, graphic design, history, technical and prose writing, software and database management, structural engineering, project management, legal codes interpretation, public speaking, soft skill client handling, construction materials and methods, and a hard won philosophical understanding of the ineffable quality that makes buildings "good".

What other profession requires such breadth and depth?

ElfBoston, MA
Two decades ago I found myself in Montreal on Mother's Day with a few free hours. I marked my tourist map to visit buildings by Dan Hanganu, the renown Montreal architect. As I entered a recently renovated theater by Hanganu, I saw in the lobby a crowd speaking animated French. I assumed they were waiting for a matinee performance. I tried to explain I was interested in the architecture asking permission to step in to take photographs in the theater. Because of the language barrier I did not understand why there was no one in sight collecting tickets as they waived me in. I followed the excited crowd that was moving throughout the building including the actors' dressing rooms. Only then I realized I had chanced on an architectural open house on the first day the building could be visited by the public. I was astonished to see people of all ages including families with little children and teenagers wearing their Sunday clothes whose idea of celebrating Mother's Day was to visit a new building and look at its architecture. They were not there for a play but to simply enjoy the effortless way that Hanganu uses everyday inexpensive materials beautifully detailed to create magical spaces. I was green with envy that such a superior culture existed where people cared that much about architecture.

How do you get such an engaged public? Why is history of architecture not part of what is taught in our schools?

Ken GedanFlorida
Modern American architecture is a pompous monstrosity, which explains the ugly, indecipherable writing. One reflects upon the other.

Each building stands by itself with no relation with other buildings, environment, or culture. The area between the buildings is cold, empty and forbidden as the space between the planets. At night time, the cities are empty like cemeteries and each building seems a tombstone.

Just a thoughtNew York
More people would be interested in buildings and architectural criticism today if good buildings were built and talked about. The buildings that are built today that people love are completely ignored by architectural critics and the one's that confound the average person (and rightly so because they make no sense) get all the attention. Most of the buildings that get attention are violently anti-human. They're goal is to make people uncomfortable, not to be loved. Who wants to spend time in a place like that or reading about something like that?

We do read about architecture. "The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape," by James Howard Kunstler, is one of the best books I've read that explain the soul-sucking sadness of today's urban architecture.
March 3, 2012 at 10:12 a.m.RECOMMENDED21

Architects are trained to design for architecture critics, including other architects, but not for the public. Its precisely because Jane Jacobs was writing about urban space and not Architecture that her writing was accessible. As a practicing architect I'd place the blame for the perception of the profession on this training, as well as on the fact that this self-absorption of the profession exists, in the United States, in the context of a society that values only expediency and the bottom line in anything that you can't take home with you. Perhaps these two things are mutually reinforcing.

don tishmanpleasanton, ca.
Before ALLISON ARIEFF, whose record is peerless as a advocate for better architecture when she led Dwell, can write about "better architecture" , we must have some definition of good architecture.
A world class architect defined good architecture as when you enter a building and then feel better about yourself- that is good architecture.
The most effective advocate for better design has been Steve Jobs of Apple. Job's dogged and relentless attention to the design details of Apple's products resulted in huge successes. Finally, business people acknowledge that good design is good business.
This is what will bring about better architecture- when investors and developers ask- what Jobs asked- is this the best design poissible ?

I came to architecture with an undergraduate degree in Art History, so I had heard my share of gobbledygook, but at least had been able to study literature, foreign languages, anthropology and other subjects. Students who start out in architecture as undergraduates have very few opportunities to explore the world outside of architecture. The education of the modern architect is narrow and inwardly focused, and yields professional architects with parochial attitudes who are nothing more in many cases than glorified technicians with intellectual pretensions. German has a great word for this - "Fachidiot" - a person who knows only one thing well. Architectural education should be, like law or medicine, a post-graduate curriculum. The world is bigger than architecture.

James HadleyOrleans, MA
This is an important article about an even more important topic. I most certainly will buy and read the book. The very sad thing that has happened to the majority of architects today is their loss, as a group, of a place in the discussion of cultural direction. ( Forget the "starchitects." This discussion is not about them.)
The reasons are complex - the general erosion of respect for professionalism (my doctor and I commiserate about this), the affect of money and status on overall perceptions of value, and the continual evolvement of new technologies of communication taking over much of the mind's activity that was formerly available to enjoy the experience of place. This last has not really been looked at in depth, but the impact is huge.
I can testify that as an architect practicing in a small town the general respect afforded me and my profession is drastically diminished. As a prime example, the local newspaper NEVER acknowledges the architect of a building. They treat buildings as some kind of a "growth," brought about by an individual or organization.
The blame for this state of affairs must go in large part to the profession. It has abandoned discussion (and thoughtful criticism) for competition and status seeking. Hence the timeliness of this book, and excellent column.

Zeke27New York
Thank you for writing about architecture and not the architects. Too often we get lost in the glitterati aspect of big bucks meeting big egos, leading to big exclusive monuments.
But I disagree that architecture is the art you can't avoid. I believe that most of us avoid art in architecture everyday. look at where you live. Do you live in a house in the suburbs with a useless front door stuck on the side of the house where the post man used to walk? Do you live in some soulless apartment building with narrow corridors, stuffy air, and curtained windows with a view of the next building? this is architecture too, but the kind we shut out. We avoid it as much as we can. Our built environment is something to be endured, not celebrated. It's an environment developed over centuries by the money men, not the artists.
Teaching an appreciation of the built environment in elementary school would help us all. Perhaps if we exposed our children to the beauty of indigenous architecture, or the spareness of the japanese craftsmen, or the beauty of a stone wall, then they might not settle, as most of us have, to live in aesthetic squalor.

We don't read about it in the US because we are a culturally hamstrung, provincial, Boeotian Philistine society. Nobody cares about architecture in this country. Banality is not only accepted it is celebrated. Just as long as it's cheap, tacky, or both.

Architects promote their pretentiousness with the over-the-top theoretical twaddle they use to describe it in print therefore the general public, whom architects depend on and ultimately serve, haven't a clue as to what they go an about. As a result of this 'chrome horse riding' profession of egos, it offends its constituency and alienates the public with its arrogance. A surgeon's God complex cannot compare to an architect's.

So we have a profession that plays keepaway with the golden keys to the gates of enlightenment and understanding of our built environs, and a target audience who, since they truly have no chance of understanding it, passively condemns it as much ado about nothing. Both are to blame.

It may be a lost cause anyway, architecture does cost money which is in very short supply. People here have no qualms about buying a $60k BMW but paying for good design is just an extravagance.

An Architecture PhDLA
There is a difference between academic writing about architecture and architectural journalism, just as there is in every field.

Precisely because architecture is a ubiquitous part of everyone's life, everyone feels qualified to comment on it. And if they encounter language in the discourse that they don't understand, they dismiss it as "jargon".

This jargon, when used intelligently, is language drawn from decades of critical theory in many fields: philosophy, art history, cultural theory, social science, biology, technology. The language of academic architectural writing is comparable to that you would find in any of these disciplines. It serves a different purpose than journalism and is addressed to a different audience.

That said, few can master this language and use it effectively - and architects who throw around jargon carelessly are merely guilty of bad writing -- a consequence of writing being marginalized in professional architecture curricula.

StubenvilleValley Forge, PA
How many times have we read about a new building in the New York Times or another reputable news source, only to have the owner, developer and even the prime tenant called out, with no mention of the architect? In my experience, unless the designer is a "starchitect", they very rarely get mentioned.

SaraChappaqua, NY
The reason Ada Louise Huxtable writes well about architecture is that she's a writer, not an architect! I'm willing to bet that the author of the anonymous, jargon-choked, first writing sample IS an architect. Most architects, whether it's because they've neglected writing (and often reading) in favor of intensive architectural studies, or because writing and three-dimensional design are entirely separate natural aptitudes, or both, are terrible writers.

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
Architecture is not a personal art. People have to use those "cutting edge" buildings. Innocent bystanders have to live in them, work in them, look at them every day. Pay for them.

A painter can be scornful of hoi polloi without hurting anyone. An architect with that point of view is self-indulgent. Architects who consider themselves sophisticated and above the masses are famous for disasters like Pruitt-Igoe.

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
Jim, good architects are interested in exactly the same things you're interested in. You'll find them in one or two person offices, barely scraping by. It's the "starchitects" who build horrible monuments to themselves.

People want to live or work in a building that is functional, comfortable, and affordable, things that architects and architecture critics do not care about. So that is why we do not listen to you.

MattyBoston, MA
Well, the profession in the united states long ago forsake engineering. You can find plethoras of resumes that cite "engineering background" from "architects" but chances are they have none. Unlike in Europe where "architecture" students still undergo RIGOROUS engineering training.

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
I should add that, in the course of 30 years in the profession, I met many architects who were fine, talented people. For the most part, though, they weren't writers of theoretical books. Just craftsmen-and-women who set about making the world a little better in the only way they could--one good building at a time.
In reply to Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastMarch 3, 2012 at 11:00 a.m.RECOMMENDED13

JoshNew York, NY
Thanks for writing this. I'm pursuing a Master of Architecture degree, coming from a liberal arts background. I was shocked at the "jargony" nature of architecture writing, when I first arrived at school. The lack of coherence when students describe even their own projects seems to go unnoticed, and even encouraged. I think it's a disservice to my undergraduate colleagues, who don't have a writing intensive degree as a base. They will enter the working world without the ability to communicate an idea, let alone a project. Moreover, it has been frustrating to have professors instruct us in a language that has no foundation other than that it is in vogue. As Mies would say to his students, "Clarity"

Reuben RyderCornwall, NY
What? Architecture? When did that happen? The Guggenheim was centuries ago and not easily negotiated, in any way shape or form. We do not have great architecture because we do not have a great society or great people. We lack a vision of what could be. I still walk around looking for the Wright thing. It's all we've got.

ahdavisJacksonville, FL
In defense of the language of the modern architectural discourse, I think it is useful to examine the current rate of change in the field. Theorists, students and practicing architects are trying to address a more complex (and less populist) set of problems than was confronted by someone like Jane Jacobs. While there is no doubt eternal value in her writing and some of her contemporaries, why should the forefront of a profession act as it did a generation ago? And why should the internal battles of a sophisticated science be catered to the quasi-interested layperson?

Those who seek only the beauty in architecture will want to read the romanticized descriptions quoted the this article. (The Times writes about architecture like it is only a consumer product, not a discourse.) Those that seek to explore the complications building for the emergent qualities of civilization need the sophistication that the author disdains.

jbpDover, MA
It's not only the world of architecture that suffers from baloney-stuffed rhetoric, the entire art world is drowning in this purple prose. Just go to any gallery or museum and read the text on the wall near each work, or read the books that accompany exhibitions: thickets of nonsense.
In reply to Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastMarch

Concerned CitizenAnywheresville, USA
That is absolutely true; contemporary architecture -- the stuff that wins awards and gets fame -- is deliberately ugly and unlivable (or unworkable), because confounding or upsetting "stupid ordinary folks" is Object No. 1 in proving how esoteric and intellectual the architect IS.

The Renaissance ideal of "human centered" architecture -- "man is the measure of all things" -- has been dead for at least 60 years.

TalbotNew York
Everything you say is true. One problem is, in fact, architects. Writing as you describe would be to treat their audience as equals--to write in a way that engages them because their opinion--positive or negative--is important.

Many architects believe the average person is not fit to have a judgement about buildings and architecture. They believe that having an opinion worth listening to requires a level of knowledge reserved--not surprisingly--for architects.

A non-architect with a negative opinion about a building is often dismissed as someone who has no taste.

I have heard architects talk about the "courage" required to put form before function. This kind of thinking leads to open air stair cases with no railings in a house that includes old people and children.

I'm an architect. There are many excellent architectural critics writing illuminating commentary. But in the mainstream media there are very few good architectural editors. If I'm reading about how wonderful the plan is, please show me the plan. If you tell me the entry facade has a spectacular relationship to the site, show me a photograph of the facade. If you say the different internal volumes have an exciting dynamic interplay, show me a section or axonometric drawing!

Mainstream editors: take a look at the professional journals. They are far from perfect, but if the collective consensus here favors an increased awareness of architecture, then let's include the graphic component to further engage and educate the reader.

I love good architecture, and I do love to read about it, but I will read more only once the structural engineers that hold up the building (and really bring the architect's ideas to fruition) are recognized. An structural engineer is what moves good architecture from the paper to reality.


A structural engineer.

Anthony JigaNYC
A couple times each year the local chapter of the AIA adorns two subway tunnel walkways at the West 4th Street subway station with photos of interesting interiors and exteriors designed by American architects. It is informative and thought-provoking advertising for the profession, and far more pleasurable than most of the commercial advertising dreck on those walls during the rest of the year. There are no didactics, only the name of the architect, the location, and sometimes the name of the building. There should be more such low-key public representations of recent projects, which, like a good museum exhibit, can inform, enlighten, provoke critical thought, and sometimes entertain.

mhoney42fresno. ca.
Funny that you are writing about architecture, buildings, yet both Ada Louise and good old Jane Jacobs wrote about urban spaces..

For some real obfuscation, see the debate between landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism going on between Harvard and U Penn people..

and my last opinon is, thank you for pointing out the over-enthusiastic side of reviews - Ann Raver of the NYT has upset me for years, for her inabilitly to take a critical approach to landscape design..

ANetlinerWashington, DC area
I appreciate Ms. Arieff's column agree that lively and grounded architecture criticism can help to shape better design, development, zoning and urban policy decisions.

Let me push back, though, in two areas:

1. Architectural writing needs to take real estate economics into account in order to have real influence.

2. Much architectural criticism sounds arch or precious to lay readers. A case in point is the Sorkin piece on the Whitney Museum quoted admiringly by Ms. Arieff. 'Stepping mass' is jargon, and most readers won't know what eyebrow windows are without an illustration, a photo or explanatory text. In short, architectural journalism needs to be far more accessible.

MikeIndianola, Iowa
For more than three decades I taught at a state university campus where buildings were chosen by a really bad combination of people trained in “educational administration” and lowest bid design and construction. The result was bland on bland. It was all strip mall ugliness with little attention paid to the spaces in between the brick boxes. On one notable occasion an outlaw geography professor led a group of students on an after dark tree planting raid. I don’t know how many trees they managed to get planted (or survive), but today the campus is almost humane as the trees have grown for twenty years and obscured the low bid classroom containers.

I used David MacAulay’s film “Cathedral” in anthropology classes as an example of the social functions of architecture and so many of his books are completely informative, entertaining and accessible but I doubt used as texts. Bill Riseboro’s books are filled with readable text and pertinent drawings.

The point being that people are not made aware of their surroundings and how they can create a more humane environment. We don’t need critics as much as we need people who can write about architecture in ways that are capable of making those who use it, are surrounded by it, and who may eventually create it aware aware aware of their surroundings. Read Grady Clay.

carol goldsteinnew york
As a former architecture student who "grew up" to be a successful CPA, I still read a lot about architecture. Much of the time I am frustrated by articles that describe structures but do not include floorplans, elevations, detail sketches or even well-labelled photographs. Those are prime examples the lingua franca that architects use to communicate with each other. But I do understand that for most people these things are a foreign language.

Distilling pictures into words is known to be hard work. It is no wonder that good writing about architecture for that vast majority of the public that cannot visualize three dimensions from the two dimensions of a floor plan or elevation is very hard work. (It took me until college to find out that reading plans was a learned skill, as I had been taught it by my father at a very young age.)

So writing well about architecture for a general audience - even a sophisticated general audience - requires excellent verbal skills. It also requires the ability to evaluate an architecture project as a visible object and to evaluate its social impacts. Oh, and it helps to be able to explain the success or failure of how the engineering challenges of erecting an edifice were met. That's a relatively rare combination of skills (and maybe hints at why architects themselves often work as teams).

Eh ReaderCanada
It's true. The architecture conversation only takes place over cities. I grew up in a tiny town in the Alberta foothills. I retain, and love, the clear sense of the organic, soft (stucco with rounded corners, painted wood, indigenous grey brick) architecture that existed during my 1960s childhood. The carelessness of the commercial aesthetic changed those one-of-a-kind and organic-feeling buildings into the butt-ugliest plastic-sided, fake-everything fronted, fake red brick and franchise-rubber-stamp-look of the entire Main Street by the 1980s and beyond. We could've used a rural Jane Jacobs 'round those parts.

We don't hear or see them maybe because those interesting, beautiful, and environmental friendly architectures are in foreign countries.

Concerned CitizenAnywheresville, USA
My parents, though of average middle class means, were architecture buffs, and introduced me to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and others, taking us to see places like Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and Oak Park in Chicago.

But of course, we lived in a standard, characterless suburban subdivision, a bland cookie-cutter colonial built in the early 50s and absolutely devoid of the smallest bit of architectural niceties (moldings, trim, detail, even consideration of flow or lighting). Why? already by that time it was financially impossible for anyone but the very wealthy to hire an architect to design a home (say, like Wright's Usonian houses) -- it was a stretch for my parents to even OWN a home. They were the first in their families, on both sides, to even aspire to such. And the only thing they could have possibly afforded was a mass-produced cookie-cutter home built by the hundreds by a BUILDER or contractor.

In many cities, especially the newer cities in the West and South, it is next to impossible to even VIEW a genuine architect-designed home or office building -- EVERYTHING is generic and built by construction crews from committee-designed or computer generated blueprints.

Michael ReillySouthern California
Thanks for the article Allison. Nobody in the thread has mentioned vernacular architecture and a related field cultural geography. Having lived in many places, I never turn down a good read on why the man-made world around me came to be. I was hooked at a young age by elementary school programs that taught us about our town history exposing us to such subjects as individual buildings varied use over time (such as stops on the underground railroad), Greek Revival, landscape architecture, and the Arts and Crafts movement.

As usual Ms. Arieff manages to sum up what has already been thought, said, and put to rest well after others. Yes, critics should write compelling words about compelling buildings and be critical of those that are lacking; Yes, post-structuralist lingo in whatever guise it takes is dead, but we already knew that. In fact, the issues are well beyond a paucity of architecture, architectural critics, failure of jargon, the crush of the 24hr new cycle, etc…. They go hand and hand with the architect’s very conception of architecture in late-modernity.
Among the various dilemmas is the reduction of architecture’s role to one that “reconcile[s] aesthetics and ideas with user functionality.” This is a position still mired in narrow poles of aesthetics & function. Unthinking comments like this that make architecture’s relevance for society harder to defend. Does architecture no longer have an ethical or cultural role to play? Does it no longer hold the capacity to shape and speak about an alternative form of participation?
Now, of course, architecture and cities needs advocates. However, they should at least understand that the issues are deeper than the clarity of a well-turned phrase. For a more studied and nuanced understanding: K. Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (1998) will expose Ms. Arieff’s well-intentioned provincialism. Without them understanding the capacity of architecture, do we really want critics spreading poorly reasoned criticism?

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
You know, Concerned Citizen, there was a lot of "pattern book" design even in the early 19th Century, and those buildings (mostly Victorian houses) are considered landmarks today. Some of the buildings in San Francisco's historic districts are repeated along a whole streetscape.

In the early 20th Century, Sears and other prefabricated houses were common. They, too, are often landmark structures, or major contributors to historic districts.

It's possible to do even "cookie cutter" design in a way that's pleasing and comfortable. However, as you mention, the desire for cheap design and construction means that multi-designed or mass produced buildings now offer little in the way of comfort or joy.

But mass design/construction doesn't have to be that way. Therefore, it's doubly inexcusable that it generally is.

centralSQCambridge, Ma.
So who do you think designs the buildings and spaces that are functional, comfortable and affordable?

Erik RothMinneapolis
Very little written about architecture is worth reading, but then there is too little built in the environment worthy of being called architecture, let alone joyously compelling us to dance. Part of the problem has to do with motivation and measure of worth. Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "Americans have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" Winston Churchill noted: "we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us." As much as it takes extraordinary imagination and heroic perseverance to conceive and build something inspiring, it takes unusual sensitivity and keen insight to critique what is there and what might have been there instead in a way that balances passion and information, show and tell. A superb example can be seen in the lyrical appreciation of the Bayard Building, by Louis Sullivan, in Greenwich Village, expressed by Timothy 'Speed' Levitch, guide on Gray Line Tours, the open double-deck buses traveling around Manhattan. That is featured in a documentary film having architecture as it shapes us at its heart: "The Cruise," from Charter Films, 1998, directed by Bennett Miller.

Concerned CitizenAnywheresville, USA
Mouse woman, finally a subject we can agree on. I'm not an architect, but have worked in fields that were tangent to architecture and with architectural firms. I can affirm every word you write here -- the academic snottiness and sense of detachment from (and superiority to) the nasty, smelly masses is endemic to the field.

Too bad; there is nothing I admire and even revere like really good architecture: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright. But its a debased art today.
In reply to Mouse Woman of the Northwest Coast

Concerned CitizenAnywheresville, USA
I believe the Bradbury is first, and very memorably, featured in the early 80s film, "Blade Runner".

(I miss gargoyles too!)
In reply to Frank Stanton

Perhaps it is architecture, not economics, that is now dismal science.

Frank StantonCampbell, Ca.
Buildings in the United States seem so sterile and functional. When they look different on the outside, such as some of the recent Frank Ghery buildings, they still seem sterile and devoid of any detail inside. An example of an interesting building to me is the Bradbury building in Los Angeles. It was featured quite prominently in Wolfe, a Jack Nicholson film. It is filled with wrought iron and no matter what floor you are on, you can look down and see the first floor in the center of the building. Also, when you are any floor, you can see every office because they are placed in a perimeter around an empty center. I miss Gargoyles on buildings, too.

STGCambridge, MA
Excellent piece, thank you. Professor Vincent J. Scully, Jr. is the best. After listening to him lecture or reading his book on Yale and New Haven I see my surroundings in a totally new way and never forget it. Why not read Paul Goldberger’s pieces on the web ( ) Developing one’s eyes “to see” architecture, landscape, art, color... precedes reading about it so I am totally in favor of teaching reading architecture in school as a part of learning “how to see”.

morthseattle WA
In the world of journalism clarity is paramount. Even nietzsche believed that the goal of writing was to be clear. Being clear requires enormous intellectual rigor and research. You cannot be clear if you don't know what you want say.

Covering the damage done by gehry's practice sounds like a great story to me! Understanding pros and cons of human creativity is fascinatiing! That's the kind of story that I would read.
In reply to poomakmak

Perhaps, if architecture ceased to be photographed and then presented as if buildings, and their spaces, were elite haute couture fashion models, it would be possible to gain some ground in making architecture more relevant for everyday people? And then more people would become engaged in discussion - for all of the good reasons Ms. Arieff describes in this article.

Perhaps, if architecture were more clearly anchored to its surroundings, the people would also perceive the profession with greater relevance?

It is no easy task to reconcile the interests (and interest) of regular people while the profession is frequently viewed as something only the well-heeled can afford.

No, not an easy task at all.

Landscape Architect (and kibbutz member)

PaulBellerose Terrace

I hate to tell you this, but Bilbao is not in the "northeast corner of Spain", where Muschamp placed it. It is the entire length of the Pyrenees away from being northeast. It is best described as being on the Northern Coast of Spain. It IS on the east end of that Northern coast. Barcelona IS in the Northeast of Spain, but it is a long way from Bilbao. Perhaps Muschamp's absence of precision is cautionary. Architecture is an art, but is the most intensely practical one, having to create spaces in which people can live, or work, or worship. Perhaps that is why architecture critics deify architects who make spaces that are distinctive, wild, or unusual. Anything away from the mundane seems to attract undue attention.

One of the first writers that I read in the Times was Ada Louise Huxtable. I still have her collected columns, "Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?" Her writing was clear, precise and incisive. On the other hand, while reading Huxtable as a young teenager, my sister enrolled in the first freshman class @ SUNY Purchase, whose buildings were "celebrated" in a book called "Architecture for the Arts." Starchitects such as Edward Durrell Stone and Robert Venturi, commissioned by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, created ugly, impractical brown brick buildings that only could have been an inside joke.

Like architecture itself, I think architecture writing has gotten too cute by half.

ken koensemsp
let me be blunt, precise and concise; when engineering can architect experience, and not a la Calatrava, please give me a call. while it certainly is a given that architectural discourse can become obfuscatory - and many times deliberately so - and obnoxious, real architecture sings, and speaks with ultimate transparency, when placed in the hands of true auteurs, such as the latest Pritzker winner, Wang Shu or in another Pritzker winner, Peter Zumthor.
In reply to emilyr

Mouse Woman of the Northwest CoastWashington State
Josh, my clear writing was how I got my first architecture job and sustained me through a 30-year career. Hang onto that skill: it makes you a standout.
In reply to Josh

EduardoLos Angeles

I wonder if the issue doesn't stem from a lack of awareness about architecture itself in the general public. Unless one lives in a city or town that makes architecture part of its culture, there's little or no appreciation for it, and little interest in it by those who might make exteriors more than just functional.

Eclectic Pragmatist —

MattyBoston, MA
A student in a studio once told me "you're trying too hard to be -people friendly." when t did not want a sharp edge on something.
In reply to Just a thought

BillSanta Monica, CA
Excellent points. For further insight into the professional marginalization of architecture, I recommend "Leadership By Design" by Richard Swett. Many architects posting here will be familiar with Swett and his work; he had the distincition of being the only architect serving in the US House of Representatives, representing New Hampshire over the course of several terms. Swett makes a number of important historic observations, but two stand out in my mind: the attempted monopolization of the profession by the American Institute of Architects in the early years of the 20th century (along with a quixotic attempt to standardize public architecture on a Beaux Arts paradigm); and the profession's yielding much of its responsibility for building quality to contractors, a development that continues to have important ramifications today.
In reply to James Hadley

quicknan@yahoo.comNew Hampshire
Anyone who is interested in how buildings affect their occupants should also
read Alain de Botton's superb THE ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS.

I am so with you on this. I was getting my M.Arch in the late '80s. Eisenman and deconstrutivism were the fad of the moment. People were talking gibberish, absolute nonsense. It almost made me want to quit.
In reply to Mouse Woman of the Northwest Coast

do not confuse 'functional' with conventional. there is a thick veil of conservatism surrounding 'function' which is reduced to just what one is used to. a misfitted shoe makes a callous. our conventional architectural world is a series of callouses.

our 'functional' work is mere visually conventional [looks like it should] and almost exclusively non-functional for the real 21st century world: it does not address ethics of material and economic streams, spaces that address the person vs stereotyped demographics, or a sensualness of place that requires pause and consideration -and god forbid- touch- vs a quick glance. in the usa we like our buildings skin deep. 'architectural' extreme makeovers are akin to change in make-up and eyeliner. we have moved little from the 19th century battle of the styles while the real world has changed radically in terms of the impacts of this fetish and kitsch and wasted opportunities.

we move through the 'functional' world looking at our crackberry or iphone because the glow the screen addresses us more than the callousness of what we build today. the 'function' is in the mere building, there is no accepted functional need for the architecture, as it is visually less articulate than the screen. we don't write about architecture because by our implicit societal agreements, it is irrelevant. in america, the bar is set low and achieved.

it is not about 'functional' vs gehry- there is a third way that re-opens what function could be.

carol goldsteinnew york
And those of us with a science/engineering grounding who came to architectural education were equally dumbfounded by the obvious (to us) dangers of allowing folks with no sense of physics (e.g., forces that hold buidings together or tear them apart) or chemistry (e.g., what materials corrode faster if placed next to each other) design big physical structures. Too often buildings are ambitiously designed and THEN engineers are called in to "make it work".

Where I went to school, some years ago at a rather prestigious technical institute, we had both undergrads and grad students taking the same architecture curriculum. In many of the more technically rigourous courses, such as Materials Science, there was actually a double surve - you had to do better on exams an undergrad to get the same grade as a grad student.

Having said that, your point about the need to be able to communicate ideas is a well reasoned expansion of this article's complaint about critical writing about architecture.
In reply to Josh

MattyBoston, MA
Don't go near Stata in the winter. You may be impaled by ice propelled from the sloping roof.
In reply to Len Charlap

Buildings are everywhere, but architecture is rare, especially public architecture. Most public buildings are garbage in a parking lot, sometimes a little better, with luck.

There are many wonderful private homes for the wealthy and writing about them is fairly common.

People, non-architects, who can write about the design of public buildings can make a large impact, particularly when projects are announced. Architects will not publicly comment upon other architects work.

I am an architect in practice for thirty years and am a strong believer that clients and the public have to be empowered by designers to discuss design and participate. Otherwise actual architecture will not appear.

Philip SedlakBamako, Mali
My experience with the architect Thom Mayne, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2005, was there was indeed a meeting of the minds and that the common language was the structuring of reality, in my case, my linguistics background, and in Thom’s case, his architectural perspective, which to me was far deeper than the in-vogue Southern California architect of the time, Frank Gehry (whom I also have a world of respect for). When Thom talked about “vocabulary” and I talked back about “syntax” and “morphology,” he was right there and I thought he was right there in his explanation of the design of the Sedlak Addition, in Venice, California, in 1980 . There was no disjunct. There was an understanding which I had had earlier in life, with a painter friend, Michael Moore, at Stanford. Structure: music, architecture, painting, literature, it’s all one.

AndrewMichlerMasonville, CO - Oakland, CA
I am one of those writers you speak of who grunt away on a daily internet branded approach to discussing buildings, in my case sustainable design. While arch speak may be an issue which obscures the reality of a built environment, I would note that a bigger issue is that 90% of what one will find online is written by someone who has never seen the building and is working with a thin amount of information, often resulting from architects holding the project details close to their chest. The internet is a powerful way to disseminate design but also a trap of constant wallpapering over the obvious facts of a building that can quickly enter the echo chamber. I once misnamed a BIG proposal and the new name was repeated on a dozen architecture websites before I spotted my mistake. The challenge for me is to think carefully about what I engage with, it is only fair to the creators- from the designer to contractor, rather that adding my own layer of opinion on top of an undigested project.

Rob CrawfordTalloires, France
This is an important issue and I am glad she lambasts the lazy, jargon-ridden prose we call academic. It has always been a mystery to me how the "professionals of knowledge" can make their own specialties both boring and incomprehensible to the lay readers they should want to attract.

Unfortunately, the truth is that writing about architecture resembles that on the economy: there are a lot of technical questions that must be addressed, and it requires significant effort to understand them. That effort will only be made by the deeply interested.

AnnSBoston MA
Ms. Arieff's comments feel dated to me. We live in a world of 'carchitecture' - not architecture; so the glory days of writing about the significance of a new building, about Architecture, capital A, are over and likely will never come back and I don't even know whether it's relevant to mourn them.

Remember most Americans most of the time see buildings as blurs in the landscape while driving into the city or down a suburban street. Remember when you design a new building the key relationship most of the time - is that of the structure to automobiles and parking lots. These almost always make for the defining first moves, determing where the building has to be on the site, how big it can be, where the front door is, and in the case of residential or office complexes with garages underground, what the building module and form must be (or cars in the parking floors below crash)

I think one of the reasons architectural criticism has gone flaccid is because buildings no longer have pride of place in our world - or our minds for that matter. They simply can't matter as much to us when the relationship of the CAR to the built-form is primary.

"Carchitecture" - criticism, however, seems ripe for the 21st century. This looks at the building within its parking lots and surrounding streets, putting it in context to the world we actually inhabit.

Critic with a T-square™Charleston
Brava! Some snippets we like: "for it is this style of writing that is rewarded within academia. Indecipherability signifies superior intelligence." Yes! We call it the 'TED lecture vision of architecture.' "The point often forgotten about criticism: it should elucidate (not obfuscate)." Yes! Related to first point. And: "the importance of [better buildings] can’t be stressed enough." Yes! They are the things which house culture!

The lack of discourse to which Ms. Arieff refers is no doubt partly responsible for the catastrophic current state of the art of architecture, which makes this topic all the more important. (Think of the number of uninhabitable buildings we are leaving successor generations, all because we view building on a short-term economic basis alone, as Ms. Arieff points out.)

We'd like to offer, too, that it might behoove architectural critics to learn how to use a T-square -- that is about design, about construction, and about the important details like window sills, door thresholds, cornices, eaves--all the eye-catching parts of a building (and the ones that contribute to a building's longevity). Knowing how a building is put together is essential for any real understanding of why it looks the way it does.

We at Critic with a T-square™ are starting a new series called, "Modern Criticism." It will celebrate contemporary criticism from critics who are writing to illuminate rather than obfuscate. We invite you to drop in:

A FatherMaryland
Writing clearly about complex ideas is a rare skill and not one that is honed in graduate school (I speak as a PhD in Architectural History from Harvard). Sadly it seems to me that jargon and buzzwords that alienate readers outside the clique are encouraged. Even more tragic to my mind is that this style of writing is promoted by people who would consider themselves progressive when in fact it is wholly elitist. As one of my less attuned professors once asked "why do we have to have a discourse? Why not a discussion?"

Paul DaigleFredericton New Brunswick, Canada
I live in a small Canadian city that suffers from the absence of experts examining and commenting on architecture.
Art and Architecture benefit from thoughtful and provocative criticism.

Concerned CitizenAnywheresville, USA
Absolutely; today architects are "artistes" -- elites with esoteric and super-refined tastes, who establish their creds by designing and praising buildings that are aggressively ugly, depressing and unliveable -- the more so, the better. Some of their work is really nothing more than a stunt carried off in a very large form -- in my hometown, we have a college building designed by the very famous Frank Gehry, and it looks like a heap of discarded aluminum air conditioning vents, dumped in a very big pile. It was "endowed" to the university, at a cost of many millions (that could have paid for the full ride scholarships of hundreds of students) by a mega-millionaire businessman, eager to demonstrate his "good taste" by hiring such a famous architect! Never mind that it is hideous....that students and faculty hate it....that it is uncomfortable to work or study in....that coming upon it (in an otherwise traditional college campus) feels like being punched in the eye by a hideous eyesore (and no doubt, that was the full intent).

I also think of the work of British architect, John Pawson -- environments so sterile they look like dystopic science fiction (no doubt, the desire and purpose!).

I once saw an "architect designed house" that had a 18" square HOLE at the foot of the stairs, which had to be avoided if you didn't want to fall in -- and the homeowner had done exactly that, until he fitted some plate glass over the hole (to the objection of the architect).

Elf, from Boston writes:
"I was green with envy that such a superior culture existed where people cared that much about architecture. "

In October in NYC, there is an event called OHNY (Open House NY) where many, many buildings and facilities are open to the public for tours and other doings. Every year it gets booked immediately due to overwhelming public interest.

Imagine that! Americans interested in their own architecture! And with many activities for families and kids!

I imagine that if you were an architectural writer, you would prefer obfuscation rather than elucidation, pretension to plain-spoken exuberance.

Your envy is yours to keep but only if you prefer to do so.

Dick MullikenJefferson, NY
Ada Louise Huxtable, where are you when we need you?


There is lots of excellent writing -- old and new -- about architecture. From William Jordy and Vincent Scully to Alice Friedman and Gwendolyn Wright, this has never been hard to find. Of course, within architecture schools there are plenty of people who are trying to sound important by mangling the English language, but this is true of business and government as well as academia. One might note that there have also been architects who wrote powerfully about their work, with Le Corbusier and Denise Scott-Brown being two of the most powerful voices of the last century in this regard.

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