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Sam Hall Kaplan

Critics and Rush to Judgment

September 15, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN

There is a lot more than meets the eye at the architectural exhibit entitled "The Critical Edge" closing next week at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Because of the rush to judgment that plagues critics, I did not read a book based on the exhibit until after I had written my review that appeared a few months ago. Actually, to avoid being prejudiced, I tend not to read books, catalogues and reviews of exhibits (as well as projects) before recording my own observations.

For those who have not yet seen the exhibit, and whom I urge to do so before it ends on Sept. 25, it displays models and drawings of 12 controversial projects constructed in the last 15 years. They were selected, not by a poll of critics, academics or professionals, but by the amount of printed commentary they inspired.

Beyond prompting viewers to draw their own critical conclusions concerning the merits and demerits of the projects, the exhibit and the book, entitled "The Critical Edge" (edited by Tod A. Marder and published by the MIT Press of Cambridge, Mass.), raises the issue of the role of the professional and popular press as arbiters of taste.

Particularly provocative is an essay by Martin Filler, an editor of House and Garden magazine and a respected architectural writer and critic. He decries "the lack of informed public discourse on the direction of architecture in our country today" and blames both the popular and professional press for that situation.

Among the many pertinent points Filler makes is the tendency that for the press to rush into print when a building is completed, prompting hasty evaluations.

"What ought to be a central component of the critical analysis of a building--how well it does its job and how it enhances the lives of the people who use it--is thereby either ignored or left to the twilight zone of innuendo and hearsay." Filler adds that the practice "rather neatly exempts publications from having to delve into potentially uncomfortable areas of investigation, thereby perpetuating the celebratory tone in what generally passes for architectural 'criticism.' "

It is an excellent point, and makes me consider undertaking some post-occupancy reviews. But I should add that the problem is prompted in part by architects and developers anxious for publicity and playing favorites ("I'll let y ou see it first") in hopes of a favorable review that will lead to other favorable reviews.

Filler also discloses how architects, when dealing with trade publications, attempt to control which photographs are used, veto writers of whom they don't approve and review manuscripts by dangling the promise of an exclusive showing, sweetened by providing their own costly photographs. (I became aware of this nefarious practice as a contributing editor to Architectural Forum and Architecture Plus in the early 1970s, and have resented it ever since.)

And then other architects wonder how a select few peers always seem to get good plays replete with cover photographs in certain publications. Meanwhile, those so blessed take their clippings and proclaim their international fame in hopes of attracting clients, while trying to intimidate local critics to promote their projects, however mundane and inane.

These are what I call the hype architects, as in hype artists, who seem more concerned with marketing themselves than any particular design skill, or serving their clients. And if a critic displays any resistance to being used as a public relations tool, to rush out and praise the project and interview the architect, then he or she is condemned as a Philistine. I found that these architects do not want their projects critiqued. They just want to be quoted.

Contrary to rumor, the real pressure on critics does not come from publishers, but rather from peers and social contacts. As indicated by the inclusion in the book of excerpts from various reviews, frantic free lancers parading as critics and attempting to be trendy, tend to dig deep into obtuse psychological theories to justify their fawning and perhaps win favors from select architects and obtain more assignments from sycophantic publications.

Filler calls for tougher critical criteria, such as applied by art publications, with the hope that there be more controversy concerning architecture, not less. "We need analysis, judgment, and above all, moral teaching in its least restrictive and most liberating sense," he concludes. Powerful stuff that many in the coddled architectural community may not like.

A problem that Filler does not go into is how the prejudices of the editors of the East Coast-based professional publications looking for "something different" from Southern California, prompts architects here to do "something different" to gain attention.

The process tends to be a vicious circle that has produced some particularly bad architecture, such as punk designs that, at a high cost, pervert low-tech materials in the name of art. But it also has produced some weighty publicity for the architects involved yearning to be superstars.

It is a process that I don't want to be party to, preferring instead to explore how design affects people; will it improve or harm their quality of life, and quite secondarily, does it advance or set back, any new theory, style or technology, not personality?

If anything, too much is said about architectural superstars, which I admit the press has had a role in creating. Perhaps it would be better if the architects remain anonymous, and their designs speak for themselves, with the reward for having done them well being the pleasure of the users, and not getting photographed in front of one of the projects or having it included in an exhibit such as "The Critical Edge."

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