Interdisciplinarity and Architectural Criticism

4248658515_baa292cf79_o Geoff Manaugh, the author of the very important architecture blog BLDGBLOG, takes umbrage at Peter Kelly’s complaint, published in Blueprint, that bloggers don’t do more “rigorous criticism of significant new buildings.” Kelly goes on to specify some blogs that should do more architectural criticism, but don’t, and one of the blogs he mentions is Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG.

Manaugh doesn’t take issue with Kelly’s call for more critical reviews of completed buildings. Rather, Manaugh says that his blog “has been very consciously about architecture and landscape in a representationally broad sense,” by which he means the ways architectural principles inform other cultural practices such as cinema and video games. He intentionally avoids writing architectural criticism of the sort Kelly is interested in reading.

After correcting Kelly on the purpose of BLDGBLOG, Manaugh gets a little worked up. The problem with learned architectural criticism is that no one reads it outside a narrow coterie of practitioners. Manaugh challenges Kelly,

if you want to see a more vigorous critique of real buildings, then, by all means, go ahead and show us how it’s done. Make it popular again. Find an audience for that type of writing and cultivate it. Convincingly demonstrate the power of the genre you so openly wish to celebrate.

Bloggers have to build an audience in a fiercely competitive marketplace for Internet traffic, and they have to do it without the financial, editorial, and marketing support of a journal or publishing house. Bloggers are claiming a larger share of the the online marketplace of ideas by doing more with less, yet they’re criticized for lacking resources such as easy access to primary texts.

As for the conflict between criticism written for trained professionals and reviews aimed at a popular audience, there was probably never a time when critics of any kind balanced the two perfectly. There’s a role for both, of course. Architectural practice can’t advance without debate between insiders using specialized discourses. Difficult language isn’t meant to obfuscate; it’s a way of breaking through habituated ways of looking at things. At the same time, the public needs to participate in the debate about what constitutes good architecture, about the ways buildings communicate to us and express our shared values. There’s so much ugliness in our built environment, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

In my experience as a blogger and former university professor, the most misunderstood criticism is interdisciplinary, like the kind Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG and the kind I’ve written my entire professional career, including and especially in One-Way Street. Interdisciplinary criticism is supposed to be both, but specialists regard it as neither. This is the case even in universities, where interdisciplinary work is supposed to be officially accepted. When I taught film and literature, the lit people always regarded me as a film guy, while the film people saw me as a lit person. I was never fully trusted by either camp. Recently, a blogger on a literary site described One-Way Street as a “mostly architecture blog.” Maybe it reads like one, but I don’t think of it that way.

All I can say to Geoff Manaugh is that if you write about video games, the architecture people are going to say, those aren’t buildings, video games aren’t architecture. Rigorous criticism focuses on buildings themselves. Those objections come with the territory. But an architect doesn’t design a building as if it were a geometrical object in empty space. Physical, cultural, and historical contexts matter as well. Why should writing about architecture be limited to an isolated geometrical object?

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