Great Critics Help Us Get Inside the Eye Candy

Every so often, one of our friends will turn to us and say something like “I really don’t know anything about architecture…but I like that building.”

To which we develop critical apoplexy and argue, as we have in various forms since at age twelve discovering the ineffable thrill of good architecture on a summer trip to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp that no one should ever have to know anything about architecture in order to like — or dislike — a building. Anyone can be a critic. But what makes a good critic?

Just last week a writer friend was lamenting the replacement of the late Herbert Muschamp with Nicolai Ouroussoff. Muschamp, the friend had said, was bold with his ideas, unafraid to address the personal behind the physical, fearless in the self-revelations that made his criticism — while it often seemed to come from a bit out there in left field — always fun to read. As his obituary in the New York Times reminds us, Muschamp was the kind of critic who would talk about Marilyn Monroe when he was writing about Frank Gehry’s Bilbao.

The paper’s current critic Ouroussoff, unlike Muschamp, doesn’t talk about the stewardesses’ short skirts or the number of books he has, or use the phrase “bling-bling” in a review of a library — all ways of getting into how architecture makes you feel, the memories it evokes, when you see or go into a building. Ouroussoff talks about the history of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, describing how Gwathmey Siegel’s addition only improves on Paul Rudolph’s beloved brutalist monolith, or argues that the steel frame that anchors Renzo Piano’s transcendent California Academy of Arts and Sciences is the embodiment of “the academy’s philosophy.”

Where Muschamp talked about how architecture feels, most of what Ourossoff argues is rooted in how it looks. And right there, we’ve got the center of the criticism-as-eye-candy storm.

Don’t get us wrong — visual appeal matters, and a lot. But there’s a divide between buildings that look really cool but don’t actually contribute all that much architecturally (which we would argue is about the providing of shelter, the integration — or purposeful removal — of a structure into its surrounding site, and, most crucially, the exploration of some sort of inherent meaning or idea) and those that look totally sweetly rad but are missing a couple of upstairs light bulbs.

Criticizing a building doesn’t mean that it’s being treated like eye candy, but refusing to acknowledge the essential humanity of architecture does. We think of an artist like Seattle-based Roy McMakin, whose art encompasses houses and furniture, and whose affection-filled work like drawer-missing dressers or slipped-together tables makes us remember every minimal-to-maximal heartbreak we’ve ever had, while somehow tenderly soothing us that it’s going to be all right. Or the Portland-based architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, whose Museum of Arts and Design was excoriated by Ouroussoff for a perceived lack of bravery but whose open discussion of ideas like beauty and transcendence cuts a swath of real (and dare we say brave) meaning through often endless tracts of looky-loo criticism.

Criticism that elevates itself above the realities of humanity and life does reduce architecture to eye candy — and selective eye candy at that. But criticism that engages with the building, that acknowledges that architecture is the fabric of not only our cities but our lives — (think about it: we’re constantly putting our minds and bodies into buildings) — and that addresses the emotional and personal and historical and remembered and imagined and idealized and real connections that we have with structures made of cement and concrete and glass and steel, doesn’t. And that’s the kind of criticism we need more of.