Is architectural criticism critical?

Reviews can sometimes be very scathing. Consider this reviewer’s reaction to a recently released philosophy book:

“Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy”

Cutting! Architectural criticism however is customarily astonishingly polite. This review by Sarah Williams Goldhagen therefore caught my eye because it said something unusual in an architectural critique:

“This is a modest building, however, and it is not perfect. At 30,000 square feet, it cost $11.5 million, more than it should have to build. Owing to bad value-engineering rather than the architects’ miscalculations, some of the attempts at sustainability failed, including a green roof that was never installed (CRI is still raising the money), and a geothermal heating system that was cost-cut into irrelevance (only one well was dug, not enough to heat the building, so they use gas)”

This is only a minor part of her review – most of it is on the safe ground of aesthetic metaphor. But what’s striking is that Goldhagen is actually prepared to comment, in however limited a way, on topics that actually go directly to the interests of the owner and users of a building.

Think about any major new building. Right at the top of the client’s priorities is: does it meet its intended purpose? Has it delivered value for money? What is it completed on time? Did it come in on budget? Right at the top of the user’s priorities is: does it do what I expect it to?

These sorts of issues usually aren’t addressed in architectural criticism or awards. Reviews and citations are almost invariably puff pieces, many of which are, in effect, advertorials. There’s usually lots of aesthetic description and a summary from the architect’s mouth of how the design evolved in response to the problem presented by the brief, the site and broader parameters like sustainability. But we’re always left in the dark about whether or not the response actually worked or, more importantly, whether it was the appropriate one out of the range of possible solutions.

I would love to see architectural reviews where objective information on matters such as capital and operating costs, environmental footprint and user satisfaction was used as the basis of the evaluation.  I’d like some comparison against alternative approaches and I’d very much like to see to what extent the architectural outcome was retarded or advanced by the actions of other parties such as the owner and the builder.

This is probably wishful thinking. The law has long made it hard to review buildings critically. In 1979, architect John Andrews won a defamation action against Fairfax for claims in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Belconnen office complex he designed “leaked like a sieve, was an administrative nightmare, a property manager’s nightmare and, in effect, a security risk”. The leaking issue is something that presumably could be established factually but the other points are much harder to pin down.

It is also expensive to survey users. And developers are often reluctant to disclose confidential information on capital and operating costs – after all these are commercial matters. The architect has little incentive to admit to any errors or concede alternative solutions that might have given a better outcome. It’s also not in the architect’s interest to portray the client in a bad light.

Architectural criticism, quite simply, is not critical. While authors’ depend on reviews for sales and some architects perhaps benefit from them, developers and owners generally do not. They might even be damaged by a negative appraisal. So any critique of private developments that is truly critical would have to step carefully around commercially sensitive issues.

But that shouldn’t hold for public buildings. As taxpayers, we would benefit from closer scrutiny of the performance of  government funded buildings. The public sector constitutes a significant proportion of the largest commissions, so real architectural criticism should start there. The universities could step up to the mark and take a lead role.

2 Comments on “Is architectural criticism critical?”

  1. TomD says:

    Spot on Alan.

  2. […] and the community’s – is something I’m interested in and have written about before e.g. Is architectural criticism critical? Our main topic of discussion was the Myer Bourke St redevelopment, but this is not a review ( […]

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