The Eye of the Fish

Maximus
March 4, 2008

The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism

It’s a lonely life being an architectural critic in New Zealand. An art form that’s not so much dying as nearly not born at all, there are precious few who will stick their head above the parapet to comment on the equally few works of architecture we have that appear in the pages of the press. And it is a situation that is going to get worse. Newspaper rolls are falling quite rapidly, with Wellington once having had two newspapers; well respected voices that have since combined into one, although the end result is worse than either was previously, now seemingly more interested in running double page ads for the Warehouse, or sensationalizing trivia than for any intelligent commentary. The New Zealand Herald – Auckland’s rag – is no better, and arguably a whole lot worse. Intelligent, well-reasoned commentary is not so much marginalised as confined to a ghetto.

The ghetto in question is of course a magazine, that blossoming, burgeoning art form of high gloss paper and full colour, double spread pictures that captures a fragment of this country’s architectural output. A few years ago it was picked that magazines would die out, costs were high and their specialist markets too narrow. Instead, paradoxically, magazines are booming, with more and more every day focusing on increasingly smaller segments of the market. A general magazine such as Farmers Weekly does no good now, as instead there are specialist glossies on Sheep Breeders Monthly, Pig Fanciers Weekly, and probably the inter-uterine life of Dairy Cows Daily. I don’t know: I shudder to think.

Woman’s Weekly, once the stalwart of every dentists waiting room, has given way to Woman’s Day, New Idea, OK, Hello, Celebrity Retards, and other such Hilton-worshipping vacuous dross. Playboy has vacated the top shelf to a plethora of pumped pneumatic titles such as Big Ones, Old Ones, Brown Ones, and Shaven under-age ones. I don’t know: I shudder to look.

Back in the architectural corner, where once there was only one (Design Review, the magazine of the Architectural Centre), there are now many: too many? There’s Houses, and Homes, and Urbis (although that is joining the throngs of Vacuous Monthly), and Trends (of which the less said the better), and of course Architecture New Zealand. Arch NZ has some superb coverage, and commentary, although from a disturbingly small collective of voices: if you’re in Auckland then it will be John Walsh or Bill McKay, and if you’re in Wellington it will be John Walsh or Tommy Honey. If you’re in the South Island you don’t matter and you don’t get featured. I jest, of course: the coverage of New Zealand is fairly consistent, and consistently fair.

But there is little in the way of architectural commentary in New Zealand in the ‘mainstream’ press such as the Dom Post, the Herald, the Press, the ODT and none at all in the smaller provincial rags. Perhaps that’s fair enough in the provinces – there’s little enough architecture getting built there either. But there should be a regular newspaper commentator somewhere in New Zealand, an educated voice, a knowledgeable mouthpiece instead of just generally asking for vox-pop from the woefully uneducated masses of Manners Mall. But there isn’t. And so, in Blog we trust.

In other countries, bigger and more populous than ours, the role of an architectural critic is a well-respected one, with the Sydney Morning Herald having Elizabeth Farrelly, the New York Times having Nicolai Ourousoff (replacing the much respected Herbert Muschamp), the Times (in London) having Hugh Pearman, and the Guardian having Jonathan Glancey. In New Zealand, we have, umm, none. No-one. Nada. Zip. And to me, that’s a sad thing. Architecture is hugely important, too important to ignore. As Glancey says: “Architecture is not the new rock’n’roll, unless you believe a great building should hold your attention for two minutes 30 seconds; what it does do is to frame most of our lives pretty much everyday – we need to design it and debate it at every possible chance.”

But while we’re bereft of intelligent commentary down under (not counting the wonderful word-smithing of Elizabeth Farrelly, who unfortunately never makes it across the ditch), you can always catch up with a good book. Indeed, the title of this blog post is taken from a book just out, by esteemed and long time architectural critic Martin Pawley. A collection of just some of his writings over the years, the 100 short articles are published by Black Dog in “the Strange Death of Architectural Criticism.” Mr Pawley, writing for over 40 years in the pages of the Guardian, Observer, RIBA Journal, AJ, BD, and Blueprint, among others, with a caustic wit and a well read back history, can keep you informed on architecture and design matters as varied and as mad as Ludwig’s castle , or Branson Coates’ waistcoat. Actually, those are bad examples – they’re not that much different.

But Pawley is an architectural critic whose work spans the years – he was present at the AA when Archigram unveiled their schemes, still present at the scene when Zaha unveiled her Fire Station, and was still handy on the pen until a couple of years ago. Retired now, and living in Devon, the Pawleys of the world are in short supply. In the mean time, we’ll do the best we can with the blog. Hope you’re enjoying it.

artandmylife
4 - 03 - 08

I’d love to see more good writing (keep it up BTW) on the subject. I fear if there is not crazy things will proceed unnoticed and/or not debated

M-D
4 - 03 - 08

Is it just that the so-called ‘mainstream’ audience just isn’t interested in such specialist discussion – making the blog the obvious forum for those who really are interested??

Certainly, the Arch Centre’s Best and Worst lists published in the DomPost last year caused barely a ripple among the general readership of that particular organ, and when you have to reduce criticism to the level of top/worst 10 lists, is it really worth the effort anyway?

It should be noted that significant public buildings do generate some interest (even if it is only cost related) – and the newspapers do cover these (to a fairly superficial degree I’ll admit).

I hate to play the devil’s advocate here, but there is a danger in the assumption that a wider publishing of these matters will intrigue an audience beyond the echo chamber that is served by existing architectural media. It’s an idealist position that fails to recognise reality and the existing values of others.

There is a case to be made for a more sophistcated and robust architectural criticism in existing architectural media, but the tiny architectural profession that exists in NZ can hardly support this – some commentators have been bitten in the past, and are now ‘twice shy’.

Which is where independent blogs, such as this one, have an extremely important role to play…

Maximus
4 - 03 - 08

MD – you’re absolutely right, of course. BLDGBLOG, always a good read, wrote on this last year with pertinent commentary in the following: http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2006/05/architectural-criticism.html

The Arch Centre list last year may not have caused that many letters to the paper, but then its generally the wild-eyed balding ranters such as H Westfold and Bob Kay that really feel the need to publicise their views. The good thing was seeing people in cafes, offices, etc reading the list and saying that the list was right, or wrong. Let’s hope the Arch Centre can follow it up with another good idea this year perhaps…

Once bitten, twice shy ? We promise not to bite you anywhere too sensitive. But i’m not sure that the mainstream exists any more, if indeed it once did.

lgm
4 - 03 - 08

M-D – I think you’re right that people who have stuck their necks out have suffered in the past, and the question is one of is NZ/Wgtn too small? or are architects too precious? But of course given the recent splash of “informed” criticism by the media re: the airport (I think Tommy Honey’s comment re: the media’s relishing of the public “expertise” is astute) the role of what gets into the public eye and who controls what the public get to think about as architecture is also important. I remember there used to be a column (years ago in the Dominion I think – or was it the Evening Post?) where architects discussed their favourite buildings – a good chance for the public to acts of (mostly) informed architectural discussion…

Maximus
11 - 03 - 08

Sadly, i have just heard that Martin Pawley has passed away in the weekend. Publishing the book was a highlight for him in recent weeks.

M-D
12 - 03 - 08

I guess we have to be careful in our pontificating that we don’t commit the same crimes that we are accusing the public of – that of becoming an expert in a field that isn’t our own. Do we really know better than the editor of a large daily newspaper what their readers are interested in? – and if we do, perhaps we are in the wrong job…

M-D
12 - 03 - 08

Oh – and Maximus – I have not been bitten – the reference, happily, wasn’t to me…

Bill McKay
14 - 08 - 09

why don’t you come out from behind the pen names and email me about your problems with my writing?

Maximus
15 - 08 - 09

Bill! Nice of you to stop in and drop us a note. A wee bit too sensitive perhaps – we’re not making the slightest criticism of your writing – in fact we enjoy it quite a lot. I believe we said “Arch NZ has some superb coverage, and commentary,” which of course includes you.

I think we were more making the lament that NZ has so few dedicated writers – we have architects who care only about their CPD points, and are too scared to ever criticise another’s work (which is why we may prefer to write under a pen name), and we have academics who are too concerned to meet with the profession half way and start a dialogue, being too concerned instead with their PBRF points.

The newspapers, on the other hand, are absolutely pathetic in this country, with no writers of knowledge capable of putting together an erudite article on a subject like Architecture. The point was, I believe, that in other countries they have an independent architectural press, who publish in the papers as well, where the masses can read them. No member of the public in Britain reads the RIBA Journal, nor does the average Joe Schmoe in Baltimore read the AIA monthly. But the same writers there that publish in those magazines of cerebral architectural analysis, also publish a weekly column in the local papers – ie the Telegraph, the Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Boston Globe etc. They’re not aligned with any particular practice, or university, and therefore their voices aren’t hamstrung as they may be here. So they publish with equanimity.

Getting the message to the masses is what counts, not just preaching to the converted, as we’re forced to do in our limited choice of textual vehicles. We need a weekly architecture column in the Herald or the Dom or the Press, or the Listener. If you could pull that coup off here, I’d worship daily at your feet (not to say that I don’t already).

Bill McKay
19 - 10 - 09

I’m sorry I took it the wrong way, I guess I was just trying to say It’s a lonely life being an architectural critic in New Zealand. An art form that’s not so much dying as nearly not born at all, there are precious few who will stick their head above the parapet to …

Maximus
19 - 10 - 09

Bill – a lonely life indeed. So don’t give up. Your country needs you! ( to stick your head above said parapet, and suffer the risk of getting it shot off, so as to satisfy the apathy and anonymity of the rest of us ).