MaximusMarch 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.