In the latest issue of Metropolis magazine, eighteen design critics weigh in on the state of design criticism—it’s role in culture, how it is evolving, what it needs to continue, and why it’s important. Below, I quoted a few of my favorite responses.
Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic at the Guardian:
To reclaim its relevance, design criticism must break free from the navel-gazing circus of design weeks and biennales, salones and triennales, and focus on the real world around us. It must be proactive and provocative, not passive and responsive, seeking out stories rather than following the lead of the PR sales pitch. Design doesn’t happen in the hermetic tents of trade fairs and product launches, but in hospitals and schools, subways and sewers, places where the marketing machines won’t deign to tread. Critics must escape from the glossy silos of the arts and style sections, because design is not a lifestyle commodity—it’s the fundamental stuff of everyday life.
Alexandra Lange, opinion columnist at Dezeen:
What’s missing from the discourse? Money. We have more voices, with more distribution, writing criticism than ever before, but they are being paid less. This makes it difficult to consider the sweep of an architect’s career, to do in-depth reporting, even, increasingly, to visit projects at all. The building review is starting to disappear, replaced by a portfolio of images paid for by the architect. Critics ponder reception, reputation, rants, but not the built work that’s the foundation of practice. Critics promote better discourse but not necessarily better buildings. It’s interesting that money is at the bottom of architecture’s present-day problems too—we can’t have a more diverse profession unless architects start being compensated properly for their time, stop doing poorly paid competitions, and push back against the insane hours. Same goes for criticism: Who can afford to do it?
John King, urban design critic at the San Francisco Chronicle:
The oft-predicted demise of architectural criticism for general readers is not going to happen, because smart editors know that our subject strikes a chord. This translates to good play in print and clicks aplenty on the web—but only if critics pay attention to their surroundings, to buildings as they shape the world in which we live, rather than wallowing in architecture as a self-absorbed parlor game where insiders snark knowingly about design twists and turns. The critical thing for us to remember is this: architecture is the most important art form we have—not because of aesthetics or cultural implications, but for its impact on the here and now.
Sam Jacob, principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at the University of Chicago and Yale University, and director of Night School at the Architectural Association:
If everyone’s a critic, then what should criticism—and those fully paid-up critics who still manage to cling on—do? My hunch is that criticism (or writing about architecture and design) needs to move on from opinion and become an active rather than reactive thing—a way not only of describing the world but of making it. Criticism, in other words, that draws on its core values of independence and expertise, but projects these forward as a propositional act.
Blair Kamin, architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune:
Criticism isn’t dying; it’s changing. The big issue today is the digital age: Do we use its myriad tools to raise criticism to new levels of insight and interactivity? Or do we become tools of our tools and produce nothing but shallow tweets and click-whore noise? The New Yorker no longer has an architecture critic, but that doesn’t mean criticism doesn’t matter. It especially matters when it’s local, when it engages readers, and shows them that the contours of the built environment shape the contours of their lives.
Although many of these responses are about architecture, there are many parallels to my essay, What do we want from design criticism—where I also compared graphic design criticism to architecture criticism.