New modes of criticism

The editor's letter from the July 2011 issue of Architecture Australia.

At a certain point in the production of each issue of the magazine, there’s a flurry of activity on Twitter signalling the arrival of the previous issue on desks near and far. You tell us what you like. You tell us what you don’t like. You tell us what could make the magazine better / smarter / funnier / more correct / more interesting / more rigorous.

The feedback is so quick, so honest – there is a sense of authenticity in its immediacy and in its unmediated, un-spell-checked rawness. It’s not always complimentary, but we love it all the same. When readers feel compelled to comment – whether praising or criticizing – it enlivens the idea of “readership” from a banal statistic to a very real community of individual voices who are all reading about, thinking about and speaking about architecture.

Though it’s not necessarily a new idea, this chorus of voices is the essential character of online publishing – it pivots traditional media models away from singular authoritative sources to a wild cacophony of opinion, comment, critique, debate and analysis. And this ready access to an engaged audience enables – forces, even – a new democracy in publishing.

A case in point is the recent national conference Natural Artifice. Twitter was alive with conversation during the three days of the conference – and not just discrete comments but fascinating dialogue, as delegates dissected the ideas, themes and possibilities presented. Whether you were in attendance or not, the critique was enthralling. In this spirit, we were keen to capture a range of voices in our coverage of the conference: alongside our longer reviews, we’ve published a (very small) handful of tweets. These voices are distinctive, sincere, thoughtful and provocative.

As our conference reviewers note, the very notion of criticism appeared in numerous different ways during the conference sessions, whether it was attendees critiquing the sessions they attended, or presenters critiquing the quality of questions delivered by the audience. In the case of the Young Architects Forum, it was the appropriateness of criticism that was called into question in an uncertain format.

Saying that, all this conversation about new modes of criticism – whether of architecture or culture more generally – offered by the web infers that the old modes are ready for retirement. This is too simplistic a conclusion. Architecture critic and historian Ada Louise Huxtable gave a very lucid précis of the role of the architectural critic in an essay for the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society: “The critic of architecture must … be a decoder, demystifier and debunker; a guide to values and meanings as well as to technology and aesthetics, a link between past and present” (“Architecture Criticism,” vol 134 no 4, 1990).

This multifaceted role is the one Andrew Metcalf tackles in his position as critic in residence at BVN Architecture. Simon Sellars’s exploration of this pioneering model [Critic in Residence] suggests that the old models of criticism, rather than being laid to rest, might be reborn as something new.

It’s an interesting program with a twofold objective – first, to build studio culture, and second, to keep the team thinking about architecture while they’re busy making it. Intrinsic to this program is an appreciation of the value of criticism and its ability to challenge and inspire, to push an idea beyond its initial boundaries.

The program is still in its infancy. We watch with interest to see how it evolves. 

Peter Davies, Managing Editor


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