The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Sunday, June 19, 2005

When architects critique architects.

This started as a comment over at City Comforts. Below is the director's cut, where it gets a bit off David's topic.

Thinking about the relationship between the last post and this one. It seems to me that architects, potentially, are the ones best placed to critique "genius." For a layman to critique a widely-touted "genius" smacks of, "I don't know much about architecture, but I know what I like" - it's as if bowing down to genius is the price of admission.

But for actual architects, we've paid the price of admission - we know whereof we speak. So when I critique (to say the least) Corb or Mies or Johnson, I'm doing it as someone who a. has greater-than-average familiarity with their works; and b. has done, in some sense, similar things. I may not have Corb's sense of proportion, but I've designed a church, and I made sure none of the facades looked like the service entrance. Etc.

The problem, of course, David has identified: most architects lack the distance to actually employ their critical faculties. They might snipe about the competitor across town (it can be a small, petty clique of a profession), but heaven forbid they question St. Frank II.

A lot of this goes back to archischool. My program was a fairly pragmatic, construction-oriented one, quite unlike the hothouse Design environment of, say, Columbia. And by the time I was in school, High Modern was a purely historical phenomenon. But the names of Corb & Mies (and, to a much lesser extent, Wright) were still whispered: "Why don't you take a look at what Corb did at...." Of course, these people did some good things, and if we don't learn from history, etc. But as someone who was raised with a contempt for Modernism, it was a bizarre experience. But 3 of my classmates came back from France with a picture of themselves bowed down before Ronchamps - no irony in sight.

My point being (and there is a point), despite this residue of hero-worship, I am in a profession where the dominant ethos of almost the entire 20th century has been debunked. While the White Gods may still be worshipped, their progeny are forgotten or held up for derision. This has had a profound effect on my other views, in that I have little patience or respect for dominant paradigms. This has caused some friction with, say, economists, 90% of whom would never question certain orthodoxies, even though there are significant alternative views. It's not that I'm some great iconoclast, but I can't fathom failing to question authority.

All of which could or should put me in position to be an effective critic of architecture and the built landscape. But I can't claim that I spend a lot of effort on it, nor do I think there's a legion of similarly-minded architects out there. For all the blow-harding of starchitects, I'm not sure most architects care much about ideas and theories.

A good building doesn't leak.
A great building leaks, but nobody cares.



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