The Architecture Critic in Twitter Times

With an increasingly fluid media landscape and the ability for everyone to have an online voice, Gonzalo José López investigates the role of the architecture critic, and how criticism needs to evolve.

March 4, 2014

The way in which we consume information and generate opinion has changed with the appearance of virtual networks. In addition to the internet itself, the rise of social networks has provided a way of communicating and sharing much faster than the traditional media.

How should the architecture critic evolve in such an environment? Published material is no longer necessarily going through a professional filter as it did in traditional publications, and often lacks a position or an argument.

The new generation of architects have tended to embrace these smaller-scale bottom-up approaches, while bigger firms are continuing to undertake an outdated macro approach to urbanism”

People without specific architectural knowledge now have the ability to disseminate opinion to a wider audience via the internet. How can the role of the professional critic and public opinion coexist in this digital era?

Last year, ArchDaily published The Architect Critic is Dead (just not for the reason you think)1 by Vanessa Quirk, after Paul Goldberger2 , architecture critic, and 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, announced his departure from the New Yorker to join Vanity Fair. In her analysis, Quirk reflects on the current state of the field of architecture criticism:

“The architecture critic is dead! But you know what? Good riddance. Because criticism hasn’t died the way you think. It’s just been changed beyond recognition. And frankly, for the better; the ‘critic‘ may be dead, but the conversation is only just beginning.””

Last November, Mark Wigley of Columbia University delivered a lecture for the course History of Architectural Theory, about architecture critic Reyner Banham. In his book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), Banham argued that there was a first machine age, when modern architecture was born, and a second machine age, his own time: the age of electronics, shaping what he called “The domestic revolution in form of small machines”.

His discussion of the first machine age and modern architecture was deliberately retrospective, in order to establish new grounds for speculating what architecture should be in this second machine age, positing that “we lack theory in the second machine age”. With this manoeuvre he was able to make his work contemporary, and over the course of his life, became one of the most influential and prolific writers on architecture, design and popular culture.

Banham’s reflection on the Modern era was expressed in an aphoristic manner; which was very much of its time, pointing out the importance of the image in Modern architecture. He demonstrates the critic’s capacity to reposition critical discourse and inform new directions in architecture by embracing the popular media of the time, and adopting an accessible tone.

At one point of the lecture, Wigley asked a question of the audience: “Have you ever thought about what a guy like Banham would do with a Twitter account?”  The Twitter network quite accurately represents a transformation in the way we communicate: an immediate way to exchange information in a condensed format (140 characters), facilitating connections that were almost impossible to imagine before the appearance of this technology. However, in order to discuss the implications of these technologies for the field of criticism, we should first analyse architecture and urbanism and their relationship with current technologies.

Published material is no longer necessarily going through a professional filter as it did in traditional publications, and often lacks a position or an argument.” 

In May 2012, I started a blog called Open Source Urbanism4. In the months since its launch, my aim has been to talk about, from an analytical point of view, the current user-driven approaches towards architecture and urbanism, which reflect the profession’s continuing struggle to maintain relevance and adapt to current circumstances. Such approaches include movements that are based on the collective; directly engaging end-users in the design process; and open-ended attitudes to urban planning projects to facilitate change and adaptation as the users see fit – providing room for trial and error.

Thanks to the rise of digital platforms, the user is becoming more and more aware of what architecture and urbanism can do to change their cities, especially their immediate built environment, and how they can be actively involved in the process.

Many initiatives such as Tactical Urbanism5, Thinkcommons6, Crowdfunding7 and The Spontaneous City8 aim to use the potential of this new virtual environment and apply it to real world projects, proposing a structure where professionals work together with the community, exploiting these networks as a tool for communication:

1— TACTICAL URBANISM: The term refers to a series of small-scale urban actions aiming for a long-term impact, such as Guerrilla Urbanism, Pop-Up Urbanism,  and DIY Urbanism; and materialised in different tactics: “Open Streets”, “Build a Better Block”, “Park(ing) Day”… These actions are often cheap and quick to generate and to reproduce, and despite varying degrees of success and impact, they share a common concern for the future of the city: to make citizens aware of their environment and act on the opportunities these environments present.

2— THINKCOMMONS: A project by Domenico di Siena9, PhD in urbanism from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Thinkcommons is a completely virtual network to share ideas and opinions about collective creation, free culture, open data and open government in architecture. It is based on online sessions using tools such as Skype or Google Hangout, and aims to shape an Ambient Intelligence Network.

3— CROWDFUNDING: A term applied to a collective cooperation through a network of people to obtain funding or other resources, often using the Internet as the  means to achieve it. It has been applied to different cases: new artists starting their careers; product design; private projects; and increasingly, pitches for urban planning/design projects like the +Pool10  using the virtual platform ‘Kickstarter’, or the Luchtsingel Bridge11 in Rotterdam using iMakeRotterdam. These initiatives are based on the direct participation of the people.

4—  THE SPONTANEOUS CITY: A concept developed by Gert Urhahn12, former Senior Urban Designer for the Municipality of Amsterdam and director or Urhahn Urban Design Group. He proposes a change in traditional urban planning, seeing the city as a ’marketplace’ in which supply and demands from users sculpts the urban form, and positions the user as the developer of the city.

The new generation of architects have tended to embrace these smaller-scale bottom-up approaches, while bigger firms are continuing to undertake an outdated macro approach to urbanism: cities created from scratch by offices like OMA in Dubai13, Foster and Partners in Abu Dhabi14  or KPF in China15  are perpetuating an urban model based on enormous masterplans that are largely designed without consideration of the people who will inhabit them, and their social, cultural and climatic specificities.

With this in mind, what then is the role of the critic?  Wigley defines a critic as: “an extension of our body…As we would never have the time to experience everything by ourselves, we get an impression through the critics, an impression that allows us to form an opinion.”

The new generation of architects have tended to embrace these smaller-scale bottom-up approaches, while bigger firms are continuing to undertake an outdated macro approach to urbanism”

That statement is less true nowadays, with the immediacy and widespread accessibility of information, the increasing prevalence of visual language over written language, and the combination of mobility and connectivity in the form of devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones – we no longer need to visit a museum, a cinema, a building or a city to experience it. If TV was for Banham the symbolic machine of the second machine age, the internet is the symbol of this third machine age: the digital era, facilitating connections and exchange, rather than transmitting a one-way message.

What are the opportunities in this new age, then? The traditional role of the critic – according to Wigley’s definition – has remained the same but it is the modes and venues for communication that have undergone significant transformation. Digital newspapers now host blogs on their websites, facilitating links to a wider diffusion of related articles.

Individuals have followed the same path, creating thousands of internet platforms for personal commentary. In the middle of those two worlds, there are a huge number of architecture websites that publish new projects every day. Archdaily, Plataforma Arquitectura, and Archinect are among the most popular and most visited, but often they publish articles without a critical component – the speed of the network has left critical thought behind.

The critic now has to move forward and embrace these platforms to provide readers with the necessary analysis to form an opinion. The ability to rapidly grow networks, the speed with which information can be shared, and the volume of people that can be reached all have the potential to transform the field of criticism.

These new technologies are most useful as a network of resources, since each application has its own purpose and limitations. Twitter, for example, allows you to share a small amount of information: just enough to capture the attention of potential readers and draw them to another platform where the writer hosts his extended work.

The academic world should maximize the potential of these networks in disseminating critical ideas. Academic entities could use the same tools as individuals; this is the case of the Associazione Italiana di Architettura e Critica19 (the Italian Architecture and Critic Association), which is launching a digital platform, PressT Letter20 , forming a network of applications including a website, a blog, a Facebook page, and Twitter and YouTube accounts. They publish official news and documents on their website,  informal opinion on their blog, create and advertise events on Facebook, post videos on YouTube, and everything is interconnected through Twitter, where grab-lines and links to the other sites are posted.

The potential for architecture critics to make an impact through virtual networks lies in these sorts of initiatives. The tools already exist and are part of our everyday life – we are presented with an opportunity to challenge the traditional venues for architecture criticism and transform the way we engage with our built environment. Through this transformation – as a consequence of our hyper-connected era – we can facilitate better communication between critic, designer and user.

References:

  1.  http://www.archdaily.com/223714/the-architect-critic-is-dead-just-not-for-the-reason-you-think/h
  2. ttp://www.paulgoldberger.com/
  3. Theory and Design in the First MachineAge. Architectural Press. London. 1960.
  4. http://opensourceurbanism.wordpress.com/
  5. http://opensourceurbanism.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/what-is-tactical-urbanism-bringing-to-the-table/
  6. http://thinkcommons.org/
  7. http://www.kickstarter.com/
  8. The Spontaneous City. Urhahn Urban Design, BIS Publishers. Amsterdam. 2011
  9. http://urbanohumano.org/
  10. http://www.pluspool.org/
  11. http://www.imakerotterdam.nl/
  12. www.urhahn.nl
  13. Waterfront City, Dubai, 2008
  14. Masdar City Development, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2007
  15. Meixi Lake in Changsha, China, 2012
  16. Waterfront City, Dubai, 2008
  17. Masdar City Development, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2007
  18. Meixi Lake in Changsha, China, 2012
  19. http://www.architetturaecritica.it/
  20. http://presstletter.com/

 

Gonzalo José López is a Spanish Architect, with a Masters in Architecture from the Architecture School of Barcelona (ETSAB). His professional life has been shaped throughout Spain, The Netherlands and The U.S, working for different scaled practices. Since 2012 he has worked as editor and writer for the blog, OpenSourceUrbanism, a container for ideas about architecture and Urbanism, about the future of the city and the role of its inhabitants. Through topics such as mobility, the use of public space, architectural typologies, or citizen intervention in different urban spaces, it documents the different processes that will define the future of the urban environment. Lopez is co-founder of KnitKnot Architecture, a collective structure of architects, urban designers, artists and thinkers that have created an international framework for experimenting with new ways of addressing professional practice.

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