Architectstasy.

Writing About Architecture: A Book Review

I sought this book out because (A) as an aspiring architecture critic I thought I should know what others are saying about it, and (B) Dr. Lange is kind of funny on Twitter.  I am enormously glad that I did.

Who should read this book: practicing architects and architectural designers; urban planners; engaged citizens.  It behooves us all to have at least a rudimentary grasp of effective criticism, the better to understand our own worlds and that of others, and to be articulate about it in common ways.

Writing About Architecture is a textbook on how to write nonacademic, mainstream architectural criticism.  For a textbook, its liveliness and accessibility are pleasant surprises; the entire text is thoughtfully structured, amusing, and instructive.
The format and content are simple and clear: 6 seminal essays from the micro (Lewis Mumford on the Lever House building) to the macro (Jane Jacobs in her seminal sweeping observations on urbanism).  I specifically found helpful Dr. Lange’s repeated returns to the common elements of each essay.  Hers is an intelligent analysis of each author’s toolkit and writing style, and how each is effective.  Dr. Lange also teaches tacitly; for example, she shows by example how to disagree with other critics vehemently without ever being unprofessional or disrespectful.  (See also: every single comment on New York Times critics other than Ada Louise Huxtable and Herbert Muschamp).

One opportunity for the book would have been to include a greater diversity of critics.  As a Southerner misplaced to the Midwest, I find it regrettable that the book is hypercentered on New York.  Five of the six authors were based in New York (even the sixth, Charles Moore, finishes out the East Coast vanguard via his extensive associations with Princeton and Yale), and four of those generalized about the world from what they understood about New York.  On the one hand, this is a bit of common sense; mainstream architectural and urban criticism have arguably happened with more frequency and fluency in New York than anywhere else.  Few architects, landscape architects, or planners today are unaffected by Mumford, Muschamp, Olmstead, and Jacobs.  On the other hand, there have been and continue to be vocal and lively criticism across the U.S., and it would have been interesting to read about a wider spatial perspective.  Also markedly missing are the voices of critics of color addressing issues of diversity from within, like June Manning Thomas.  Perhaps the most glaring omission of all is the inclusion of any fresh and recent perspectives; one is forced to wonder whether true, effective, memorable criticism is even being practiced right now, or whether the field is holding its breath, waiting for someone to have the temerity to step into Herbert or Ada Louise’s shoes.

Another opportunity, as Blair Kamin calls out in his “Architecture Criticism: Dead Or Alive?” Nieman report, is that it while the book extensively coaches to structure and content, those suggestions do not extend to medium.  Moving forward, as Kamin and countless other critics have noted, true vigorous architectural conversations aren’t going to be held only on the pages of the New York Times or foundation-sponsored books.  If it’s great, it will disseminate rhizomatically, happening all over the country and the world, at the neighborhood-city-nation-global scales, in places where people are already having conversations, and take the form of dialogue rather than edict.  Holding the book responsible for not proposing solutions to the medium problem is tantamount to holding Dr. Lange responsible for not having the answer to how media is going to evolve successfully in the 21st century: the book does not give away the secret of how community-based and –driven and –engaged architectural criticism should or could be carried out because – hey, nobody else knows, either.  In the epilogue, the author does point out many different practitioners and critics who are getting it right in different media, showing by example rather than methodical instruction different possibilities for criticism to continue to move forward.

By far, my absolute and all-time favorite part of this book: that it is a secret love letter to Ada Louise Huxtable.  Arguably the first true architecture critic – indisputably the best, and the measuring stick against which every architecture critic will be measured for generations to come – her influence and words can be felt on nearly every page.  As soon as I received my copy of Writing About Architecture in the mail I cracked it to check out the table of contents.  I was delighted to see so many powerhouse essays put together in a single place and analyzed so thoroughly and thoughtfully, but bitterly disappointed to see that not one belonged to Huxtable.  I was inclined early on to doubt the book’s authority; talking about architectural criticism without talking about Ada Louise Huxtable is like talking about search engines without talking about Google.  As it turns out, however, a sensibility to Ada Louise Huxtable permeates nearly every section of the book, and once I finished, I understood what Dr. Lange had done: rather than reducing Huxtable to being just one essay author of six, instead she elevates her to the status of universal influence, quoting her from the prologue to the epilogue and in nearly every essay in between.  The book respectfully describes how so-and-so did it, and then carefully draws the reader’s attention to Huxtable’s take on the same topic.

I encourage everyone interested in thinking critically about architecture, urbanism, placemaking, to read this book.  Its clarity and consistency yield an easily accessible common vocabulary by which we can have ever more productive conversations on how to shape our built environment – an issue that is relevant to us all.

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