“Writing Architecture”: A Panel on Architectural Criticism

Our clients and education deserve the very best work that we are capable of producing, and this means doing some intellectual and philosophical heavy lifting about our projects and practices. This means understanding the formal and historical contexts in which our work finds itself and interpreting the design briefs and problems we’re given within the larger body of work in which it naturally exists.

But really…who has time for all that?

Enter architectural criticism.

Critics – journalists and bloggers and academics and authors – take the time to understand the formal and historical context in which design and building is taking place. They understand and speak about the systems in which Architecture is being produced. They tell stories of who is getting it right and who is getting it tragically wrong. They bear witness in their own communities, the good the bad and (all too often) the ugly, and they do so in ways that the whole world can hear them.

In early 2015, Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Michael Hays moderated a panel called “Writing Architecture”, on the practice and state of architectural criticism. Invited to speak were three active critics and a Harvard Fellow: Michael Sorkin, best known for his time at the Village Voice; Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic for the U.K.’s Guardian; Christopher Hawthorne, longtime critic for the Los Angeles Times; and Florencia Rodriguez, Harvard Loeb Fellow and architecture practitioner and professor.

This panel is a microcosm of contemporary criticism. These four panelists in particular (not to mention Hays) are actively producing some of the most effective criticism of today’s world cultural centers (Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, New York, London). They speak about how they understand their work, the philosophical frameworks from which they start, the impacts they are making, and the kinds of effects which its producers hope it to have.

As Professor Hays mentions towards the end of this talk, architectural criticism seems like an almost impossible luxury; examining the process that produces buildings and communities and cities can seem impossibly distant from those places’ effects. On the other hand, if we want better buildings and communities and cities, we desperately need to know what we’re getting right and what we’re doing better; and effective, articulate criticism is one means to that end. At almost 90 minutes, this is unusually long for a YouTube video, but if you are operating under the belief that what you design matters, then this is a valuable resource for understanding the context in which criticism is produced. Watching it will make you a more thoughtful consumer of the types of criticism that will best support and further the work you are already doing.

February 2015: Michael Sorkin, Florencia Rodriguez, Oliver Wainwright, Christopher Hawthorne, Michael Hayes.

February 2015: Michael Sorkin, Florencia Rodriguez, Oliver Wainwright, Christopher Hawthorne, Michael Hays.

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