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Sign of four

Hugh Pearman

Architecture, like everything, needs critics

Four kinds of architecture critics can communicate with the public: the Pevsners, the Banhams, the Betjeman/Nairns, and the Appalled. The first two are ‘trained’, the last two are not. These categories never change, even if some critics span more than one of them. Practising architects might love or hate those who write or talk about them and their buildings but the Oscar Wilde rule applies here:  there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. 

This is not to say that today’s critics can necessarily compare with the four famous names above. Another rule applies here, that of giants’ shoulders. That lot established the rules of the game, of how to communicate a tricky subject to the world. They did everything so much earlier and better than today’s crowd: we just splash around in their wake. But their names are useful as indicators. The Pevsners are the scholarly, detached, categorising ones, much concerned with history and aesthetics and minutiae. The Banhams, reacting against the Pevsners, conceal their learning in pop language, tend to avoid aesthetics in favour of technocracy, and are big on opinion and broad generalisations. The Betjeman/Nairns, in turn reacting against the first two, are amateurs in the old sense, and bring emotion and nostalgia to the mix. The Appalled, of course, are those who dislike almost everything new or newish on principle, and deploy the word ‘eyesore’ indiscriminately, always the sign of a closed mind, because this brings us to the subjective and mutable realm of ugliness versus beauty (see these columns passim ad nauseam).

The Oscar Wilde rule applies here: there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about

Newspaper critics, not that there are so many of them these days, are mostly Banhams or Betjeman/Nairns, the former usually trained to some extent as architects, the latter not. I’m not, so I suppose my lengthy stint in papers puts me in the latter category. On architecture magazines the same rules apply but there a fifth category also sometimes appears, the pure academic or academically-minded practitioner who writes in the private language of architecture, a tongue relatively few understand even in the profession. Their articles and books circulate in a tight circle. Such writing is not intended for the public, indeed should never be unleashed on it.  Occasionally an architect being interviewed on radio or television will slip into this way of talking – and it is excruciating to hear. 

Some architects, even today, take the view that only other architects should be allowed to criticise architecture. To which I reply, as you would expect, phooey. That’s like saying that only authors of novels should be allowed to review other novels and besides, my experience is that too many architects are hobbled by style preconceptions. But still – what’s a critic for, really? 

The Irish architect-critic Shane O’Toole suggests that a work of architecture is not complete until it has been written about. The critic interprets it to the world. As to the kind of review you’ll get – why, just hope you don’t end up with one of the Appalled. Is all publicity good publicity? No, despite Oscar Wilde, I’ve never believed that.