Advice to Critics

By Michael Sorkin

This spring, ARCADE is partnering with Hugo House to offer its very first workshop on architectural criticism. We’ll be sharing more information soon (sign up for our e-news to stay in the loop!). In the meantime, enjoy the following food-for-thought on criticism from architect, author, and editor Michael Sorkin. This essay first appeared in ARCADE issue 23.1, Autumn 2004.


Always Visit the Building
A photograph is not worth a thousand words, although many millions have been generated from them. There simply is no replacement for prowling the premises. Use all your senses. Be intrusive. Open doors and windows. Climb to the roof. Circumnavigate. Look at the thing from nearby and from afar. Knock on the walls. See what people are doing.

Style Is Seldom the Issue
Style is what architects and editors generally prefer you to write about. Not that expression is unimportant, simply that it often conceals more than it expresses. Architecture is utility made beautiful. Connoisseurship risks buggering flies, valuing things based on narrower and narrower criteria. God may reside in the details but people tend to live in the house: wallpaper will not put the wall back in plumb or block the sound of the neighbors’ arguing. Indeed, Halliburton headquarters (or Saddam’s palazzi) may be gorgeous but that isn’t exactly the point. Don’t get caught defending the indefensible by too much fascination with form.

Credit Effects, Not Intentions
Architects always tell a good story. And, certainly, one should listen with care and take note of any worthwhile ideas. But the recent history of theorizing and criticism of architecture is overloaded with the authority of intent. Architects read philosophy and attempt to make form from it. Not a problem—inspiration comes from wherever you find it. But sources confer no special authority: no amount of special pleading on behalf of a fantasy of philosophical immanence that can overtake the greater importance of how a building behaves. Strangeness can be a virtue and is often a leading characteristic of the new. A critic, however, should arrive on the scene with a quiver full of her own values and take her best shot, not be a conduit for someone else’s delusions.

Think Globally, Think Locally
Architecture is deeply implicated in the world’s environmental crisis. It consumes more energy, uses more materials, and radiates more heat than anything else we do. To fail to note this particular effect of building is to abrogate one’s critical duties. A good way to think about this is in terms of a building’s “ecological footprint.” How much of the earth’s resources does it consume and to what end? How many degrees does it heat the air around it? How much energy is required to produce all that titanium? How much of the jungle disappears to line those elevator cabs with mahogany?

Safety First
As physicians are counseled first to do no harm, so too must architects. The primary legal responsibility of builders—codified from Hammurabi down—is to assure the safety of those who use or encounter their buildings. This should be taken in the broadest possible sense. Buildings can kill in fires and earthquakes, but also in the cancerous off-gassing of toxic materials, in construction accidents, in the preparation of materials on far-off sites, and in the depressing effects of excluded sun and recirculated air. The effluent and heat produced by a building and its operation have risky potential far away and [builders] have a duty to those at risk downstream. These issues are not trivial but central for critics, and they should equip themselves to inventory such effects.

Who Profits?
In our beloved capitalist system, buildings are generally not to be acts of charity. Private engorgement is what produces most of our built environment and profit is not known for its generosity. A critic is obliged to name as many names as possible of the real shapers of any work of architecture. These include the bureaucrats who conceive and institutionalize degrading workplace relations, those who endanger the quality of the public realm by outright hostility or miserliness, those who do not understand the inevitable civic dimension of building, and those for whom all larger issues of the commonweal recede before matters of the bottom line. Numbers are important. The critic has a duty to cut through the mystification that conflates economical and cheap. Architecture must look beyond the depreciation cycle to understand its true worth. Real criticism is too important to be put in the real estate section.

Consult the User
By user, of course, I mean in the first instance those who most regularly inhabit the building. Their opinions count and should be counted. Which is not to say that their taste should trump the critic’s. However, inhabitant happiness is primary and their unhappiness highly significant. How is this to be assessed? To begin, people are to be given some credit for understanding the terms of their own comfort, convenience, and taste. Our consumption system, though, is founded on the provision of illusory choice; a million brands of soap, all the same. The suburbs, for example, may not be the unmediated expression of user desire. They are, rather, the collusion of many interests—many of them suspect. Our preferences are produced, not “natural,” and a critic should make the case for real choices. I, for one, do not believe that obesity, diabetes, automotive pollution, highway mayhem, alienating commuting, isolation, segregation, and sprawl represent the freely considered and chosen wishes of the people. This, rather, is the “wisdom” of the market.

History Is Not Bunk
All building engages its context. Our architecture and settlement patterns represent a history of social compacts—entered with varying degrees of complicity—that physicalize human relations. Such compacts demand respect. There is, however, history and there is history. I remember a panel discussion ages ago where the virtues of the Lincoln Memorial were being extolled and classical architecture identified—in standard-issue Jeffersonian style—with democracy itself. An African American architect demurred. Those Corinthian columns reminded him not of freedom but the big house on the plantation. History is written by its victors who generally prefer to see its progress as positivistic and singular. But culture writes many histories all at once, and the critic must be acute in unraveling whose history is being served, and whose is being suppressed.

It’s the City Stupid
Critics should be careful about imputing too much meaning to the object of architecture. Since we love it, we tend to exaggerate its consequence as a repository of social and philosophical codes, and its power to set agendas for human interactions. This devolves frequently into angel-counting irrelevance. While our building practice does tend to ossify living and gender relations, and to reproduce the strictures of class, the big picture can only be observed by looking at the big picture. To understand America (or India or Russia or Ancient Rome) it is critical that small patterns be tested against large and vice versa. Our convention (after Alberti) is to understand the city as a big house, but this is wrong. Scaling up, more meanings are absorbed and more perspectives available. Just as our own personalities are formed in interaction, so architecture is forged in the crucible of collectivity.

Defend the Public Realm
The most important single task for architectural criticism is to rise in defense of public space. Threatened by the repressive sameness of global culture, contracted by breakneck privatization, devalued by contempt for public institutions, and victimized by the loss of habits of sociability, the physical arena of collective interaction, the streets, squares, parks, and plazas of the city are—in their free accessibility—the guarantors of democracy. Particularly now, as we are brow-beaten with the threat of terrorism into the surrender of more and more of our rights, the freedom of the city and the freedom of assembly—enshrined in the First Amendment—are in desperate need of all the friends they can find.

Keep Your Teeth Sharpened
Courtesy is an important value, but a critic should prefer to be fair. But judiciousness should never trump candor, however, and a critic often needs to shout very loudly to be heard over the din of interests that surround the building process. The rapier will always defeat the noodle and almost always produce a better prose style.

Play Your Favorites
This can, of course, get out of hand: a critic should not be a publicist or a slut. The point is that unbiased criticism isn’t: the critic is out there to describe and defend a set of values in which they believe. If there are designers, builders, politicians, activists, or manufacturers who well embody these same values, they deserve special treatment. They also deserve to have their feet held to the fire if they falter in advancing them.

Michael Sorkin is principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio. Since 2000, Sorkin has been distinguished professor of architecture and director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at City College of New York. Author of twenty books, Sorkin is also architecture critic for the Nation and a contributing editor at Architectural Record.