Tag Archives: criticality

Two Critical Problems

I was recently called out for something I said in the post about Sarah and Somol’s Doppler Effect article. To paraphrase myself in an imaginary newfound Texan twang: “What we need’s a good ol’-fashioned critique of criticality!” Obviously I didn’t write that critique. If I were to write it, it wouldn’t be here – the style of writing I’ve adopted here (i.e. the only one that can prevent me from getting bogged down and writing nothing at all) doesn’t seem appropriate for that endeavor.

Still, as someone who complains about writing of the “Towards a…” persuasion, I’ll at least concede my hypocrisy and try to be more specific in my complaints about critical practice.

The “Towards a…” reference is a bit misleading given that Corb’s seminal contribution to that genre had ‘scriptions of both the pro- and pre- variety, so let me explain what I mean by that. The “Towards a…” genre is the one where someone just lays out a foundation and then proposes that something more projective/productive (architecture, arguments, whatever) should be erected upon it. For example, if you only read the first part of Zaera-Polo’s “The Politics of the Envelope,” you’d think it was an example of the “Towards a…” genre, because (in my recollection at least) it basically ends by entreating architects to consider the latent potential of the architectural envelope. But in Part II of the essay, Alejandro establishes his dimensional typologies and points to specific social, environmental, and economic implications of each, absolving the essay of its earlier “Towards a…” sins. Part I points in a direction and says “Let’s go there!” Part II goes there.

In a sense, this “postponement” is inextricable from the dialectical methods of modern criticism: all critical practice thinks of itself as operating within the caesura between (to borrow from Marx again) “is” and “ought.” But different discourses make different judgments about what constitutes “fashionably late” in terms of arriving at the various “ought” parties they’ve planned. Architecture has a pretty good sense of when to show up, but tends to just bring the half-empty 40 it drank while walking from some other party that was getting a bit slow for its taste.

Generally (and productively), architecture keeps the “critical pause” fairly short (as with Zaera-Polo, who limited it to the time between publishing Part I and Part II of the same essay). It gains this ability by being pragmatic about the “oughts” it pursues and how it pursues them. But sometimes architecture is convinced (from within or without) to adopt more utopian goals and to discover the patience that traditionally belongs to other discourses. This is the first risk of indulging in critical practice, and it brings us to K. Michael Hays and his essay “Critical Architecture.”

Every good critic needs antagonists. Hays defines his in the essay’s subtitle: “Between Form and Culture.” Each term corresponds to a critical position: the former considers “architecture as autonomous form,” while the latter engages it “as an instrument of culture.” Hays criticizes these paradigms for the narrow view of architectural agency entailed by their interpretive frameworks; unsurprisingly, he concludes that each falls short for failing to include the contributions of its opposed term. Hays seeks to validate an alternative interpretive framework through a close reading of Mies’ architecture, one which reveals the critical potential of a more complex encounter between form and culture.

Hays’ first step is to provide Mies with his own antagonist – a target for whatever it is that’s critical about the architecture. In his first examples, the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper and the Alexanderplatz project, he argues that Mies has his sights set on the problems of the modern metropolis described by Georg Simmel. “The problem for the intellectual,” Hays writes, “was how to oppose this debilitating dismay, but first how to reveal it – how to provide a cognitive mechanism with which to register the intense changes continually experienced in the modern city.” (K. Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form” Perspecta 21 (1984), 18).

There’s the postponement: we’re told about the problem (the despair of life in the city), but it’s asserted that, rather than solving it, intellectuals first needed to see it (“better,” one assumes). In this regard, Hays points to “the [twentieth] century’s early artistic experiments,” which depicted “the abject despair of the individual caught by impersonal and comprehensible forces.” Disregarding Hume’s warnings, Hays takes an “is” (actually in this case a “was”) and makes it into an “ought”: the fact that early twentieth century artists adopted “revelatory” strategies when faced with urban despair doesn’t suggest this is what should be done. Hays never justifies this preference for strategies of revelation rather than resolution.

Despite this initial historical argument, which seems to suggest that critical agency ends with the ability to point at the antagonist (again: “Let’s go there!”), Hays proceeds to provide evidence for rejecting this circumscribed view of architectural agency. Describing the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper and Alexanderplatz project, Hays suggests that these dark monoliths could provide respite from the sensory overload of the urban environment. In doing so, Hays recognizes – very briefly – that architecture can do more than just point out what it doesn’t like: it can provide an alternative.

Unfortunately, his argument immediately runs into another of the classic mistakes of critical architectural practice: the conflation of “critiquing” and “being of The Critical.” Symptomatically, his consideration of the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper’s curtain wall goes beyond recognizing that its reflective surface forces passersby to confront the specular image of urban chaos; it’s read as a sign of the building’s abstract, critical-oppositional status. (Notably, Hays’ examples from fine art and literature wouldn’t have permitted this confusion: the content of a Kafka novel is critical without being about criticality.) Moreover, if Hays drew this distinction lightly in his analysis of the Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz projects, he erased it completely in describing the Barcelona Pavilion. There, all reference to a specific antagonist is gone: Hays declares that the Barcelona Pavilion is critical because it “tears a cleft in the continuous surface of reality” (25). In place of a particular political, cultural, and/or social agenda, we’re left with the abstract image of critical architecture as “architecture against reality.”

Although Hays didn’t pursue it (to his credit and our misfortunate), there’s an even more problematic potential embedded in this trajectory of critical practice. This possibility is more easily discerned if we simplify our genealogy: if the Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz projects had in mind a specific antagonist (i.e. the inimical overstimulation of the metropolis) and the Barcelona Pavilion was generally critical (i.e. in opposition to reality itself), a synthesis of these two positions was inevitable: a specific critique of unreality.

The “unreality” of this new critical modality is discerned in the utopian or dystopian context (and/or justification) for many contemporary architectural projects. This evolution is something Hays seems not to have foreseen: in the end, architecture would oppose itself to imagined antagonists.

It’s not like we lack for real problems. Critical practice tilts at windmills while it should be building them.

…I mean, if the economy picks up.

Some Thoughts on “Notes on the Doppler Effect” 10 Years Later

(Note: I’m still working on Skeuomorphism Part III. The short explanation for this is that, unlike its companions Part I and Part II, the subjects dealt with in Part III intersect with a line of thinking that I’ve been pursuing for some time, and consequently it’s taking me a while to get to new conclusions that I’m satisfied with.)

Two semesters back I was a TA for the intro to architectural history/theory course at Rice. Toward the end of the semester, we read (well, I re-read) “Notes on the Doppler Effect,” an article penned by our very own Sarah Whiting and her frequent conspirator who, for at least those six pages in Perspecta 33, styled himself “Robert Somol.”

The essay begins with a deeply historical introduction to “critical architecture” as plotted by Tafuri, Rowe, Hays, and Eisenman. Next, Sarah and Somol juxtapose the last figure in this genealogy with a new protagonist, Rem Koolhaas, while emphasizing the difference between the index and the diagram. And then they’re off: extrapolating from this opposition (and, as always, sprinkling McLuhanian terminology as they go), they launch into a sort of manifesto for projective practice.

This reading assignment did not elicit an awkward “Kids, this is what your mother was like before she had you” moment – it’s not as though Sarah has dropped the projective practice thing. But, from my perspective, there was still a strangeness about this confrontation. It wasn’t because they struggled to reconcile the image of this radical upstart with the dean they know and love, but because it was difficult to convince them that these views were radical in the first place.

I know what this looks like: a distasteful combination of pedantry and a sort of “meta-prudishness.” But there’s more to it than that: the standard narrative for that scenario involves a set of widespread social norms that become irrelevant to the point where the younger generation can’t understand why the older generation ever cared; it doesn’t seem scandalous to them. For at least three reasons, I don’t think this narrative can – or should – be applied to the recent history of architecture:

  1. Whether we’re speaking empirically or normatively, the norms of critical practice are not irrelevant.
  2. There is a more complex reason that the Doppler Effect article might not appear radical to a new generation of architecture students.
  3. The fact that it doesn’t appear radical should concern us.

I won’t dwell on the first because (a) I’m not interested in discussing the normative value of criticality here – which would require a very substantial amount of dwelling – and (b) the relevance of criticality in an empirical sense isn’t particularly contentious. Criticality remains relevant to architecture because it’s still a major component of the pedagogy of most institutions and the agenda of many architectural practices. Moreover, architectural discourse is not autonomous, and criticality remains influential in the larger discursive territories where architecture operates or at least dabbles from time to time.

But things get more interesting with the second point, which is where I propose my own explanation for why projective practice doesn’t seem radical to freshmen architecture students. This alternative explanation was inspired by an event I’m deeply grateful to have witnessed: Sarah came into the class after the students read the Doppler article and gave a short lecture reflecting on its context and its long-term consequences.

Sarah loves to historicize things: her approach manifests itself as a delightful cocktail of anti-structuralism (not post-structuralism, though she claims to be fond of that as well), fascinated psychologizing, and just the faintest hint of Marxism. It’s a hobby brought to bear on herself as much as on anyone else, so it was no surprise to hear her say that while the angst which motivated the Doppler Effect article wasn’t overtly expressed in the final text, it was in terms of this context that she wanted to explain the essay.

In my recollection of Sarah’s description, the article was born not out of frustration with the immediate status of the discipline at large, but the more specific concern that architectural theory had created a context in which a project was “good” even if it only criticized existing conditions, rather than projecting new solutions and new possibilities. Clearly, this criticism reflects her view of what ought to be involved in good architecture. There was a second concern, however, which was more pedagogical in nature: the techniques deployed to produce such “critical projects” required little design effort, novel thinking, or consideration of economic, political, or social realities – in short, little judgment. Instead, they merely demanded a sort of intoning (my term, not hers) of well-established conceptual tropes, often extra-disciplinary ones.

This presentation of the article suggests its authors’ complaint is not so much directed at critical architecture itself as at the fact that academia continued to laud this special brand of complacency. In the “traditional” reading, the Doppler article seems to say “critical practice is problematic”; in this reading, it says “the architectural discipline has a problematic relationship to certain larger theoretical/scholarly trends, issues with its pedagogy, and needs to look hard at the role of the academy.”

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Sarah’s academy-centric presentation of the text that day was influenced by the fact that she was in a classroom speaking to first year undergraduates, an audience who really can’t be blamed for the decadence of critical architecture. But, whether or not anyone outside the room that day could have understood the text in those terms, what’s interesting about this reading is the way it emphasizes the text’s critique of “the Critical” rather than its manifesto for “the Projective.”

What effect does this have on how we understand the not-so-chance encounter of a freshman at the RSA and an article written by their dean a decade earlier? Simply this: recognizing the text’s radicality depends on knowing what the text is reacting against, not just understanding what it proposes. It’s a manifesto, but – like the Communist one – its value lies in its diagnosis of/prognosis for its context, not just in its prescriptions for a new order. Generally speaking, freshmen architecture students haven’t internalized the historiography of the late twentieth century, so the latent critique of that context – the most important and radical aspect of the essay – isn’t discerned.

We can think of Sarah and Somol’s article as a plan for escaping the limits of the critical paradigm (a metaphor I suspect they would appreciate). The most important aspect of their plan is not its description of “the outside” (i.e. projective practice), but the moment when, like a pair of spies who blow dust into an apparently empty hallway before proceeding to crab-walk under the previously invisible lasers, Sarah and Somol revealed the invisible limits of criticality. I think this provides a better account of why the students didn’t view the article as particularly radical: once you’re outside the walls, you take for granted that there is an outside.

As I suggested earlier, there’s something concerning about circumstances in which this escape doesn’t look very daring. This brings my own recent encounter with a text – the one which inspired this post – Zizek’s (forgive the lack of appropriate diacritics) Repeating Lenin. At the very beginning of the book (the internetified version of the text was linked from Wikipedia, so hopefully my link here is kosher), he provides a description of Lenin’s status in scholarship today:

in the contemporary academic politics, the idea to deal with Lenin is accompanied by two qualifications: yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought… however, one should treat Lenin in an “objective critical and scientific way,” not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from the perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights – therein resides the lesson painfully learned through the experience of the XXth century totalitarianisms.

Zizek’s conclusion is that “everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic” (emphasis mine), because such criticality acts as a discursive “release valve” on sociopolitical tensions. The critical context, Zizek argues, converts/subverts potentially disruptive declarative utterances into benign descriptive ones. This point, which seems to me deeply indebted to Foucault, is also connected to Sarah and Somol’s complaint about critical architecture: their article points to the way that criticality produced a kind of disciplinary complacency, just as Zizek argues that criticism is permitted up to the point that it might really change things.

In light of this parallel, my concern is this: the fact that today the Doppler Effect article can be read as a mere manifesto – or, worse, as a pair of writers simply adding to the praise for OMA in the early 00s – suggests that certain limits are again becoming invisible to us. Frankly, I don’t think this is a symptom of projective practice’s status as a hegemonic apparatus that has successfully disguised its limits. Rather, it suggests to me that the implicit critique in the Doppler Effect article wasn’t enough: from time to time, architecture needs an explicit critique of criticality – one as radical as Zizek’s and as disciplinary as Sarah and Somol’s.

In Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, there’s a scene where Tom Waits explains to Iggy Pop that the best part about having quit smoking is that – since you’ve quit – you’re allowed to have a cigarette from time to time. I think critical architecture today operates in this Iggy-Waits paradigm: now that we’ve quit critical practice, we risk indulging in it with even less self-awareness. So long as critical architecture is not interrogated firmly and substantively in terms of its political, social, and ethical performance, it will remain “legitimate” because of its mere cultural relevance – relevance which the Zizek in the back of my mind whispers is proof it won’t change a thing.