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.

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