Three and a half stars!

Reading a review in the Sept/Oct issue of Architecture Australia about a new building at RMIT, I pondered yet again why we don't have more regular mainstream media reviews of buildings, in the way that art exhibitions, books, theatre and films are reviewed and criticised.  One of the reasons often advanced for this lack is that buildings are more substantial investments in a monetary sense, and that adverse comments about a new building might make it more difficult to let or to sell, and that developers and architects are litigious and are quick to sue for libel if their financial interests or egos are threatened.  But then considering the way the many millions invested to make a movie have to be recouped from individual ticket sales, and the way Pauline Kael in theNY Timescould kill a movie with one review, this argument doesn't necessarily hold water, at least in the US.

In most places if something is true this is sufficient defence against libel (it can't by definition be libellous if it's true) but with our convict background comes the additional requirement that it should also 'be in the pubic interest' and that's harder to prove.   However our film critics are quite forthright and express their opinions by awarding stars as a guide to potential viewers, and our book reviewers are also up front about what they don't like, so why not architecture?  Is architecture now considered a business rather than one of the fine arts and not worthy of reviewing?

In the past the architect Norman Day has written for The Age, and sparky Elizabeth Farrelly still writes trenchant pieces for the Sydney Morning Herald  but they are often more general and about urban issues rather than specific buildings. More recently a design section in a crikey. com blog written by Alan Davies (calling himself the Urbanist)  has appeared; it's well written and controversial, and aimed at a general audience and attracts plenty of replies from other architects; it also tackles the big picture more than specific buildings.

What happens in other countries?  Without doubt, the most famous architectural critic in the United States is Ada Louise Huxtable
(NY Times and the Wall Street Journal) winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.  Paul Goldberger, who succeeded her at the NY Times described her gradual influence since 1960 as follows:

"Ada Louise Huxtable has been more than just the most important pioneer of architectural criticism in newspapers in our time: she has been the most important figure in communicating the urgency of some kind of belief in the values of the man made environment in our time, too.  She has made people pay attention. She has made people care.  She has made architecture matter in our culture in a way that it did not before her time…Before Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture was not part of the public dialogue.  Today it is, and she is overwhelmingly responsible for this."

Huxtable could communicate complex truths about architecture and urban planning in plain words, in the same way that Stephen Jay Gould could explain science so well to the general public; it's a great ability that is often undervalued.  It also shows the great benefits in public understanding that accrue from such writings and to me this seems important for architects too.  She wrote with wit and wasn't ponderous; she once described a building as looking like a vending machine, that if you put money in the top something would come out the bottom!  Would that we had someone as forthright as that here!

The best architectural journal in the English speaking world by far is the Architectural Review (AR) in London.  It has well written reviews and lucid descriptions of buildings, and they aren't afraid of firmly criticising some of the big names, (as they did recently about Renzo Piano's buildings around Corbusier's church at Ronchamp) and while the AR is primarily written for architects, their writing welcomes the intelligent layperson. Architecture Australia (AA), the journal of the Australian Institute of Architects only goes to member architects and the language of some of their academic writers often leaves me a bit bereft.  It's not that the ideas don't make sense sometimes but that the words have to be translated to understand them and then too often, the conclusions are so what!  This was Huxtable's talent, to be able to make the ideas both clear and important in plain language without talking down to people. 

 The Swanston Academic Building (or SAB in these acronym times) that I spoke about earlier, was designed by Lyons Architecture and is occupied by the College of Business.  A review written by Professor Des Smith from Deakin University opens by stating that;

'The sheer presence of the SAB demands thinking about some issues that are 'larger' than architecture',……… 'The building's complexity and commitment to making identity-driven spaces seems to bring forth questions regarding collective and individual identity, hierarchy and complexity, individuality and autonomy.  And through this, it challenges questions around institution and social order, education and commodification."

 This approach is not uncommon in architectural discourse, architects are prone to embrace the big picture and assume responsibility for the fate of the world through the design of their buildings.  In most cases this is well outside their brief and competency but it gives them a sense that what they are doing is far more encompassing and important than simply designing buildings; in many cases it also leaves them with an aggrieved sense that they aren't being taken seriously in these aspirations!

But being commissioned to design or review an academic building in Swanston Street doesn't have to start with a critique of current educational theories, and in any case there is little the architect can do about such larger social or philosophical questions, if indeed one knew what to do.  In the end the architect has to accept her client's brief and design what his client wants, or in extreme cases resign the commission.  This is not to say that like all good servants the architect can't twist the brief and include unasked for delights in the design; in this regard I especially liked the 'break out' spaces for students at intervals in this building, and the way they embraced spectacular views of the city. 

I don't know if Professor Smith spoke to the architects, there is no indication of this, so I was delighted to read another article about the SAB in The Melbourne Review, a free local paper,where the staff writer (who isn't acknowledged) did talk to Adrian Stanic, the project architect for the building.  The description is shorter and not as overwhelming as that of Professor Smith, and I was delighted, for example, to find that a crane had been put on site and the architectural photographer Dianna Snape hoisted up to take shots of the central vistas from the upper levels in order to decide on the best locations for the student gathering places that I liked.  This article quotes Stanic at length in an accessible vocabulary about his ideas on this and other aspects of the building.  All in all, this delivers a much more readable, I was about to say review, but it's not a review, it's aim was not to make considered judgements, but simply to communicate important design aspects of the building and the ideas behind the design for a general readership, and in this it succeeds admirably.

Architecture and criticism can be a good combination and as Huxtable and Farrelly have shown, it is possible without legal problems or censor-ship.  It should be written for the general public, avoid pretentious architectural jargon and aim to make architecture and urban planning truly part of a public dialogue to improve our city.  I'm ready whenever The Age is!

Don Gazzard
October 2012