Writing about Architecture.

How to take in words that would move people- as they sometimes visibly did?  How to describe complex, subtle, near invisible meanings in words that could be understood on first hearing them?  How to interpret the country without offending other interpretations?  How to avoid cliché, pedantry, sentimentality, and yet never venture too far from the familiar?  How to advance the argument, to pull the audience beyond what they knew to what they didn't know?                                                                  Paul Keating

 

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 There isn't much of a tradition of public writing about architecture in this country, of treating buildings and urban development like all the other arts.   Why is it that movies, books, concerts and art exhibitions are all reviewed, or at least noticed and discussed as being culturally relevant and important, but that buildings, which affect us and our cities in more fundamental ways, are not subject to the same scrutiny?

New York has the sort of critical scene I would like to see emulated here, but it wasn't always that way even in the Big Apple, it takes time to establish a tradition.  Ada Louise Huxtable, who died recently at age 91, started writing in theNew York Times in the 1960's and by persisting in addressing not just the aesthetics but also the politics of planning and urban development, her writings and criticism over the next half century helped shape New York City and firmly put architecture on the public agenda. 'Great oaks from little acorns grow,' and critics Paul Goldberger (NY Times) and Martin Filler (NY Review of Books) are continuing the tradition she established.

The most important urban critic in Australia is Elizabeth Farrelly who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald and isstill of an age to have a similar long term influence to Huxtable.  She has the same qualities, a good knowledge of contemporary architecture, a sharp understand-ing of the political and development process, (she was a City of Sydney councillor for years), a good ear for cant and a firm concern for the public good.  Let's hope she lasts as long as Huxtable, and bless her, she also writes lightly with wit and humour.  Farrelly's tenacious unravelling of byzantine developments like Barangeroo helps to open our eyes and her help is needed; as David Marr said,'Sydney's civic emblem, since convict days, has been the blind eye.'

 The Age has had intermittent critics over the years but none currently and certainly none as trenchant as Farrelly.  Alan Davies, who features from time to time as The Urbanist in crikey.com, writes in an entertaining way and to the point without fear or favour, and is always well worth reading.

 Writing in newspapers is not an easy role, there is clearly a lot of money at stake in most new developments, and those involved commercially often claim property values could be affected by adverse public criticism. Would that this were so, but I doubt it, it's more likely to be their egos!   However lawyers would no doubt always advise caution, so there's a fine line to be trod in our litigious society.

 The emphasis of writers varies according to place of course.  In New York they most often write to show how the financial and political details have shaped controversial developments, and Farrelly and Davies are good on these too.  The tussle between the demands of architecture in the abstract and designing and constructing modern buildings needs to be explained to lay people.  It's not easy; architects have to cope with the competing demands of the architectural tradition as they see it, design to satisfy their client's brief (and ego), serve the needs of future users, negotiate with all those planners and get approvals, integrate the requirements of the engineering consultants, control costs, evaluate new building materials and prepare construction documents, and legal contracts with contractors and developers; a complex and demanding task!

I therefore attempt to explain the situation from the point of view of the professional architect so people can understand where architects are coming from, both practically and in the historical sense. In these aiming-to-be sustainable days I also like to pin down where the designers stand on these issues with their new buildings.

 And although I don't avoid criticism I also don't see it as my role to anoint winners, especially as architects are always giving one another far too many meaningless awards.   Even if I don't like a building aesthetically, anyone who fights the good fight on all the things set down above, deserves serious attention simply for having got there in one piece! 

 Drawings and models of unbuilt designs can be interesting in the abstract, sometimes computer renderings are hard to tell from photographs of the real thing, but it's only when buildings have been tempered by the fire of authority approvals, beaten the budget, and dealt with all the construction and site problems to become occupied, living buildings that they get my real architectural respect.  

 Architects write for themselves in the RAIA journal AA (Architecture Australia), mostly academics 'publishing or perishing', and mostly using an architectural version of Artspeak that would make Don Watson squirm and which, on the whole, I find unprofitable and hard to understand so it's just as well AA is confined to the profession! 

There is no one bridging the architecture and public spheres and explaining them in the way that (Harvard Professor) Stephen Jay Gould did in such an engaging, accurate and easily understandable way about the much more difficult world of science.  It's a great skill and serious popularisers like Gould and Attenborough, who don't talk down, are very rare. Although we have some good, serious academic writers and researchers (like Phillip Goad), there is no one quite like Gould in the local architecture world. 

 In Canada an academic called Witold Rybczynski (how could he not succeed with a name like that?) has written a number of books that are more general and less immediately topical than Huxtable, and which play an educative public role in the way that Gould does.

 They say the best footballers are always in the grandstand and Paul Keating's wish about the power of words always rings in my ears as good advice, not just for politicians (remember Keating's Redfern speech) but also for anyone writing for the general public. 

So I hope you keep reading my modest attempts to bridge the gap!

 Don Gazzard LFAIA 

May, 2012

 Postscript:  Readers may be interested in following up some of the books mentioned:

On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change
Ada Louise Huxtable (Walker & Co 2008)

On the Rise: Architecture and Design in a Post-modern Age
Paul Goldberger (Times 1983)

 Home(Penguin 1987)
A Journey Through Architecture (Penguin 1992)
City Life (Simon & Schuster 1995)

Witold Rybczynski

 No Way to Build a Ballpark, and other Irreverent Essays on Architecture  
Allan Temko (Cronicle Books San Francisco 1993)

A Critc Writes.  Essays by Reyner Banham
(University of California Press 1996)

 

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