One of the reasons I like being an architectural critic is that it enables me to postpone my opinion. I see, hear or read something, and sleep on it before I have to formulate what I think of it. I always admire people who are instantly opinionated, but I fear that, like instant coffee, those opinions are often very soluble.
This crossed my mind as I watched the two-hour video of the recent evening on criticism at the old Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, which took place mid October. It turned out to be one of the many current introspective discussions about where we’re at in architectural criticism.
Criticism today is usually diagnosed as not being in a very healthy condition, along with many once great institutions such as – but not limited to – the United Nations, newspapers and post offices. Usually there are two apparently opposite positions in these debates, which either contrast the past with the present, or the present with the future. In the first case, criticism isn’t what it used to be. In the second, present-day forms of criticism must give way to something presumably better, thanks to the liberating and democratizing effects of the Internet.
Whether the criticism of the future will be better than today’s remains to be seen, but I tend to believe that the glory days of architectural criticism are in any case behind us. Not because criticism in the late 1960s, the 1970s and early 1980s was so great; it wasn’t. Back then the majority of architectural criticism was as ponderous, biased and badly written as today’s. But it seems that, along with their habitual sense of self-importance, critics also had genuine significance in the architectural discourse, and sometimes even beyond that, reaching out to a wider audience. This importance is absent today, as all those tormented discussions about the state of criticism merely serve to underscore. (What else triggers those discussions than a deep feeling of uncertainty?)
The short-lived Golden Age of Architectural Criticism is sometimes elevated to the measure of all things, but I am more and more convinced that this exceptional period was nothing but a fluke in a history that in itself is no longer than a century. Before and after this Golden Age the normal state of architectural critics was and is that of finding a balance between being unneeded, and yet not being irrelevant.