Critical Thinking: Expanding Roles of Criticism

Critical Thinking: Expanding Roles of Criticism

Critical Thinking is a weekly series highlighting the work of architecture critics and thinkers from around the internet.  Each week we recommend a few of our favorite pieces.  This week, we explore how architecture critics are expanding their roles beyond the typical new building review, and enriching architecture discourse in the process.

(Header image by Flickr user rocor, via Creative Commons.  The San Francisco Transbay Transit Center by Pelli Clark Pelli nearing completion, a frequent subject for San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King.)

The role of the critic has never been exclusively limited to reviews of new buildings, but the popular conception of criticism is largely focused on “reviews” of cultural products that label them as either “good” or “bad.”  To get beyond this one dimensional conception of criticism, we’re highlighting the work of three authors who have expanded the role of the critic in interesting ways.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, John King’s “About this Author” mini-bio describes him as the “urban design critic” even though the subheading on his author page still lists him as “Architecture Critic.”  This title disagreement is only the first hint that his beat extends beyond the aesthetic merits of individual buildings.  A quick scroll through King’s past stories reveal the expected stories about buildings, and urban spaces, but also the unexpected headlines like “Bay Area law enforcement taken aback by Trump’s speech” and “Driver sought after fatal crash in San Jose.”  Clearly there’s more than just urban design on this beat.

But back to the architecture, King’s output includes a generous helping of stories chronicling the ongoing construction of the Transbay Transit Center and the Salesforce Tower, by far the largest building projects in San Francisco in recent memory.  By discussing these projects before their completion, King helps his readers better understand the design and construction processes that precede the completion of a building.  A recent favorite, “Little things matter to architects on $2.2 billion transit center” illustrates the importance of the minutiae on even the biggest of projects, and the level of attention required of both architects and builders.  On the other end of the spectrum, King’s 10-years-later review of Morphosis’ San Francisco Federal Building comes to terms with the reality that an optimistic visionary design cannot overcome all of the real world challenges building face.  But even after the shine has worn off, the author readily admits his continuing admiration: “I still enjoy the show, whatever its flaws.”  Most importantly, King’s 10-year review acknowledges the fact that true success or failure of a building can only truly be assessed well after it is completed (a philosophy we try to keep in mind with our own First Impressions series).

Similarly, Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, recently launched a weekly column series entitled “Building Type” to explore topics beyond the strict architectural review.  Column subjects have been surprisingly wide-ranging, including a film review of “Columbus,” in which the modern architecture of real-life Columbus, Indiana plays a starring role, a discussion of the intersection of architecture and theatre, and the curious case of a parking garage suing LAX to stop public transportation improvements in the name of “environmental quality” (a wonkish piece on the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, and the “third rails” of California development).  The common thread through all of these pieces is the ubiquity and influence of the built environment, whether it’s through experimental theatre or the legalese of CEQA.  This fact is best exemplified by Hawthorne’s recent piece on a “grand bargain” to help speed the development process in downtown Santa Monica in exchange for eliminating parking requirements and increasing affordable housing.  In the end, Hawthorne remains unconvinced that this new agreement does enough to correct for the constrained and expensive housing supply in a desirable city that has only grown by a few thousand residents in the past 60 years.  This political wrangling is inherently tied to architecture as a lack of housing supply reaches crisis levels in major cities throughout California.  After all, provisions such as on-site parking minimums and affordable housing requirements aren’t just policy issues, they also inevitably influence building form.

Perhaps no one has received more credit (accurately or not) for changing the role of the architecture critic than The New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman.  A relative newcomer to architecture criticism, Kimmelman has harnessed the resources of the so-called “paper of record” to enhance his stories with multimedia features, and broaden his role.  As a former art critic, it’s no surprise that he brings a unique approach to the role of architecture criticism.  Kimmelman has raised eyebrows with reviews of affordable housing developments and stories about the ethics of prison design.  But it was his review of the new Whitney Museum building by Renzo Piano that truly turned heads with its animated diagrams and video imagery that told story of the museum’s move from its Marcel Breuer-designed home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to its new building in Chelsea.  Similarly, a feature on the role of acoustics in architecture—accompanied again by multimedia imagery and sound—expanded the discourse of criticism beyond visual aesthetics.  

More recently, Kimmelman’s series Changing Climate, Changing Cities has focused on the challenges facing cities in an era of climate change (a topic that John King has also explored recently), highlighting his style that focuses more on storytelling than commentary.  Indeed, it would seem traditional criticism makes up only a small part of his work, with only a handful of his recent stories labeled as “Architecture Review” (or sometimes “Exhibition Review”).  His most recent piece was a discussion the Crossrail project in London.  What could otherwise be a mundane piece about a new infrastructure project is instead a curious exploration of how this new rail line will reshape the city around it, and whether Brexit will change the role that Crossrail plays in London.  It’s a story about how infrastructure, politics, and economics come together to shape our built environment, which, in a way, is the real story behind every building.

Though the topic is relatively niche, critics at mainstream print publications have the ability to reach large audiences with their architectural storytelling.  And the efforts of critics like King, Hawthorne, and Kimmelman, as well as the many other critics blazing new trails for criticism, are creating more engaging and more compelling storytelling by going beyond the typical “review” and making the discussion of architecture more relevant to everyday life.

Do you know a critic we should feature on Critical Thinking?  Send your recommendations to