Sunday, May 16, 2010

the good critic

For several weeks I've been trying to write a blog entry about criticism, criticality, what it means to be a critic. As final reviews approached at architecture programs around the country in the beginning of May, and I prepared for the last visit as the outside thesis critic for the graduate students in the school of architecture at UNCC, I was considering both my responsibilities as a critic and the students' responsibilities to be critical -- or, more broadly, architectural criticism and critical architecture.

The first delay in writing this piece came from a possibly misguided attempt to combine concepts that may or may not actually fall under the same umbrella. Early research for the piece led me to Reinhold Martin and George Baird's published cry and response circa 2005 on what was identified at the time as a disciplinary movement into a post-critical era.[1] Referencing primarily the texts of Peter Eisenman (the poster child for critical architecture), Michael Hayes, and Rem Koolhaas (the self-proclaimed poster child for post-critical architecture), their arguments seemed to me to intentionally obscure the delineation. This quote from Koolhaas supports that notion: "The problem with the prevailing discourse of architectural criticism is [the] inability to recognize there is in the deepest motivations of architecture something that cannot be critical..." And to continue, "if it turns out that 'criticality' constrains efficacy, then to that extent 'criticality' must give way."[2] Koolhaas, arguing for an architecture that is first and foremost an effective product, can still hardly be identified as an acritical producer either in his weighty (literally) books or his influential constructions. In the end, the divide between the Martin/Baird argument that resides in the realms of high academic discourse and top tier critical architectural production (if that's not an oxymoron in itself) and grad student end of year design reviews seemed vast and unbridgeable -- perhaps even unrelated -- so I let it slide. Sort of.

At the reviews, an energetic and rigorous faculty member referred to me at some point as the 'thesis police'. My job throughout the course of the semester had been to remind the students that these are not simply design projects -- which certainly have their own degrees of complexity and demands -- but are thesis projects which should be, by definition, critical. A thesis, unlike a project, asks a larger question which must then be interrogated, tested, and substantiated. In the case of the UNCC program, the given structure of the thesis year demands that the student first produce a text that outlines the theoretical framework of the 'hypothesis', research relevant precedents, initiate a quick 'test' case, develop longer partial 'experiments', and then frame a larger and more extensive test case that can lead to some set of conclusions. Spelling this out, it sounds rather social sciencey, but in reality the hypothesis, experiments, tests, and conclusions range from the rather empirically (and sometimes quantitatively) based acoustic, light, or material experiments, to very abstract, even experiential, 'experiments' in drawing, design charrettes, site research, cultural explorations, etc etc etc.

My use of the terms question, hypothesis, test, and experiment are in no way literal or rigid, but are broad methodological categories of interrogation. For example, one of the more fascinating projects of this year studied the spatial relationships of break dancers and break dancing, using youtube videos as 'data' for design research, analyzed through diagrams and models. Her final 'test' was to interrogate the relationship between such radical street use and sites of resistance by designing a break dancing space, based on her extensive research, at the site of a Harlem Starbucks. Design, in this case, remains the strategy by which the hypothesis of a relationship is tested. For another thesis, three personas -- archeologist, architect, and artist -- were adopted for experiments in site analysis. The methods utilized were the multi-disciplinary tools of the accumulated trades -- collecting, categorizing, archiving, measuring, mapping, photographing, filming, drawing. The final test case was an ensemble site analysis of a particular location in southend Charlotte. These kinds of theses are not about proof per se, but about critical interrogation and response, with rigorous analysis, that is not limited in applicability to a single set of site and programmatic parameters the way a design project typically is. The 'hypothesis' may fail if the tested strategies and experiments are unable to be applied to a larger test case or if no conclusions are able to be drawn, but the thesis student only fails, in my mind, if he or she fails to push the design question to its larger potential ramifications. One way to fail is a lack of rigor, another is to allow the thesis to revert to a project. If we expect architecture to be possible as a form of critical practice, then some combination of rigor and knowledge must be leveraged for deep inquiry.

Yet architecture as a critical practice and architecture as a form of criticism are not inherently equivalent. As an organizer of the WPA 2.0 competition, those projects overwhelmingly related data to design solutions. The flexibility of the competition -- no given site or program -- demanded that each team substantiate their problem statement before they could even begin to solve it. The best projects developed a clear response to a data-supported, often environmental, need, yet in no way did the solutions come across as inevitable or predetermined. In other words, between the data and the solution was our disciplinary expertise -- design. And design, I believe, is never quantifiable. Even in this age of supposedly technologically-generated answers (parametrics, mass customization, infinite degrees of measurability), someone is making informed decisions behind the curtain and someone, if an effort is being made for good design rather than merely efficient solution-making, is still transforming the mechanical to the meaningful. This is probably why the most empirical theses are the least successful -- they often rely on data for solutions, when data are actually most useful in the defining of the question. The tricky -- and interesting -- part of the Border Wall as Infrastructure project, one of the WPA 2.0 finalists, was its conflicted relationship with its own proposition. The project was both a form of research about energy use, habitat, water, risk and culture and a conflicted need to be critical of the border and the building of the wall. What the Border Wall team came up against, as Koolhaas identified, is the difficulty in being simultaneously critical and productive. This difficulty, I would argue, is exactly where the firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro find themselves today.

In the above mentioned George Baird article, "'Criticality' and Its Discontents', he identifies Diller and Scofidio (before Renfro was added) as "a 'late' triumph of 'criticality'". Their early work, which dominated the Whitney retrospective of the firm (2003) that Baird refers to in the article, landed heavily in the blurry space between art and architecture, between exhibition and commentary. Their 42nd Street installation, where they placed enticing videos in the windows of old Times Square movie theaters, was a commentary both on the gentrification (truly a Disneyfication) of an area previously known for its edgy, semi-lovable grunge and issues of buying and selling as related to gender and power. Baird wonders in his essay if their built work (just beginning to be substantial at that time) will "meet the more difficult test of being critical 'in the street'."

And now we have the lovely, poetic, scenic, peaceful and spotless High Line, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro's (along with Field Operations) renovation project of the previously abandoned elevated rail in Manhattan's meat packing district into a linear urban park. Is the High Line critical architecture? Does the High Line, as Koolhaas called for, prioritize its own efficacy over its potential for commentary? Is that a good thing, a bad thing, does it matter? It's hard to not notice the controlled and limited messiness of the place preserved originally for its beautiful roughness and miraculous urban wilderness. Aesthetically, they have recreated both Joel Sternfeld's phenomenal photos and their exact competition-winning renderings, which makes the High Line a kind of themetazation as art and a simulacrum all at the same time. Yet, in humble Liz Diller fashion, it is done with not a trace of irony. In that sense, it may be post-critical, but it is also post-pessimistic, which is something else entirely. Landscape urbanism, the emerging field of design (born from the cross-breeding of landscape architecture, urban design, ecology, and architecture), is also a self-proclaimed response to the pessimism of postmodernism -- both the regressive period of architectural design and the militaristic and privatized period of urbanism. The other irony, then, is the boon to economic development the High Line has since generated. Started as a preservation movement by a couple of guys who saw the value in the history and beauty of the relic, that has long been overshadowed by the uber-expensive peep show that is The Standard Hotel, the explosion of architectural icons along the path of the old rail, and the hours-long wait at the bars and restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

The icing on this ironic cake, though, is the restaging of Mr. Brainwash's 2006 LA show, Life Is Beautiful, just about to open in the shadow of the new High Line. If you have no idea what I'm referring to, don't worry. I didn't either. And then I saw Banksy's new movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Life is Beautiful was a 500 piece extravaganza of works produced by Mr. Brainwash, the obsessive filmmaker, adoring fan, and accidental protégé of the mega and anonymous British graffiti artist, Banksy. Mr. Brainwash, a kind of modern day Andy Warhol, is an appropriator, an opportunist, and an accidental artist with a payroll of graphic designers, production assistants, and promoters. The 2010 Life Is Beautiful -- which was closed for mid-run enhancements while I was in New York -- is the gentrified graffiti show, a cleaner, tidier, giganticer, mass-produced art monolith retransplanted back into New York from Los Angeles via the renewed fame of the big screen.

According to the film, Mr. Brainwash learned everything he knows from Banksy and Shepard Fairey (the other graffiti artist who became pop culture famous when his Obama HOPE poster hit it big). Yet even though Banksy is often accused of selling out for fame and fortune, he is critical in a way Mr. Brainwash will never be -- precise, surprising, unique, disciplined, smart and skilled. As proof, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a master work of criticality, a film that is both a highly successful product and a compelling argument that leads the viewer through history, precedent, experiment, test, appropriation, and commentary. What it leaves for the viewer is conclusions. What exactly is being critiqued here, and by whom? Fairey calls the film Banksy's latest 'exploit'; one of the interviewees in the film calls the whole thing a complicated joke, with an uncertain victim and uncertain punch line. Yet, it's more complicated than both of those. I see it as a kind of graffiti thesis project, packed full of data, experiments, and analysis, yet left open for participant interpretation, for experiential conclusions, for intelligent debate not just on the film, but on the state of art, capitalism, cities, interdependency, production, beauty, and criticism itself. In that way, it is what critical architecture might strive to be -- not obtuse or compromised, but full scale intellectual proactivity, produced through a highly refined skill set as an act of social participation.

How is this entry a cause? Well, it started out in an effort to define what a good critic might be in an attempt to be a student advocate. Over the years, I had witnessed so many critics that were not operating in the service of the students, but were grandstanding, self-promoting, or ego-boosting, using the jury format as a platform for their own positions. Happily, though, at least where I've been in the last few years, the necessity for student advocating seems to have dissipated. The reviews I participated in this year and in the last few years have been fully critical, in the best sense -- intelligent, attentive, respectful, informative, and informed. They have not been easy; they have been demanding, but in the best interest of the students -- and of the participating faculty -- in an effort to promote not a thicker skin, but a stronger mind. In that regard, I don't see a post-critical era so much as a post-cynical era. Yippee.

In that spirit, I used my time on the High Line to talk politics, government spending, and the state of architecture education with a former student and to look out at the fabulous view of the river. I call that a pretty good project, one that provides a platform for criticality and plenty of blank surfaces for Banksy-like exploits.

[1] George Baird, "'Criticality' and Its Discontents", Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, Number 21.

Reinhold Martin, "On Theory: Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism", Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005, Number 22.

[2] As quoted in Baird, 2-3.

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