Critical Condition

[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].

There’s an interesting and provocative article in the most recent issue of Blueprint called “The New Establishment,” by Peter Kelly. In it, Kelly takes issue with the lack of formal criticism in architecture blogging today, writing that “one tends not to find rigorous criticism of significant new buildings” on sites such as Strange Harvest, things magazine, and BLDGBLOG.

Instead, he suggests, a “like-minded” community of writers has arisen, one “that prefers speculative musing and celebrates increasingly niche interests.” He adds, with not a small shade of foreboding, that, “as blogs become a more important part of the establishment, a more realistic and rigorous approach to architectural criticism online is urgently needed.” After all, “As traditional publishing media and institutions become less influential, one wonders where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work.”

These are absolutely valid points. I agree wholeheartedly that a more vigorous critique of the built environment is needed, as it will always be; I’ve said this before, in fact, and I have not changed my mind since then. Infrastructure, the growth of police power in urban space, pedestrianization and mass transit schemes, improved access to cultural institutions, the politics of military landscapes, healthy housing projects, aging and the city—all of these topics need more coverage and broader public discussion. Kelly is right to suggest as much.

[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].

But what I find deeply confusing about Kelly’s article is that, rather than read websites or blogs which do, in fact, offer “criticism of significant new buildings,” as he puts it, Kelly specifically and only focuses on websites that claim to do nothing of the sort (with perhaps one exception: Kieran Long’s Bad British Architecture).

As such, Kelly’s article feels a bit like listening to someone who’s just spent two weeks looking around the classical music section only to come out complaining that he couldn’t find any death metal. Well, no shit: you were in the wrong section, and it’s your mistake not ours.

In fact, it is illogical to assume that, because this site in particular is more likely to post about topics like weaponized climate modification, Greek mythology, strange infestations, narrative film, haunted house novels, paleontology, and so on, rather than about a new suite of renderings released by Rem Koolhaas, or a new museum in outer Rome, that I am therefore uninterested in seeing buildings and their architects held accountable to rigorous standards of design. As it happens, I am very interested in that; I just don’t tend to write those pieces myself.

To draw an analogy, Kelly seems to be assuming that, because someone plays guitar, they must be willfully obstructing the careers of people who instead play saxophone. Kelly, in this context, plays saxophone; he wants a bigger audience for people who play saxophone; so he writes an article not critiquing other people who play saxophone but deliberately selecting a group of guitar players so that he can make the obvious point that they don’t play sax—and this is what passes for serious architectural criticism? No wonder its audience has evaporated.

What amazes me about these sorts of critiques of blogging—and they are becoming more and more common and predictable today, now that interest in academic architectural discourse has faded (if there was ever interest in it) in favor of other, more energetic, unapologetically interdisciplinary writing styles—is that these critics are actually complaining about the lack of something they themselves purport to do.

Put another way, writers like Kelly are complaining about the unacknowledged side-effects of their own inadequacy as architecture critics. If they had actually known what they were doing in the first place, then people would never have lost interest in “rigorous criticism of significant new buildings.”

That is, speaking directly to Peter Kelly, if you want to see a more vigorous critique of real buildings, then, by all means, go ahead and show us how it’s done. Make it popular again. Find an audience for that type of writing and cultivate it. Convincingly demonstrate the power of the genre you so openly wish to celebrate.

But for Kelly to complain that BLDGBLOG doesn’t tour Alice Tully Hall, for instance, and offer constructive feedback for the architects is like complaining that Point Break doesn’t have anything to say about the design of the High Line, or that The Hobbit lacks exegetical interludes about the theories of Walter Benjamin—but neither of those things are about that, and they’re not without value because of it. They are, we might say, valued otherwise: performing an altogether different cultural function than the one whose absence Kelly mourns.

In fact, it’s a serious methodological flaw for critics like Kelly to read only the blogs that aren’t about building criticism—he cites BLDGBLOG, Pruned, Tim Maly’s Quiet Babylon, and so on—in order to make the point that today’s blogosphere is lacking in building criticism. Talk about shooting your own skeet. It’s not only lazy, it’s tautological and it betrays a total lack of commitment to original research.

To use another musical analogy, it’s like listening to smooth jazz for six years and then complaining that not one of those songs had vocals by Dave Mustaine—well, you were listening to the wrong kind of music.

[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].

Pointing out that BLDGBLOG doesn’t offer traditionally recognizable formal criticism of the built environment misses the fact that the modus operandi of this blog is all but precisely not to do that. Indeed, this blog is and always has been very consciously about architecture and landscape in a representationally broad sense: exploring how spatial environments appear in film, literature, mythology, games, dreams, and comics, and to write about the otherwise radically under-reported side-effects of buildings and cities, from freak local weather systems and invasive species to psychiatric disorders and rodents. In fact, I would say that BLDGBLOG has never claimed to be a place “where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work.” I don’t want to do that; that is not my goal as an architecture writer. But that doesn’t mean—nor does it in any way imply—that I don’t want to see other writers successfully demonstrate how that sort of criticism is done.

Again, to address writers and critics such as Kelly: you all have had so long to prove your point about the value of serious architectural research. You claim absolute, if not unique, critical priority for a style of architecture writing that you yourselves fail to produce in any convincing manner, and you’ve failed to find any real audience for the very thing you are hoping to promote. Even now, you have blogs, zines, pamphlets, international magazines, Ph.D. funding, radio shows, whole university departments, conferences, and teaching opportunities at your disposal. You can make documentaries for the BBC. Your words and ideas should speak for themselves.

With that in mind, how exactly is your failure to find an audience—indeed, even to find more writers like yourselves willing to write this stuff, surely a damning absence if there ever was one—the fault of a loose group of bloggers who prefer “speculative musing” and “increasingly niche interests”? What exactly are you saying here—that we are Katy Perry to your Shostakovich? Is that a universally negative thing?

To use a wildly overblown historical metaphor, it’s a bit like seeing a lost group of battle-shocked British troops suffering from amnesia as they wander down the streets of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, asking, in all seriousness, why there isn’t more British influence on display. But one of the reasons we came here in the first place was to get away from people like you.

[Image: “The New Establishment” by Peter Kelly, courtesy of Blueprint].

In any case, having said all that, I want to reiterate that I actually agree with the underlying premise of Peter Kelly’s article: that we need more direct and engaged criticism of the built environment. This is true, and Kelly is right. We need more Christopher Hawthornes and fewer Nicolai Ouroussoffs. We need more Matthew Coolidges and fewer Philip Jodidios. We need the next J.G. Ballard.

But until architecture critics can find a way to make formal building criticism interesting, entertaining, emotional, funny, adventurous, sexy, or thrilling, it—and its popular appeal—will languish. If people like Kelly can’t bring it upon themselves to reinvigorate their chosen discipline, then it’s not the fault of Sam Jacob or Alex Trevi if they fail. We’re back to the saxophone/guitar thing: what you need to do, Peter Kelly, is learn to play your saxophone so well that everyone else stops liking guitar; you can’t just complain about successful guitar players. Or, in market-speak: put us guitar players out of business by offering the world better music. If you can do something amazing, then I want to hear it, too.

Consider this an open appeal, then, to all architecture critics unnecessarily scared of blogs: produce the texts you want us to read & study. Find writers working in the genre you’re actually talking about and constructively team up with them to promote good and rigorous criticism. Use multiple media. Cast your net wide. Don’t assume that to entertain is to lose critical insight. Remember that sometimes the most “significant new buildings” in public life today are not museums and concert halls, but film sets and game environments.

Indeed, Alex McDowell is a more influential architect than David Chipperfield, which means covering McDowell’s work is not just fringe speculation. Grand Theft Auto generates more conversations about crime and the city than the writings of Adolf Loos, which means discussing GTA is not just self-indulgent musing.

After all, there is absolutely no reason in the world why we can’t have blogs that “celebrate increasingly niche interests” alongside blogs that offer “rigorous criticism of significant new buildings”—in fact, there is no reason in the world why a single blog couldn’t simultaneously perform both functions. It would be a dream to read.

Imagine a world, then, where critics like Peter Kelly actually step up and demonstrate how to do the things they so enjoy pointing out as lacking in others. If they could succeed at this—and find an audience, and push an agenda, and gather influence, and raise the stakes of what it means to be an architecture blogger—then we would all, as writers and readers and builders, be stronger because of it.

And, if they don’t succeed—if they can’t pull it off—then they should do better than to pin the blame on others.

59 thoughts on “Critical Condition”

  1. Very well said Geoff.

    What Kelly might find interesting is that someone like myself who has absolutely no background in architecture and wasn't explicitly 'interested' in reading about it before, is now interested because of blogs like BLDBLOG that employ, as you put it, an energetic interdisciplinary approach. In other words, I might end up reading the style he wants to be read *because* of exposure to ideas from BLDGBLOG and other sites.

  2. When I first started to read this article, I must admit I was worried about where things were going – glad to see you disagreed with the direct criticism offered by P. Kelly.

    I also write an architectural blog but I rarely engage in any formal criticism of any buildings; it doesn't suit me or my reasons for writing my blog. I particularly enjoyed your music analogies as setting the parameters for the the potential audience might actually be – I would take offense if someone were to criticize what I do intimating that I should be more like them. Well bugger off and go somewhere else.

    My site is a hobby and I have been surprised by its growth and popularity in such a short period of time. It should come as no surprise that a majority of the comments and correspondence I receive are from people expressing gratitude that here was an architect that didn't take himself too seriously and cram capital A Architecture down their throats.

    Knowing your audience is different than playing to them and I would never expect for people to come to my site looking for high-minded discourse – there are other places for that.

    So keep doing what you're doing, I appreciate it for what it offers me.

  3. Agree. Very reasoned defense.

    When I was in the "academy" of my own particular discipline, I often grew frustrated at a public that has no interest in my critical arena (philosophy). But when I arrived in grad school, I realized the problem: the academy had no interest in reaching out to the public. This isn't to say the academy has no purpose; it just has its own goals.

    So I left the academy, and found the blogosphere, where you are free to develop your material and audience as you like, and your audience is free to enjoy it or move on. It's worked out well for me. The academy will always serve as a certain sort of "homeland", but the academic diaspora community is now my home.

  4. Precisely. Two completely different markets, concerns and perspectives. One of reasoned critique, one of genuine interest.

    JG Ballard II

  5. First of, I feel that you used A few too many analogies in this, but the guitar vs. sax one works very well.

    I read this blog precisely because it doesn't deal with the latest wannabe starchitect renderings or their built projects. For the same reason you grab certain sections of the NY Times first and skip others.
    I think architectural criticism is being watered down by the accessibility of media. Years ago, the only way an architect found out about projects was the critical writings offered in newspapers, journals and pamphlets. Now, you can find images of any project you'd like to see readily available online and can make up your own opinion of the project.
    Do we still need others to tell us what to think about something? Isn't the Internet about the Opinion of the collective whole?

  6. First of, I feel that you used A few too many analogies in this

    LOL. I agree, actually—and this is even after I cut quite a few. Once I get started on metaphors and analogies, it's hard to stop, I guess…

    To everyone, as well, thanks for reading, and the comments.

  7. Halfway through, as I realized what you were doing (right about as I got to the part "it’s tautological and it betrays a total lack of commitment to original research") I just started laughing my ass off.

    Truly, this article is a text book definition of irony. Well played sir. Well. Played.

  8. Very good.

    I agree with your criticism and then agree even more with your open invitation.

    As an architecture student I can't afford the Journals which are full of adverts for toilets and are very lacking in content. with Blogs I get 20-30 articles to look at each day that I can look at or not look at.

    it is about the democratisation of publishing and the dissemination of ideas to wider communities without Blueprint's editor saying it is not 'on topic' enough for publication.

    Thank you Geoff, I'd pay for BLDGBLOG as a collection of monthly posts but thats not the point is it…

  9. I guess Kelly then failed to understand that the position from which you are writing is that of an Intellectual Entertainer, not a Professional.
    And I also guess that poor Kelly is wondering why authors that have the skill and knowledge to make their blogs massively popular and widely read are not assuming that the fact alone establishes them as more than just Entertainers.


  10. nice reply! I think that the difference between the two worlds is quite fundamental: one (the rigorous criticism) has to be based on some form of negation, the other (that would be the speculative musing) starts with an affirmation. The first is criticizing and interpreting, the second is using and transforming. I prefer going with the second… since I also prefer guitar over sax (I assume that is an electric guitar)

  11. I haven't read Kelly's article, so I'm only basing my impressions on your assessment. However, what's interesting in this case for me is further evidence of the best of what the Web and the blogosphere have to offer to what were formerly quite closed systems of discourse. The gatekeepers of 'proper' culture — in this case, the academic journals and other top shelf publications of architectural theory / criticism — have lost control and can no longer regulate the discourse. Within the vast and formless space of the Web, BLDGBLG, Pruned and many other 'architecure' blogs have earned a dedicated following of readers (and their subsequent respect) through their sustained, engaging, insightful, often unusual and generally expansive musings on architecture and many other fields of enquiry that intersect it. Your charge to old guard is well stated: in this more laterally oriented publishing environment, create engaging, interesting content and people may just start reading it; formal architectural criticism could have a resurgence.

    Keep up the great work!

  12. 150,344,863 blogs and nothing on. I don't think it's Kelly's or Geoff's fault though. I don't need even one analogy to tell me: You are just not THAT kind of blog.

    I wish I could convince my favorite writers to blog on the subjects that interest me most. Alas.

  13. "now that interest in academic architectural discourse has faded (if there was ever interest in it) in favor of other, more energetic, unapologetically interdisciplinary writing styles—is that these critics are actually complaining about the lack of something they themselves purport to do"

    sorry to deviate from the blind praise above, but i find it sadly funny that you're so dismissive of "academic architectural discourse," especially since this blog so frequently (and ineptly) tries (and fails) to ride its coattails with the various namechecking of every chic theorist from any generic grad school syllabus. perhaps the kelly piece reacts against the fact that these so-called "speculative" blogs seem churned out by grad school drop-outs who–because they couldn't cut it in that "academic" discourse–fled to a fuzzier realm (the personal blog) in which pretension and a gee-willickers faux-intellectualizing could be misread as something other than total cheese. what kelly seems to be looking for is some element of critique, and it's easy to see its value. what does your blog accomplish at the intellectual level? sure, it can nick various concepts from Serious Discourse, but can it actually say anything about them? or does it instead retreat into the masturbatory fantasyland of wondering what it would be like if we could email buildings to each other? gee, what a brain-busting concept! you should thank your lucky stars that kelly even acknowledges your blog (which i came to after reading his piece). and maybe lay off the analogies next time–wringing out that purple prose must get pretty tiring.

  14. A very interesting response.

    Do you recall the article from Blueprint a year or so ago that criticised architecture blogs for all being far too negative? It seems you just can't win with the old Blueprint lot…

    It was a dubious honour to find myself in this article, considering how critique and negativity seems to be the dominant affect of my writing… But then, they praise me for something I haven't actually written, so I'm none the wiser, really.

    I think overall the article was less about the lack of critique, and more about inside/outside. He seems to have a problem with people who write blogs also being involved in the publishing industry, and in a way he has a point. It's difficult to argue that blogging is an egalitarian medium when so many of the more well-known architecture bloggers are either already well known as architects/writers, or have made their way into that world through their writing…

    Also, isn't it weird how many of the people mentioned in the article are Icon contributors? Hmmmmm…

  15. I really liked this post, Geoff. I haven't read the Kelly piece, but the thing is I don't follow him. I follow you and some other guitar players. It's true that the saxophonists need to come and get my attention if they want it.

  16. Geoff,

    Your seemingly interminable rant appears to have misunderstood the article as a personal attack on your blog

    Kelly's point is that there is not enough 'rigorous criticism of significant new buildings' in online blogs, not that your blog should become one. He is questioning why, in an age of digital media, there is not a blog, just as popular as BLDGBLOG, that feeds the desire of Kelly, me, you and lots of others for critical analysis of new architectural design.

    Sadly, the observation of the absence of challenging your opinions is perfectly illustrated here too, as unsurprisingly, most comments on here agree with you. As if not agreeing will infer refusal from the BLDGBLOG club… I don't believe that all the people who have read BOTH [i see some people haven't even bothered to read the original blueprint piece] articles fall on your side of the argument. …..

    Come on people, grow a pair, and while you're at it, an opinion of your own!

  17. At the risk of piling on to Anonymous, it's kind of adorable that you end by asking people to grow a pair from behind a pseudonym.

    Sadly, you are right that the commenters on Manaugh's blog won't necessarily have read Kelly's piece. Part of this, of course, is because we can't. Kelly' piece is hidden behind a $184 (in Canada) subscription fee. BLDGBLOG is free to air. And part of it is because of course you are likely to see friends and fans of BLDGBLOG commenting on BLDGBLOG. How do you think we got here?

    What's fascinating about this fracas is that both Manaugh and Kelly want the same thing. More critical analysis of architectural design in the world. Both, apparently, think that the other one should be in charge of doing it. Kelly's solution is to write this article I guess. Manaugh's is to write about the things he thinks ought to be written about. Strangely, the doing seems to have been more successful than the complaining. There's a lesson in that, if you choose to see it.

    Come on people, this is the Internet. Free personal publishing platforms abound here. You can be the critique you want to see in the world.

  18. Also can I tell say my favourite part before I get back to the real business which is making the things we want to see in the world? The best thing he can say in our collective defence is: "To an extent, this rapid exchange of ideas and imaginative writing is harmless."

    This is maybe the only place in the world where I've seen the rapid exchange of imaginative ideas called out as a probable menace.

  19. Geoff, you don't need to join. YOU ARE THE LEADER!!

    Tim, Manaugh has kindly posted the article on the blog for the friends and fans to read so on this occasion there is no excuse for not doing so if you want to comment. Also just because you are a fan of BLDGBLOG doesn't mean you have to agree with everything it says…

    Stephen Mackie AKA Anonymous

  20. It is unfortunate that the only two people with an opinion differing from the general praise did not use their names (you are enforcing, maybe consciously, the "clubiness" that should be avoided by members and non-members alike) .
    I want to share a telling detail though – a dose of polite but serious irony in my earlier comment had easily passed as yet another praise. I was wondering whether after a certain point in popularity a good Blogger, like Geoff, might have to realize that he is assuming a responsibility beyond Intellectual Entertainment?

  21. @Stephen @Anonymous @nina

    You seem to be taking this "New Establishment" concept and Kelly's hand-wringing about the call-outs to an extreme. As if Geoff is the puppetmaster of some global architecture-blogging cabal, to which we all swear fealty, and that if we weren't under his spell, we would be pouring forth with contrarian opinion.

    We're not "praising" him, we're agreeing with him, because Kelly's essay is weakly-argued, snobby, uninformed, and poorly-reasoned.

    In the jpgs above, Kelly claims that current blogging "mitigates against courageously critical or oppositional standpoints." What a non-sequitur.

    Then Kelly says:

    "When blogs become a form of self-advancement taking an unpopular stance or backing an unfashionable position becomes incredibly uncomfortable."

    "…One tends not to find rigorous criticism of significant new buildings; criticizing the work of fellow architects seems incongruous in an age of facebook friendliness."

    Isn't it more likely that the newspaper and mag critics, who pre-arrange site visits with Architects' publicists, then tour the building arm-in-arm with the designer, are more prone to "mitigate" any dissenting reactions doe to considerations of career, social standing, and concerns about being "unfashionable" or causing discomfort?

    "…work by large commercial architects or faceless developers that have no critical standing…Largely based on upon [sic!] renderings, photographs or passing observations, it hardly amounts to a useful form of criticism."

    Kelly's categorical exclusion of the majority of development as unworthy of discourse is insightful.

    "One wonders where architects can go to find informed, intelligent criticism of their work."

    Why doesn't Kelly make use of his considerable resources as the editor of one the world's premier architecture magazines to foster the type of writing that he is looking for?

  22. I have to break this comment up into two parts, unfortunately; here is part one:

    i find it sadly funny that you're so dismissive of "academic architectural discourse," especially since this blog so frequently (and ineptly) tries (and fails) to ride its coattails with the various namechecking of every chic theorist from any generic grad school syllabus

    Anonymous—always anonymous! how scared and unfortunate a life you must lead—can I ask, in all seriousness, that you name some of these "chic theorists" who I seem to rely on so frequently? Your criticism would sting me more if I felt like BLDGBLOG had any interest at all in academic architectural discourse—with people like K. Michael Hays and Deleuze & Guattari and Peter Eisenman and even Sanford Kwinter and The Oppositions Reader and John Rajchman and Praxis and MIT's Writing Architecture series and so on, it's an infinite list, and these people have had a whole generation to make architecture interesting and it didn't work—but, as it is, I have no idea how you've come to associate BLDGBLOG with architectural theory. With fantasy and scifi and archaeology and blockbuster films and popular science, sure; but exactly which "chic theorists" do you think I'm always citing? David Gissen? Yes, he's brilliant—but is he "chic" now? Keller Easterling? I've mentioned her writings a few times, yes. But… uh… who else, exactly, are you talking about? Do you mean J.G. Ballard? Do you mean H.P. Lovecraft? Rem Koolhaas? Ah—Eyal Weizman, I'm sure, is on your list. I've mentioned him, yes. What about John McPhee? China Miéville? I suppose Borges must be the kiss of death for you, as well. Is the Mole Man of Hackney "chic"?

    So this is a genuine question for you, anonymous: where exactly is the "namechecking of every chic theorist from any generic grad school syllabus" that you are talking about here? Who do you mean and where have these references occurred?

    On the other hand, you're correct about one thing: you point out that this blog doesn't "actually say anything about" what you call "Serious Discourse"—and I agree with you there, my friend. Well done; you've killed a mosquito with a hand grenade.

    Nina, what responsibilities do you think I should take on? I'm curious—can you be more specific?

  23. And here is part two:

    I think MM Jones raises many important points here: "Isn't it more likely that the newspaper and mag critics, who pre-arrange site visits with Architects' publicists, then tour the building arm-in-arm with the designer, are more prone to 'mitigate' any dissenting reactions do to considerations of career, social standing, and concerns about being 'unfashionable' or causing discomfort?" Add the possibility of libel suits, especially in the UK and Australia, and this becomes an even more serious problem.

    Also: "Why doesn't Kelly make use of his considerable resources as the editor of one the world's premier architecture magazines to foster the type of writing that he is looking for?" Precisely. Peter Kelly, what do you have to say? If "rigorous criticism of significant new buildings" is so important, then by all means please take the lead; publish more of it. If you can't find anyone willing to write it, let alone anyone able to write it well, then I think you have a whole other series of questions to ask yourself and your editorial team.

    What Stephen Mackie doesn't seem to realize, above, in his previously anonymous comment, is that Kelly precisely does not say, "Here are all of these architecture, design, and landscape blogs, like Pruned, City of Sound, Strange Harvest, Sit down man, Archidose, BLDGBLOG and dozens more, and they all have, together, made architecture and landscape more popular and widely discussed than at any other time in recent memory; as such, this is an incredibly exciting time for the field. People with no previous interest in architecture and landscape are actually returning again and again to read about the built environment; they are leaving comments, attending events, buying books, watching films. Architecture has never had so many eyes upon it as it does right now, and blogs are a huge reason why this is so—because it's not the ANY conferences that managed to accomplish this, it's Archinect and Urban Omnibus. So how can we, as critics, achieve this same level of popular reader interaction for our own rigorous criticism of significant new buildings? How can we learn to write building criticism in a way that finds the same levels of readership as blogs?" It's worth saying again that this pluralistic openness is explicitly lacking in Kelly's approach, and it is even more lacking in the small-minded xenophobia of Shannon Mattern, a Gollum-like figure whose blog Kelly approvingly cites.

  24. I believe you may have just 'outed' Kieran Long. I'm not sure people were aware that BBA was his.. Do correct me if I'm wrong!

    I had my money on Owen Hatherley.

  25. Kieran is actually cited as the author by Peter Kelly in the Blueprint piece; if any outing has occurred, it was due to investigative work by Blueprint (and, to be honest, having read this in Blueprint, I'd assumed that it was common knowledge by now and I was the last to find out! I guess not).

  26. Late to the party but had my own two cents–

    1. I have (multiple!) friends in ph.d programs who are studying the history of / relationships between digital matte painting and video game design and architectural discourse. I'm interested to see how/if this comes full circle into architectural criticism.

    2. My first reaction to the Blueprint article was to wonder why he didn't spend more time excoriating blogs such as dezeen that act more or less as curated architectural publicity clearinghouses.

  27. Quoth: "“one tends not to find rigorous criticism of significant new buildings” on sites such as Strange Harvest, things magazine, and BLDGBLOG."

    Clearly, the only things that matter in the built environment are buildings, and whether or not they are significant.

    Once upon a time, there was a clear line: Architect -> Architecture school -> Designing skyscrapers -> Significance.

    Now, architecture is a confusing ocean of ideas, from sustainability to virtual worlds. Swimming through these things is, itself, a creative act. And the thing you create you do this is *yourself.* And talking about these ideas is an expression of the oneself that one has created through baptism in this ocean of ideas.

    Of course that freaks some people out.

  28. "It's worth saying again that this pluralistic openness is explicitly lacking in Kelly's approach, and it is even more lacking in the small-minded xenophobia of Shannon Mattern, a Gollum-like figure whose blog Kelly approvingly cites."

    a "gollum-like figure"? stay classy, bldgblog. i think what kills you about mattern is your secret fear that she–unlike many people above–actually sees through your wannabe malcolm gladwell schtick. i too have often wondered why any self-respecting institution would seek your input on anything of even marginal relevance. my hunch about mattern was triggered by the ridiculous defensiveness seen in these comments any time someone offers a dissenting opinion, anonymously or otherwise. this is exactly what people like kelly & mattern are talking about! your blog is a clique generator, dude! it's a dungeons & dragons club for the 21st century. (i'm sure wheels will start spinning in your head about the 'architectural potential' of d&d. please spare us.) your inability to engage with serious critique is exactly what these people are so curious about. maybe holster the hair-trigger and actually confront their suggestions, instead of rattling off smug analogies?

  29. President of the Shannon Mattern Fanclub, you seem to think I would be offended by hearing something like BLDGBLOG is "a dungeons & dragons club for the 21st century." I love Dungeons & Dragons. You also seem literally to be incapable of accepting that I don't care if anyone thinks I can "say anything" about academic discourse or add anything to the canon of architectural theory—or, frankly, even if my colleagues at the institutions I've now taught at respect my line of inquiry. Well, boo hoo, if the halls of rigorous inquiry can't take this blog seriously.

    It not only seems to bother you, it seems to be incomprehensible to you, that someone would seek to write about architecture based in a non-academic sense of personal enjoyment. No wonder this blog annoys you so much, inspiring such vitriol and derision. And yet you come back again and again—are you secretly addicted to my luscious prose?

  30. It occurred to me that the previous comments—about Shannon Mattern—seem pretty out-of-the-blue. So here is a link to a blog post that Mattern wrote back in September, a post Peter Kelly refers to in his piece.

    I take issue with Mattern's accusations on many levels, but I respond to most of those in a comment that is currently awaiting moderation on her website. I'll post that comment, below—but I also want to say that the "be meaner" internet of name-calling and anonymous insults just exhausts me. Why not simply talk to Mattern directly? Why not unmask these ridiculous anonymous commenters and have a real conversation someday?

    So: see below for my comment at Mattern's blog.

  31. I comment I left here (unfortunately, I have to break this up into two comments):

    Shannon, I laughed when you mentioned "opening up the discussion to those 'who actually [live] in this world (and who [don’t] teach at Columbia)'." Touché.

    In any case, I think your call to criticism here is totally valid. But I agree with Tim that the tone of your post—at least for me, one of its central targets—has struck me, since the day I first read it, as outrageously defensive if not openly xenophobic. Academia has had its archives and its conferences and its funding sources for generations now. For me to suggest that at least one blogger should be allowed to enter the archive and see what can be found there, in addition to the professors and researchers and tenured academicians who already have access, is a call for pluralism and diversity of voice and access. But you respond to that call by slamming the door in my face and making unfoundedly sarcastic comments about my teaching career. How aggressive and closed-minded. You imply that I'm the beneficiary of corrupt hiring practices at Columbia and Pratt—teaching "vanity courses" at both institutions, as if I'm some kind of Magneto figure who can just walk in and bend everyone's will to my own—without ever contacting me or those institutions to ask about the circumstances of my employment; do you think the most basic standards of journalistic ethics should not apply to you? You needn't research or question anything, and can simply throw out offensive accusations?

    Had you asked any questions at all, for instance, you might have learned that I strongly disagree with much of Javier Arbona's conclusion in the paper that you cite in this post; this is something Javier and I openly discussed over email, admittedly out of public view. But, instead, you have fantasized a world of male, back-slapping clubbiness where everyone is too scared to disagree with one another. Similarly, had you asked any questions of anyone, you might have learned that there was far from universal excitement at the CCA and the GSAPP when it was announced that I'd be present there—which also means that your post feels, to me, like yet another academic trying to make me feel bad, piling on to someone who dared to raise his hand and enter the hallowed halls of east coast architecture. Further, I wonder if you are aware that I actually gave a talk at the CCA specifically and publicly questioning whether or not a blogger could even do anything of value while sitting in their archives? But instead of talking to anyone involved with any of this—at the CCA, at the GSAPP, at BLDGBLOG—you snipe from the shadows, relying on implications of professional corruption to dismiss my (incredibly recent) stab at a teaching career. Thanks for that; I appreciate it.

  32. And the second part of a comment I left here (see above for more context):

    I sense that you will disagree with what I am about to say, because of my newfound affiliation with academic institutions, but this post reeks to me of an establishment figure feeling upset and defensive that someone from outside was let in to use the microphone. You seem to be huddling over your little precious treasure of self-professed expertise, hoping that no one else will come in and take it.

    But I don't want to put you out of a job (unlike what you want for me—again, thanks!). Instead, I want more people outside academia to see the amazing texts, objects, and artifacts hidden away in archives, and I want more people outside academia to read about architecture. I want architecture to be a topic of popular discussion. That discussion might be unrecognizable, due to its tone or its chosen field of references, from the discussion that you think should be happening—but think of it this way: architecture is now being discussed more widely than ever before, so take advantage of that. Use the fact that more people are talking about architecture and design than at any other point in recent memory, and change the conversation to suit the things you think should be prioritized. No doubt you and I have a different tone in mind, and different hopes for the field, but I think—at least tentatively—that you and I share at least one goal: a wider public discussion of the built environment. Call me naive, but I think both of our voices are thus useful. Stop slamming doors in people's faces, and you might find that an interesting conversation can result.

  33. Today I took the time to read the original article (Didn't realize that Geoff posted the scans) and I understand where Peter Kelly is coming from. He's not criticizing BLDGBLOG for not being critical enough although he certainly makes it sound that way. Instead, he's commenting on the general state of popular architecture blogs and that those blogs do not offer critical reviews. Its not about converting guitar players to saxophonists. Its really about the popular venues only offering one type of music.

    Kelly's article calls out specific blogs as examples but continuously makes negative comments about these (specifically BLDGBLOG) which makes it seen like he's got a personal grudge. Jealousy perhaps?

    Personally I don't think Geoff writes this blog for the same reason that I read it. Because its interesting.

  34. I feel like the comment in a linked post about the difference between a blogger in the archives and an "academic" is telling. Manaugh distinguishes the motivations of the blogger and the scholar, claiming that the blogger is motivated by "curiosity and personal enthusiasm," while the academic is motivated by "scholarly expertise." The reality is that "scholars" too are motivated by a great deal of curiosity and personal enthusiasm. So much so in fact that it sustains their work on a topic for years — enough time that they can adequately elaborate and problematize the conditions which make architecture so inherently interesting. I would love to see architecture blogs really be able to make a contribution to architectural discourse, but I think that we have reached a moment when a greater degree of self-reflexivity, as S. Mattern calls for, is necessary to figure how precisely how the structural realities of blogging (short posts, short production time) can be effectively harnessed to this end.

    The production time required for more traditional output in architecture — be it buildings or books — might be telling here. Clearly the architectural public has an appetite that cannot be satiated by those traditional methods of production — in that sense, the blog format seems to offer something promising, but my hunch is that conceiving the blog post as a scaled down and sped up version of scholarly work will only lead to disappointment — like comparing the products of ad writers to those of novelists. That analogy is not to disparage the blogger or the ad writer — certainly ad writers have had a profound social impact in the last half century. Instead it is to say that it might be time for architecture bloggers to finally enter into the "in a moment of crisis" mode that has afflicted the the rest of architecture for at least the last 20 years. To think that any practice can operate with any autonomy is proven ridiculous everyday by the realities of life, but if archi-bloggers were to stake out a claim to autonomy, what would it be? (And what would happen if you guys started blogging about this as opposed to buildings/the usual? Would people still read?) Could be an interesting thing to think about.

    [Case in point: this comment, though admittedly rambling because I have work to do and am not going to spend more time editing, is ostensibly too long for your comment section! Should I just cut out a few ideas? Kidding, I'll split it, but you get the point]

  35. Does anyone involved on any side of this debate have any idea what they actually mean by the terms "critique" and "criticism" (in contrast to discussion, scholarship, interpretation, history, narrative, community involvement, etc, etc.)? Or why we need it?

    I can't help but feel that both sides are bandying this term about in different ways to stand in for a wish whose content and purpose they themselves are uncertain of. Manaugh claims that "we need more direct and engaged criticism of the built environment." I wonder: precisely what are you imagining here, and precisely what change would that affect? What is "good and rigorous criticism?" Accepting that there is a universally understood and accepted idea of "good criticism" (and that rigor is necessarily "good") is no different than assuming that there is a universal idea of "good" architecture, a "good" citizen, "good" practice, etc.

    I also am quite shocked to see that making architecture interesting to a wide audience is contingent on writing that is "interesting, entertaining, emotional, funny, adventurous, sexy, or thrilling." Isn't architecture, alongside the complex conditions surrounding its conception and reception inherently interesting?

    I do wonder, however, the extent to which those complexities can be portrayed and articulated in a blog post, given that the medium demands both short length in comparison to other types of textual production around architecture and extremely short production times. ("to slow down is to die") I think that blogs have been an amazing phenomena in terms of circulating images of architecture for free around the world (contributing to an unprecedented levels of global homogeny in architectural form), but I am less convinced that the format has the capacity to change the intellectual history of architecture.

  36. I also am quite shocked to see that making architecture interesting to a wide audience is contingent on writing that is "interesting, entertaining, emotional, funny, adventurous, sexy, or thrilling." Isn't architecture, alongside the complex conditions surrounding its conception and reception inherently interesting?

    Ah, the problem comes into focus.

  37. Will, I see something very different in stephanie t's posts than you do. Rather than "myopia and complacency", her two posts together call for a more self-consciously ecumenical approach, or, at the very least, conscious self-definition of blogging, and its relationship to scholarly architectural discourse. It seems to me that productive conversations and critiques about design tend not to shut down discussions, but, on the contrary, open them up, pushing them into uncharted (or, at least, previously unrelated/unthought) territory.

    Along similar lines to Mattern and stephanie t, I think that one of the problems about blogging as a medium is rewards writers for providing soundbytes rather than thorough contextualization. The quick cycles of blog-production leave little room for landing on one issue and harping on it for long. And that's precisely why one of my favorite blog posts (ever) is the uber-extended, tenacious Errol Morris take-down of Susan Sontag's "Regarding the Pain of Others." (Find the first part here: It's the anti-blog blog post. But the problem, of course, is that Morris demands a kind of rigorous leisure, not everyone's cup of tea. But it seems like a genuinely responsible example of how to extend the conversation, of showing how critique can be tailored to the post-by-post format.

    I haven't been following architecture blogs for long, so apologies for my naïvete (and please do let me know where I can point my browser if I'm mistaken): but I wonder if there have been extended discussions like Morris's on architecture blogs? And, if not, might there be some takers? And if no takers, why not? What about rounding up a bunch of architecture blogs to take on a question of mutual concern, à la the Times's "Room for Debate" feature?

  38. I still don't understand the implicit assertion that architectural bloggers, when they gain a wide audience, have the responsibility to discuss important topics, engage in serious discourse, or rigorous criticism— especially when those individuals did not start blogging for that purpose.

    The argument appears to be: because they have become popular, they must cease to carry on about their personal interests. Instead, they have some obligation to adopt the yoke of critics or scholars, in some ill-defined mold or tradition that is apparently not being practiced elsewhere.

    This ignores both certain examples of great critique in popular architectural blogs, and the question of why bloggers would have any obligations to write about anything other than what they want.

    I think its also seriously impugns this already troubled argument to reiterate that anyone can start a blog for free within a matter of minutes (as opposed to being hired at a magazine or academic institution). Therefore, other individuals, publications, or institutions can undertake the type of blogging that they would like to exist, with minimal effort.

    Stephanie, in suggesting that perhaps blogs aren't the best format for extended criticism or scholarship that some find absent, provides yet another reason why this whole diatribe against popular architectural bloggers seems misdirected.

    I am now going to log on to twitter and scold Justin Bieber for having so many followers yet insufficiently engaging them in debates on Music Theory.

  39. Sorry for being so late to the party! Here's a thought to end (or continue) on: why is it that at a recent public NYC debate with questions furnished by BLDGBLOG, both Lewis Lapham and Robert Krulwich (two of the smartest, funniest people in the world) found the questions totally incomprehensible? Could it be that what is (admittedly an amazing blog) claiming to make architecture culture more accessible and relevant to culture at large is just as esoteric as the serious theory and criticism it sidesteps?

  40. To critics everywhere: In the world of blogs and online journals I see no point in complaining that someone else is not doing what you would like them to. If you don’t like it, don’t read it, find something else that does interest you. If no-one out there is writing what you want to read, write it yourself. You have obviously just discovered a niche so why aren’t you taking advantage of that?

  41. melissa says:

    A. "The quick cycles of blog-production leave little room for landing on one issue and harping on it for long."

    I think this is perfectly wrong. Not because there is no difference in kind between writing a long essay about something and writing a short or medium-length blog post — there is — but because the blog offers an entirely different way in which to write long-form. Rather than writing a single, coherent "extended discussion", a blogger extends discussion by returning to the same topics repeatedly, frequently (I can say that this is true for myself) finding that the blogger's thinking about a topic subtly but surely shifts as the blogger returns to it repeatedly.

    I'm not the world's biggest Andrew Sullivan fan, and I don't agree with every single assertion he makes in this piece, but I think his article a couple years ago in the Atlantic — "Why I blog" — gets at this well.

    B. As for "rounding up a bunch of architecture blogs to take on a question of mutual concern", well, BLDGBLOG did exactly that last spring with the Glacier-Island-Storm series; Urban Tick (with others) has recently hosted two series of discussion on the GSD publication Ecological Urbanism; Quiet Babylon organized the "Cyborg Month" referred to in the illustration for Kelly's piece; and (yeah, this is me) mammoth led a multi-month discussion of Kazy Varnelis's The Infrastructural City. Given the small size of the archi-blogosphere, that seems like a pretty reasonable number of organized discussions to produce in less than a year — and I've probably missed some that I wasn't aware of.

    We (not that there really is anything other than an ad-hoc and shifting "we" here) may not be discussing the things that Kelly wants us to, but that's because we're quite busy discussing the things we want to.

  42. Melissa,

    I was perhaps a little rude, but the idea that architecture is inherently interesting and therefore doesn't need to be written about in an interesting way is inescapably laughable. Any subject, no matter how interesting, can be made obscure and uninteresting by bad writing, and architectural academe is rife with bad writing. What makes Sam Jacob and Charles Holland so unusual and interesting is that they're practising architects and academics who can also write clearly and engagingly. Rare indeed. You don't have to write interesting articles in less than 3,000 words to be read and enjoyed, but it sure does help a lot.

  43. Will: Thanks for clarifying. I think academics (and I admit, I aspire to be one!) should find more expressive ways of writing, especially if they want to engage with a larger audience. Garbled, jargon-y prose seems to be symptomatic of the ivory tower effect — i.e. if you’re only talking to the people around you, you settle for specialized language, which has the inevitable effect of shutting others out. I think a lot of this is born of the academic’s fear that if you even attempt to venture outside of university walls, then you have to compress Kant to, say, a sentence or two (when, really, historical accumulation around Kant’s oeuvre demands volumes). The real shame about this is that academics don’t think of talking to non-specialists as *opportunities*. I’ve found that trying to describe my work to “civilian” friends has provided me with new ways of conceiving my argument, and understanding what makes what I do interesting and worthwhile. And extended discussions — like these here comments! — provide more ways to do just that kind of work!

  44. Will: Thanks for clarifying. I think that academics (and I aspire to be one, I admit it!) should push themselves (and each other) to write in more engaging ways, especially if they want to be read by a wider audience. Sadly, our tendencies toward bad writing are symptomatic of the ivory tower effect: that if we're only talking to each other, we aren't held accountable for garbled, jargon-y prose. For the most part, I think that academics fear that venturing outside of the walls of the university means they'll have to dilute their arguments, or somehow have to compress Kant into a sentence or two (when thick historical accumulation demands otherwise). But I've found that telling non-academics about my work can be super-rewarding because I've had to force myself to think about my arguments differently. And it seems to me like conversations — like these here comments, which rely on many different voices! — can help us make that leap too.

    Rob — Thanks for pointing out the extended discussions I've missed (as I said, I haven't been `round the architecture blog scene long, so I appreciate your helping me navigate it!). I also take your point about blogs actually being precisely the places that I argued they weren't: that they allow for returning to topics again and again. As you say, they afford opportunities for approaching those topics in new ways. Indeed, I imagine that the your treatment about, say, cyborgs changes not just because of new revelations you've had about it, but because of the shifting landscape around you. And I think this helps us come back to stephanie t's earlier point: that we aren't just all free agents discovering material we find exciting, stimulating, and fascinating. There are other kinds of constraints — like the Flickr streams that we graciously borrow photos from (and credit!); the magazines we read; the other blogs we read; the cities we live in; the conversations we have with friends; the classes we hated in school — that contribute to the anecdotes and gems we offer to our readers. It just seems like owning up to the larger culture of which we are a part, and identifying where we stand in relation to others, is part of what makes for responsible — and potentially even more engaging — writing. (This obviously changes all the time, but it merits consideration, at the very least!)

    And, Dan, point well taken about seizing your niche! But I think that articulating what leaves us dissatisfied is part and parcel of what makes the web such a fascinating, addictive medium. And, indeed, what makes critique, in general, a potentially helpful practice. I think that the real point of criticism is not to take people down, but to extend the discussion, to find alternative ways of thinking through the material around us. In short, critics aren't all haters!

  45. Guy: "Eat your Meat!"
    Geoff: "Everybody likes Candy! Prof Meat is a taste rip-off."
    FanClub: "Prof Meat's so tired. We want Candied Geoff Meat in small bites."
    Profs: "Philistines."
    Geoff: "Boiled Prof Meat sucks. Give it Geoff Spice, loser Profs."
    Fan Club: "Murmur, What is criticism?, Murmur."

    Its the age old Meat v. Candy argument. You all sound pissy making your case. This is a ridonkulous food fight. An email war of people who really agree but want a fight.

    Now, where is that CABINET at? It had a great article in it about the taxidermy of spotted owls.

  46. Hey Geoff,

    I think Shannon should be nicer to you, looking at the comments on her blog it seems you're one of the five-odd people that actually reads her work.

    I got really heated about this whole issue for a while, and then when I was trying to find this post again to share my thoughts, I stumbled across that image of the Viewmaster, and then I couldn't remember all of the vile criticism I wanted to share, because I was inspired instead by what a Viewmaster is.

    This is because inspiration, and your dedication to writing about things that interest as oppose to annoy you, is more powerful than snide criticism.

    That's why everyone comes back to your site, and why the academy lot increasingly are forced to languish in their (esteemed) obsolescence.

    I was going to drop out at the end of this year, but your book reminded me that Architecture is not all Deleuze and Post-Structuralism. You inspire, and that is extremely important, especially now.

  47. Kelly hasn't done his research: there ARE lots of writers of architectural criticism whose subject is good ol' buildings. Thing is, they publish in good ol' magazines, not blogs, perhaps because writing thoughtful criticism takes time and effort and blogs can't pay as much as magazines can.

    If he had searched harder, Kelly might have found more obscure blogs such which are in reality archives of texts originally published in magazines.

  48. well, difficult. on the one hand, i agree with the post. kellys article seems not really to be 'thought-through (if that expression exists in english…).

    on the other hand i stopped reading bldgblog after a year since somehow i missed a connecting perspective or an idea why this should be important and for what.

    without this it seems just to be an endless, almost escapist repetition of exiting stuff, a bit tiring in the end. and from that point one of course can easily end up in a broader cultural critique of thoughtless times…

    but interestingly, the bldgblog-spot in my daily media routine was taken over by things-magazine. somehow their opinion is more articulate and present in their "curative approach". and that works better for me.

  49. @ Nov 24
    I was looking for exactly that answer through reading this rather interesting debate. Are there other examples?
    I would posit however that it is exactly because thoughtful criticism takes time, and time is an unpaid resource in the self published blog that means that the door is wide open for the very thing everyone sort of feels is lacking. Meanwhile i find Geoff's self-indulgent ramblings to actually stand as something approaching the kind of criticism i would be most keen on reading. Maybe it sounds less professional, but i think asking the questions that a child with an "overactive" imagination would, has as much merit as deliberating on the seemingly abstract artistic value, or R value of the glazing.

    It is after all people, regular ol people, philistines and nerds alike who use a space or structure, who engage, or don't engage with it. It's really their perspective that counts. Like what's the benefit of the floorplan of the Petronas towers "creating a shape of eight-pointed stars, reflecting unity within unity, harmony, stability and rationality." if Joe Shmo doesn't notice? Appreciation of good architecture should never have to be like walking into a museum, where you have to read little plaques to 'appreciate' its merit.

  50. Hey Geoff –

    I didn't actually read through all the comments, so maybe this has been brought up. If so, my fault.

    Do you think that getting you to write a response and generate interest in the article was part of the plan? This isn't the first shot taken at blogs by Blueprint or the dead tree mags – and they're mostly lacking in serious content. Like you said, claiming that BLDGBLOG and Things don't offer serious architecture criticism like we all know from our school days is like saying water is wet.

    However, I'm sure Blueprint and others have lost readership since the explosion of architectural content on the 'net. These attacks on the blogosphere are great ways to generate buzz for their publications. I would be willing to bet that the majority of Blueprint's hits recently have been from blogs linking to the site because of this article. Not because it's great or particularly well written, but because it's frustrating and kind of ignorant.

    The sad thing is, these criticisms of blogs do more damage to the critics than to the blogs themselves. How can we take the supposed 'real' critics seriously when they're more concerned with throwing stones and demanding that someone do their job? It's absurd.

  51. Anonymous and Kelly are making the mistake that their highly refined and abstracted views of architecture are what interest people. If this was a blog about formal architectural criticism (his use of the structured forms of blah blah blah), a very logical and abstruse deconstruction of what already is just doesn't interest that many people who aren't directly involved in actually planning the structures.

    We want to play around with what might be. That's why we read your blog, for the vague dreams and nonsense phrases, because we're wonder what's next. Which may be literally anything. Throw enough shit at the wall and something sticks. Someone will read an idea here, like it, be able to visualize how it's going to be constructed, and then go off and do it. He will probably learn or know formal criticism of architecture and be able to do it on his own and not have to take someone else's word on it or bother with arguing over it. The future will be made. This is how culture always has and always will happen.

    You can learn a lot talking about and studying the past, but you can only make the future via imagination.

    No less a person than Einstein, lord and master of spacetime as we currently understand it, claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. And he's right, because you can only have knowledge about what already is.

    99% plus of speculation is doomed to be total crap and forever imaginary, but oh that one percent. And you can't find that one percent without that other ninety-nine.

  52. "Also just because you are a fan of BLDGBLOG doesn't mean you have to agree with everything it says…"

    Have you considered that the commenters agree with everything Geoff has said above is because they're actually mentally capable enough to follow his arguments, concluding in the end that his points are stronger than PK's? Or have you somehow made a blanket generalization that the intellectual level of this blog readership's has been dumbed down by GM's supposed "gee-willickers faux-intellectualizing" (I'm quoting another Anonymous, at least I think it's another Anon) and a very low caloric intake of "critical analysis of new architectural design"? Are they a cabal of fanboys and fangirls who can't hold an opinion of their own, or hold opinions impossibly unbiased by blind devotion?

    In a way, you've committed the same methodological flaw that Geoff pointed out in PK's piece. PK is utterly clueless about the intricacies of the archi-blogo-terrain. You're clueless about the demographics of this blog's readership, not because you haven't done the research but because there's actually no data to peruse.

    Obviously these are peripheral issues, but for one who's advocating for more critical analysis (and perhaps even one who does it for a living or whatever), and resort to what almost comes close to personal attacks and is a degree or two shade away from being a conspiracy theorist ("As if not agreeing will infer refusal from the BLDGBLOG club" — translation: GM will not only delete your heretical comments, he's also gonna come getcha!), well, I just find it hilarious.

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