Last month, critic Philip Nobel wrote a Metropolis Magazine op-ed on the “Last Stars Standing” in architecture. With great precision, Nobel criticized the media-fueled tyranny of contemporary architecture’s “starchitects,” and expressed optimism in its imminent decline. With the broadening of the critical voice today to include quippy Twitter users and raging bloggers, Nobel adumbrated a new vanguard of architecture critics to dilute the past elitism that so limited architecture’s playing field.
Though I found Nobel’s comments on architecture’s untouchables (namely Diller, Scofidio + Renfro) to be sharp and refreshing, I took issue with his suggestion of a potential technology- and media-propelled democratic revolution. This is a topic that Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger discussed before receiving his Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum earlier this month. The name of his talk: “Architectural Criticism in the Age of Twitter,” a topic that hits particularly close to home over here.
As its title suggests, Goldberger’s speech addressed the shifts in architectural criticism with the advent of virtual “social” media. According to The Dirt, the bottom line, for Goldberger, was that “the playing field may be level, but the players are not equal.” Whether or not they are exclusionary in their coverage, journalists and critics are now competing for attention with (shooting myself in the foot now) bloggers and social media users who calibrate an increasing amount of information about the world from the screen of a computer. Granted, everyone is entitled to having and expressing his or her own opinions. The Internet has become something of a mythical ladder to success, a magical means to give a potentially powerful fifteen minutes of fame to those who aspire for it, almost regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. But in the process, it has also essentially collapsed the hierarchy of information. It is difficult for the average person today to discern which articulated opinions are well-informed and which are not. In fact, information that is streamlined into alluring images and scant lines of text (140 characters will do the trick) tends to get some of the most exposure.
The primary responsibility of the architecture critic, as Goldberger sees it (and I agree), is to “take the long view…to help us step back from the noise, to try and maintain the luxury of extended thought, to think long term.” This is in part because architecture “is about the long term. And it is the critic’s job how it performs its alchemy, how it does its magic, how it affects us, and to encourage and support that process, enhancing the impact of architecture as a resonant presence in all of our lives.” With the accelerating speed of information transmission, the ability of the critic to carry out his or her most vital function may be in jeopardy. The question is, how can the critic regain an authoritative voice in this time we so comfortably call the “Age of Twitter,” when more noise seems to effortlessly equate to more knowledge and better democracy?
- Kelly Chan