“Criticality” and Its Discontents

George Baird

Shortly before his untimely death, the Spanish theorist and critic Ignasi de Solà-Morales commented to me that “If European architects or architectural scholars wished to study contemporary architectural theory, they would have to come to the East Coast of the United States.”

Is it still true that theory on the American East Coast retains such preeminence? I realize that it is one of the intentions of the Berlage Institute’s new doctoral program and of the creation of the new Delft School of Design to challenge this American hegemony—and recent events suggest that these challenges are meeting with some success. If America does retain some prominence in these matters, then it may be of interest to this audience to hear of a significant divergence now appearing in the territory of contemporary theory there, a divergence that is triggering increasingly intense discussions such as have not been seen since the beginning of the polemical attacks of the protagonists of deconstructivism on postmodernism a decade and a half ago. The matter now coming into question is the concept of a “critical architecture” such as has been promulgated in advanced circles in architectural theory for at least two decades. The conception can probably be said to have received a definitive early formulation in a text by my Harvard colleague Michael Hays, a text that Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting (two of the prominent recent participants in the discussion) have labeled “canonical”: “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” published in Perspecta 21 in 1984.1

Today “criticality” is under attack, seen by its critics as obsolete, as irrelevant, and/or as inhibiting design creativity. What is more, the criticisms that are increasingly frequently being made come from an interesting diversity of sources. To start to make sense of this emergent situation, we might try to locate the beginnings of the evident shift of opinion against this once-so-dominant theoretical discourse in architecture. One interesting precursor of current comment was an outburst by Rem Koolhaas at one of the series of conferences organized by ANY magazine, this one at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1994: “The problem with the prevailing discourse of architectural criticism,” complained Koolhaas, “is [the] inability to recognize there is in the deepest motivations of architecture something that cannot be critical.”2 But if Koolhaas' complaint was a harbinger of things to come, probably the first frontal challenge to criticality was a text published by Michael Speaks, the Director of Graduate Studies at Southern California Institute of Architecture, in the American magazine Architectural Record in 2002.3 In a startlingly revisionist text, Speaks explicitly abandoned the “resistance” that he had learned from his own teacher, Fredric Jameson, in favor of a model of a new, alternative, and efficaciously integrated architecture that would take its cues from contemporary business management practices.4

Before the dust from Speaks' polemic had settled, two other American theorists, Robert Somol of UCLA and Sarah Whiting of Harvard, mounted a subtler challenge. Their text: “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism” appeared in Perspecta 33 in 2002.5 In it, Somol and Whiting argued against the conception of a “critical architecture” that had been long promulgated by Whiting’s and my Harvard colleague, Michael Hays. In the place of the hitherto “critical” architecture, Somol and Whiting proposed one that would be “projective.”

Since Somol and Whiting’s publication, the pace of publications on this theme and the number of participants in the discussion have increased. At the end of 2002, for example, Michael Speaks followed up his polemic with a longer text published in A + U.6 Since then, additional partisans, such as Stan Allen, the Dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton, and Sylvia Lavin, the Chair of the Department of Architecture of the University of California Los Angeles, have joined the fray.

I have set myself the task of attempting to briefly clarify how the divergence I have described has unfolded to date and to summarize what is at stake in it, since it is my view that a great deal is indeed at stake. 

Let me begin with a short account of the lineage of “criticality.” One of its most cogent and internally coherent renditions has been that of the practitioner—and no mean theorist himself—Peter Eisenman, accompanied by Hays. Together, over the past two decades, these two have developed a position that has consistently focused intellectually on concepts of “resistance” and “negation.” For Eisenman, the position derives primarily from the work of the Italian historian and critic Manfredo Tafuri, but it has been fleshed out in Eisenman’s own mind by other prominent figures in contemporary thought, including Jacques Derrida, Gianni Vattimo, and others. For Hays, Tafuri is as important a figure as he has been for Eisenman, but he is accompanied by additional figures such as Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Fredric Jameson. 

For Hays, following Tafuri, the paramount exemplar of negation in late Modernism was Mies van der Rohe. Like his mentor, Hays has seen the late Mies as embodying a “refusal” of the terms of contemporary consumer society in the very surfaces of his built forms. (In this regard, the Seagram Building is as important a case study for Hays as it is for Tafuri.) For his part, Eisenman has, over his career as a designer and thinker, welded precepts from Tafuri to others derived from the theories of minimalist art practices, as they have been articulated by figures such as Rosalind Krauss. In his hands, this has produced not so much a series of built forms embodying refusal or resistance, but rather a design method that for Eisenman is more important as a process than it is for the architectural products resulting from it. Notwithstanding these differences in nuance, for the past two decades Eisenman and Hays have formed a formidable pair of advocates of “resistance” in contemporary architecture and architectural theory. 

But an enumeration of participants in a recent Harvard Design Magazine “Stocktaking” symposium makes clear that Eisenman and Hays do not exhaust the modalities of “criticality” that have had influence in recent years.7 For example, Kenneth Frampton’s commitment to “resistance” to consumer society has been as resolute as that of Eisenman and Hays during the period in question, even if his intellectual lineage leads back more to Adorno and Heidegger than to Tafuri. Then there is Michael Sorkin, much more of a New York City “street fighter,” politically speaking, than any of the figures I have discussed so far. Sorkin is renowned in American design circles for his longstanding courage in having mounted compelling attacks on prominent figures on the American design scene, from Philip Johnson to Daniel Libeskind. But despite widespread admiration for his critical writings, the substantive theoretical form of Sorkin’s “resistance” is not seen to be centrally embedded in his own design production, as Mies’s has been seen to be by Tafuri, or Eisenman’s has been seen to be by Hays. And this has meant that Sorkin’s criticism, powerful as it has been, has nonetheless been limited in its impact on the evolving forms of American design practice. 

Perhaps the most distinctive “critical” American design practice has been that of two figures who did not take part in the HDM Stocktaking: Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. For almost as long as Eisenman’s and Hays’s collaboration, Diller + Scofidio have produced a remarkable range of projects that have succeeded in embodying “resistance” in a fashion that bears comparison with the one Tafuri admired in the late work of Mies. Still, most of the work in question has comprised museum and gallery installations rather than buildings. And the museum has continued to be a more receptive venue for critical work than the street during the period in question, as witness the parallel art practices of the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers, the German transplant to New York Hans Haacke, and so on. How interesting then, that the first major exhibition convened by the recently appointed architecture curator of New York’s Whitney Museum, Michael Hays, should be of the work of Diller + Scofidio: surely a recent and can we perhaps say “late” triumph of American “criticality”? What is more, it is interesting to note that in their Whitney show, Diller + Scofidio chose to exhibit many of the museum gallery projects that have made them famous and almost none of the building projects on which their recent design practice has focused, projects that will have to meet the more difficult test of being critical “in the street.” It will be interesting to see how successful this firm will be in sustaining its compelling “resistance” in buildings rather than in installations and in the now-changing climate of American architectural theory. 

What then can we say about this changing climate? What reasons can we adduce for the increasingly threatened state of “criticality”? And what are the key features of the approaches to architectural theory that are being offered up in its place? It seems to me that there are a number of strands to the story, most of them interesting, if not all of equal historical consequence. 

One of them, as far as I can tell, is a purely biographical—not to say generational—predicament. It is a commonplace to note that Peter Eisenman has been a major influence in American architectural education since his founding of the New York-based Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and of its in-house Oppositions, some three decades ago. By now, I think it can be said that Eisenman’s influence on his protégés can be compared with that of his own mentor Colin Rowe on his. But Rowe, it would seem, was an easier-going mentor than Eisenman has been able to be. As a consequence, getting out from under the influence of the master has been a much greater challenge for the protégés of Eisenman than it was for those of Rowe. I do not think it is a coincidence that so many of the protagonists of the currently proffered alternatives to “criticality” are former protégés of Eisenman, or at least figures at the edge of his circle. Stan Allen, Robert Somol, and Sarah Whiting all fall into one or the other of these categories. To the extent then that Eisenman himself has maintained such obdurate loyalty to “criticality” over a long span of time, he has produced a corresponding tension among his followers in respect to their understandable career efforts to cut loose from him. I suspect that we could go even further and speculate that to the extent that he has also maintained a stance of continuing contempt for what he, following Rowe, has called “décor de la vie,” he has opened the door to a revived interest in surface, and texture—and even decoration—on the part of some of his revisionist followers. Whatever the final answers to these intriguing biographical questions turn out to be, it is clear that an effort to transcend a certain Eisenmanian hegemony in the upper echelons of American architectural culture is one of the more personal current tendencies evident to observers such as myself. 

What is more, it is probably no less coincidental that an alternate referent frequently turned to in the various discourses of “post-criticality” is Rem Koolhaas. For example, Koolhaas performs a crucial bridging role in Somol and Whiting’s “Doppler Effect” text, enabling them to shift from a “critical” stance to a “projective” one. Then too, it is almost inconceivable that the post-Utopian pragmatism so pervasive in leading Dutch architectural circles nowadays (and which one suspects, to some extent, has been imported to the United States by Speaks) cannot be tracked back to the influence of the stormy young Koolhaas himself on the early generations of his own protégés, in the late 1970s and ‘80s.8

But this reference to Koolhaas brings me back to the short quotation from him I cited early in this text, which will serve to move us from biographical and generational considerations to more substantive ones. In the commentary in question, Koolhaas went on to speculate, “Maybe some of our most interesting engagements are uncritical, emphatic engagements, which deal with the sometimes insane difficulty of an architectural project to deal with the incredible accumulation of economic, cultural, political but also logistical issues.”9 Here we see Koolhaas the ambitious real-politiker once again exhibiting his intense belief in the necessity of a professional, architectural efficacy. And for him, if it turns out that “criticality” constrains efficacy, then to that extent “criticality” must give way. 

What is more, as the 1990s wore on, as it became apparent that Eisenman’s own design interests would increasingly focus on process rather than products, and as it became apparent that the putative tropes of then then-ascendant “deconstructivism” were much less “critical” than many had expected them to be, all this contributed to a dissipation of the robust energy that had earlier been embodied-theoretically at least-by the project of “critical architecture.” 

Then too, it is probably the case that the trajectory of the life of Manfredo Tafuri, from his retreat from contemporary criticism in the mid-1980s, to his death in 1994, contributed further to this shift of mood. After all, Tafuri had been the most assertive contemporary advocate of an architecture that would not accept the terms of reality as they were presented. Indeed, in an extended series of essays over the span of the 1970s, he formulated an utterly distinctive conception of the architectural “project,” one which would at one and the same time propose a new architectural form, would do so on the plane of the entire urban entity in which it was to be located, and would, by inference, transform that entire urban entity itself into something new. Needless to say, there were not too many successful historical examples of this bold and ambitious method that he could point to (Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers being one of the few). Given that before he had retired to Venetian history in the Renaissance, he had already dismissed the American architectural avant-garde as “architecture in the boudoir,” it cannot be denied that by the time of his death, his overall theoretical stance was a somewhat disheartening one—especially for American audiences, who had had the dystopic side of Tafuri’s sensibility so predominantly emphasized to them in earlier years. 

In any event, with Speaks’ polemic of early 2002, there commenced a stream of “counter-critical” texts that has continued up to the present day. Speaks' A+U text of late 2002 is probably the most developed argument that he has contributed to the ongoing discussion to date. Entitled “Design Intelligence,” it starts off with a calculatedly particular usage of the term intelligence—that of the American Central Intelligence Agency—and then moves on to argue that in the contemporary design world, “visionary ideas have given way to the ‘chatter’ of intelligence.”10 Speaks then goes on specifically to dissociate himself from a whole series of design tendencies he saw as obsolete, disparaging the influences of both Derrida and Tafuri along the way: “Post-modernism, Deconstructivism, Critical Regionalism and a host of other critical architectures in the late 1980’s and 1990’s posed … as false pretenders to Modernism. Whether effetely Derridian or ponderously Tafurian, theoretically inspired vanguards operated in a state of perpetual critique. Stuck between a world of certainty whose demise they had been instrumental in bringing about, and an emergent world of uncertainty into which they were being thrown headlong, theoretical vanguards were incapacitated by their own resolute negativity.”11 Instead, Speaks argued for what he called a “post-vanguard” professional practice defined by “design intelligence, and not by any formal, theoretical or professional identity.” He went on: “Accustomed in ways that their vanguard predecessors can never be to open source intelligence (OSINT as it is called by the CIA) gathered from the little truths published on the web, found in popular culture, and gleaned from other professions and design disciplines, these practices are adaptable to almost any circumstance almost anywhere.”12 

Compared to the strongly pragmatic—even anti-theoretical—stance advocated by Speaks, Somol and Whiting’s “Doppler Effect” remains a model of enduringly “theoretical”—not to say “philosophical”—nuance. They summarize their concern about what they label “the now dominant paradigm” by observing that in their view, in recent years “disciplinarity has been absorbed and exhausted by the project of criticality.”13 They employ the design production of Peter Eisenman, together with the theory of Michael Hays to attempt to demonstrate this. In this respect, perhaps their most important claim is that “for both [Eisenman and Hays], disciplinarity is understood as autonomy (enabling critique, representation and signification), but not as instrumentality (projection, performativity, and pragmatics). One could say that their definition of disciplinarity is directed against reification, rather than towards the possibility of emergence.”14 And they conclude this part of their argument by observing: “As an alternative to the critical project—here linked to the indexical, the dialectical and hot representation—this text develops an alternative genealogy of the projective—linked to the diagrammatic, the atmospheric and cool performance.”15      

Perhaps not surprisingly, this schema leads them in turn to propose, as an alternative to the precedent offered by Eisenman, one they ascribe to Rem Koolhaas. In doing so, they contrast: “two orientations towards disciplinarity: That is, disciplinarity as autonomy and process, as in the case of Eisenman’s reading of the Domino, and disciplinarity as force and effect, as in Koolhaas' staging of the Downtown Athletic Club.” And they conclude: “Rather than looking back or criticizing the status quo, the Doppler projects forward alternative (not necessarily oppositional) arrangements or scenarios.”16 So even though they eschew the extreme polemical stance taken up by Speaks, they do not, in the end, differ all that fundamentally from the position he espoused. For his part, in his contribution to the HDM “Stocktaking,” Stan Allen offered up a commentary broadly parallel to the two just cited. Like Speaks, Allen identified a need to “go beyond avant-garde models” and to make use of “popular culture and the creativity of the marketplace.” Indeed, he explicitly endorsed both Speaks' and Somol and Whiting’s arguments, citing both texts in his own. 

Most recently, in parallel presentations at Princeton, Harvard, and Toronto, Sylvia Lavin has entered into the debate, and has made a distinctive contribution to it, calling for a new appreciation of and consideration for “the provisional” and the “ephemeral” in the world of contemporary architecture and design. Characterizing Modernism as excessively preoccupied with the “fixed” and the “durable” in the world, she argued that reconsideration of such qualities in the environment could be both liberating and productive of new design possibilities.17 

What should we make of this unfolding divergence of opinion between two important generations of thinkers on the scene of American architectural theory? Let me conclude by offering a few observations of my own. First of all, let us step back a little from the front lines of this battle and take a closer look at figures that lie in the background. From my comments thus far, I think it is clear that Manfredo Tafuri looms large behind American formulations of a “critical architecture” and that, having long exhibited discomfort in regard to its implications, Rem Koolhaas has served as a model for some of the orientations to practice that have been proposed as alternatives to it. But there is an additional eminence grise looming in back of a number of the members of the camp who have criticized the influence of “criticality.” This is the American art critic and commentator Dave Hickey. 

Not yet as well known in architectural circles as Tafuri once was, Hickey is a recently selected MacArthur Fellow who has written on a wide range of social and cultural issues in the United States and elsewhere. A keen observer of a wide range of popular culture and an art critic with a decidedly skeptical view of the continuing pertinence of the artistic tradition of minimalism—this alone places him far from Eisenman—Hickey is cited by Somol and Whiting as the author of a interpretation that opposes the performing styles of two American film actors, Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro. Interpreting Hickey on the two American actors, Somol and Whiting contrast the styles as “hot” and “cool.” While cooling suggests a process of mixing (and thus the Doppler Effect would be one form of cool), the hot resists through distinction and connotes the overly difficult, belabored, worked, complicated. Cool is “relaxed, easy.” Thus it is clear that Somol and Whiting are eager to employ Hickey as part of their effort to dispel the American legacy of Tafuri in our field.

For me—and let me say that I share the two authors' fascination with Hickey—this possibility is not so clear. I shall return to this in a moment, but first, I want to review a few interesting paradoxes that arise within the overall spectrum of opinion I have outlined above.

To start with, let us take the matter of the design avant-garde (as Allen calls it) or vanguard (as Speaks does). Both commentators dismiss it as obsolete and irrelevant. This is clearly a rebuff to Eisenman, who has always seen a certain American cultural avant-garde as being the embodiment of resistance. Yet, interestingly enough, Tafuri himself declared the avant-garde in architecture obsolete and irrelevant long before the new critics of criticality did. So strong is the tendency of American theorists to see Tafuri through an Eisenmanian lens that they fail to take note of the fact that the American architects and planners he most admired were not avant-gardists at all, but rather such figures as Eliel Saarinen, Clarence Stein, and Henry Wright—not to mention the New Deal creators of the Tennessee Valley Authority. So preoccupied are Tafuri’s American readers with “architecture in the boudoir,” that they fail to pay comparable attention to “socialpolitik and the city in Weimar, Germany,” where Tafuri’s impatience with avant-gardism and his strong commitment to professional “engagement” indisputably lie. So, in the first of our paradoxes, we may observe that were he still alive, Tafuri would align himself with the disenchantment of the younger Americans with their own avant-garde and would support their desire for “a form of practice committed to public legibility, to the active engagement of new technologies, and to creative means of implementation” (Allen).18

Then, there is the matter of “instrumentality.” At one point in their text, Somol and Whiting present “instrumentality” as the definitive opposite to “autonomy.” And in doing so, as we saw above, they summarize under this term three of the key features of the new approach they are recommending: projection, performativity, and pragmatics. But of course, Tafuri was also deeply committed to the idea of projection; indeed, as I noted earlier in this text, his highly activist conception of the architectural “project” lay at the heart of his theoretical position. Similarly, to the extent that we can read “pragmatics” as having at least partly to do with architectural programs, Tafuri was clearly as interested in program as a medium of design innovation as Koolhaas has ever been. But like Socialpolitik, Tafuri’s powerful commitments to projective efficacy and to programmatic innovation are hard to see through an Eisenmanian lens. (I concede that I do not find a comparable commitment to “performativity” in Tafuri’s writings, but I do note that the political stance with which he was associated in the days of his journal Contropiano strategically distinguished itself from that of the Italian Communist party on account of its commitment to active participation by workers in the ongoing formulation of party positions, as opposed to the top-down party line control advocated by the party leaders—and for this reason was labeled an operaista political tendency). 

Let me return now to Hickey and to the possibility of his being enlisted for the polemical purposes of the younger generation disillusioned with criticality. To be sure, there is in his heteroclite sensibility, a startling, and engaging openness to distinctiveness that has engaged Somol, Whiting, and Lavin, and to which they in turn all seem to be committed. Hickey is even willing to engage the “decorative” in ways that would seem to lend support to some of the speculative comments Lavin has made in recent academic discussions. His characterization of Mitchum’s acting style and his interests in jazz reinforce further still his association with cultural stances that can be called “relaxed” or “easy.” 

But of course, it also remains the case that when all is said and done, Hickey himself continues to be engaged by an obdurate—if implicit—quest for “authenticity.” At the first lecture I ever heard him give, he delivered an extended descriptive comparison of two southwestern American cities he knows well, Santa Fe (where his 2002 exhibition Beau Monde was held) and Las Vegas (where he lives). Summing up his critical assessment of the two cities, he made the dazzling observation that he prefers Las Vegas to Santa Fe because he prefers “the real fake to the fake real.”19

Indeed, to the extent that the protagonists of any version of a post-critical project want to enlist him to challenge the legacy of Eisenman, a comment from his introduction to the “Beau Monde” show will give them pause. Discussing his selection of artists and works to be included in the show, he observed, “Rather than asking the post-minimalist question: ‘How rough can it get and still remain meaningful?’ I found myself asking the cosmopolitan question: ‘How smooth can it get and still resist rationalization?'”20 So, we can now see, even the “cool” and speculative Hickey continues to be engaged by a form of “resistance.” It seems to me that the provocative question he suggested he had asked himself about his Santa Fe show is one that one could easily imagine being asked in regard to a work of Diller + Scofidio, such as their Soft Sell 42nd Street installation of 1993.21

And speaking of 42nd Street, is it not interesting also to recall that the very figure with whom I began my account of the erosion of the dominant discourse of criticality was Rem Koolhaas. For Koolhaas himself, notwithstanding his interests in “creative means of implementation,” and in other key parts of the post-critical agenda, has nonetheless participated in more than a few recent episodes of vigorous critical engagement. I could start by recounting the fascinating episode during which, having been brought to Harvard to attack Andres Duany and the New Urbanism, he declined to do so, waiting only for an appropriate moment to chastise Duany severely for his failure “as a prominent American architect” to speak out against the destruction of the distinctive street culture of Manhattan’s 42nd Street as a result of its sweeping Disneyfication. And I would probably end with his recent attack on the Chinese authorities for their lamentable and all-too-pragmatic approval of the destruction of extensive historic residential districts of the city of Beijing. 

Thus it seems to me that the political alignments and the theoretical complexities that this interesting divergence of opinions has brought to the surface to date do not so much constitute the conclusion of a story, but rather only the beginning. A number of important questions remain to be asked, it seems to me, before a truly robust and durable new professional stance will be able to be achieved. For example, while it is probably true that “relaxed” and “easy” cannot be reconciled with “difficult,” it is not so clear to me that they cannot be reconciled with “resistant.” And it is equally clear to me that a much more developed pursuit of social and political parallels between architecture and cinema would be one potent way of articulating such subtle distinctions further. 

Then too, I am very curious to see to what extent the putatively “projective” forms of practice being advocated by the new critics of criticality will develop parallel models of critical assessment with which to be able to measure the ambition and the capacity for significant social transformation of such forms. Without such models, architecture could all too easily again find itself conceptually and ethically adrift. For example, while it is clear from a multitude of cultural perspectives that the “decorative” as a formal category can be integrated within new forms of practice, it is also clear that those forms run some risk of reducing to the “merely” decorative. Enough architectural episodes of the “merely” decorative have occurred to serve as a warning. 

Most fundamentally, in my view, it is clear that a new projective architecture will not be able to be developed in the absence of a supporting body of projective theory. Without it, I predict that this new architecture will devolve to the “merely” pragmatic, and to the “merely” decorative, with astonishing speed. 

May I conclude then by calling for much more careful reflection from us all, before the respective roles of critique, innovation, authenticity, and expanded cultural possibility can be integrated in an “operative” new theory of praxis for our times?

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1