From Taste to Judgment: Multiple Criteria in the Evaluation of Architecture
William S. Saunders
Context: Relativism and Pragmatism
A verbal judgment of “the value” of some entity—for example, an artwork, a work of literature, or any other kind of object, event, text, or utterance—cannot be a judgment of any independently determinate or, as we say, “objective” property of that entity… . [W]hat it can be (and typically is) is a judgment of that entity’s contingent value: that is, the speaker’s observation or estimate of how the entity will figure in the economy of some limited population of subjects under some limited set of conditions… . The “properties” of a work—its “structure,” “features,” “qualities,” and of course its “meanings”—are not fixed, given, or inherent in the work “itself,” but are at every point variable products of particular subjects’ interactions with it… . All normative theories of culture, including those mounted from or in the name of the political left, serve vested tastes and vested interests.
— Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value, 1988
It does not follow … that objective criticism of art is impossible. What follows is that criticism is judgment: that like every judgment it involves a venture, a hypothetical element; that it is directed to qualities which are nevertheless qualities of an object; and that it is concerned with an individual object… . [The critic] will realize that his assertion of “good” or “bad” in this and that degree is something the goodness or badness of which is itself to be tested by other persons in their direct perceptual commerce with the object. His criticism issues as a social document and can be checked by others to whom the same objective material is available. Hence the critic, if he is wise, even in making pronouncements of good and bad, of great and small in value, will lay more emphasis upon the objective traits that sustain his judgment than upon values in the sense of excellent or poor. Then his surveys may be of assistance in the direct experience of others.
— John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934
The Need for Diverse Criteria
First, some assertions about the evaluation of architecture:
• Architecture can be great, good, mediocre, and bad in countless ways. Architecture can and should be judged using many differing criteria. Some criteria are more appropriate than others, depending on the case under consideration, e.g., the criteria for an office building must, of course, be different from those for a church.
• More often unconsciously than consciously, we evaluate architecture every time we think, write, and talk about it, even in our choices of what to attend to. When evaluating, we are more trustworthy insofar as we are aware of our usually habitual and temperamental criteria, flexibly test diverse other criteria, and adhere rigidly to no one criterion. (Some criteria, however amorphous, are always operative.)
• The provisional, situationally specific establishment of what makes for great, good, and bad architecture is an important cultural need, because it is a means of fostering improvement of architecture, and thus, to some extent, of the quality of life.
• The attempt to avoid forming judgments about architecture in the name of relativism, anti-elitism, distaste for presumptuousness, epistemological skepticism, or simple indifference leads only to self-contradiction (for one does judge anyway), and to aimlessness and egocentrism. It is absurd to argue about preferences; it is absurd not to argue about judgments.
Mere assertions. It would take a book to support them. In any case, you may already know if you agree or disagree. Here, I can only test these assertions through a close look at a few examples of evaluations of architecture.
A vast divide exists between the facile, flippant evaluations—about anything and everything—that so often constitute the sport of our daily conversations, and the careful, principled steering clear of evaluations in formal (mainly academic) writing and speaking. “Objective” historians, scientists, and social scientists stick to “neutral” observation, analysis, and exposition. Yet these same people (along with everyone else) at, say, a cocktail party, let untempered evaluations fly: “Oh, that’s such garbage!” “That’s the greatest work of the decade!” “Have you every seen anything so ugly?” Criticism is more common than praise.
But suppose one were to blow a time-out whistle and announce: “OK, everyone. In the last half hour, you all have labeled something as very good or bad. You have half an hour to articulate and justify your criteria.” I suspect that most people would discover: that they are moralistic; that they have some consistent, personal evaluative criteria (“convictions”); that their habitual standards seem, on reflection, too narrow, temperamental, and absolute; and that a desire to feel superior plays a large role in what they say. Important studies could be written by guests who came to parties with hidden tape recorders.
And what if one called time-out and examined implicit criteria in journalistic architectural criticism? Or at a public review of a design for a city plaza? At a board meeting held to choose among designs for a corporate tower? At an architecture school thesis review with a jury of famous architects? Among developers deciding what house designs to choose for their next tract? When one is reading a “neutral” architectural history textbook? In the conversation of a couple selecting a house from among several?
In all these situations, evaluations are expressed, more or less carefully and self-consciously. And in all, analyses of judgments would be illuminating—the opportunities for questioning, refining, and changing operative criteria would be vast. What would be most striking, I believe, would be what those evaluating left out of consideration, i.e., all that their personal traits and histories block them from seeing, much less appreciating.
Yet despite the from-the-gut strength, even dominance, of personal interests and preferences in the evaluation of architecture, architecture, unlike, say, sculpture, quickly forces acknowledgment of multiple, less personal criteria—agreement prevails that buildings should protect us from harsh weather and meet the functional and programmatic needs of clients.
Beyond these criteria, diverse evaluators—architects, clients, users, passersby, critics, and historians—will usually affirm or discount particular criteria from among the many possible, which include the following: The designed environment should: achieve art; create beauty; provide satisfying visual experiences through scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, texture, color, variation, pattern; harmonize function with image and symbolism; be original; blend unobtrusively with its surrounding environment; respond to the character of its region and climate; support and exemplify social/political goals and moral behavior; express the ideals of its community/society; cause no harm to the earth’s ecosystem; be well crafted; realize the clients’ wants (not the architect’s idea of what the client should want); realize the architect’s goals; be durable; provide bodily and psychic comfort; achieve its ends economically; achieve good economic return on investment; influence people to visit and return; contribute to high work productivity. One could, of course, go on.
Several of these criteria conflict—they cannot all be upheld at once.
The most common conflict of values in architecture culture seems to be that between individualistic artistry and service to users and clients. This debate usually deteriorates into cliché, with most “service” architects scorning “highbrow” architects for their egocentrism, and highbrow architects scorning service architects for their weak creativity. However common this dichotomy may be in practice, it is artificial in principle: the need for aesthetic experience is as real as the need for programmatic efficiency; serving a clients programmatic needs well is a subtle and demanding “art”; artistic buildings can function superbly.
To explore how conscious and unconscious criteria affect responses to architecture, I will here study criticism by that group of evaluators easiest to “overhear”: writers on architecture. After exploring writing by dozens of journalists and academics, I have selected particular writing—by Ada Louise Huxtable, Herbert Muschamp, Mike Davis, Diane Ghirardo, Kenneth Frampton, and Michael Sorkin—because it struck me as especially distinctive and energetic. My wish is not to focus on the writers per se; rather I want to look at samples of the writing and ask, with openness, “what kind of evaluation is going on here?” in order to suggest how varying criteria can limit or enable understanding of architecture, and how such an investigation might lead to a provisional articulation of overarching criteria. My affirmation of a plurality of criteria, and my opposition to “Who’s to judge? It’s all just opinion” relativism, are intended to promote self-consciousness, breadth, and flexibility in evaluative responses to architecture.
In the writing on architecture I explored, the criteria that most often emerge are that architecture should:
1) be art, should provide a vitalizing, ineffable affective experience through its expressiveness, originality, and formal power and subtlety;
2) be beneficial to the socially and economically underprivileged or, at least, improve the quality of life for any users; when necessary, resist and provide alternatives to existing abuses of power;
3) revive the “best” traditions of design;
4) be well-constructed and use fine materials and craftsmanship; realize tectonic integrity and “presence”;
5) allegorically express and/or comment on the spirit of our age and/or the state of our society and culture;
6) embrace, explore, and express the desires and energies of “ordinary” people and vernacular expressions.
More than one of these criteria may, of course, be held simultaneously.
Subjectivism: Huxtable and Muschamp
Ada Louise Huxtable and Herbert Muschamp—in the writing under consideration—hold the first criterion: (their version of) art.1 As with the other writers, I am selecting discrete samples—in this case Huxtable’s “The New Architecture” chapter from The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion2—that might not reflect the writer’s values elsewhere. “The New Architecture” presents work by (mainly) James Stirling, Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, and Christian de Portzamparc that goes against the tide of “unreality” Huxtable bemoans throughout the book.
Huxtable here values architecture that provides an intense emotional experience, a “strong visceral sensation … a gut response intrinsic to the experience of all great buildings” (150). This position is essentially romantic, supra-rational, grounded in intuitive impressions; it renders evidence and argument secondary. Valuing frisson, this approach treats personal reactions as generalizable: “I feel that this is so, thus it is.” Assertion is sufficient when the measure of quality is the positive excitation of a sophisticated sensibility.
The language that seals the book’s approbations—language like “unlimited inventive variety … not-so-gentle revolution … poetic originality … dynamic intricacy … pure sorcery … drama and mystery … breathtaking … dramatic” (128–165)—is the celebratory language of romanticism. It glorifies the individual genius, the inspired visionary, and our participation in the extraordinary vision. Valuing exuberance of feeling, such a critic has little reason to shade depictions: “[N]o architect has been a more significant agent of change than James Stirling … . Stirling was a prodigious talent. No one since has equaled the synthesis of tradition and modernism that he pioneered… . His style was so personal as to be inimitable … . [H]e reclaimed traditional materials and reshaped historical details for his own purposes—and they were unlike any one else’s, at any time” (103–131).
Such absolutism and hyperbole demonstrate the energy of the critic’s conviction, but at the same time limit debate.3 In the absence of detailed characterizations of the architectural achievement, one can only respond “I agree” or “I disagree.” Since, in this approach, the precise ways that objects prompt (and, ideally, delimit) the writer’s feelings and experiences are not of great interest, descriptions can be vague: “To be inside a Gehry house is to experience light, space, and color in a uniquely enriched and expanded way. His best buildings offer perceptions and pleasures hard to imagine before; they provide new dimensions to architecture and living” (141). But just what is the “unique” way? What are the new “pleasures” and “dimensions”? The main evaluative adjectives—as in “his buildings have a powerful geometric simplicity” (149)—beg their questions: exactly how and why “powerful”?
This critic defines “those human values which all great architecture serves and turns into art” as “the needs and pleasures of the body and the spirit.” The claim seems indisputable. But those “needs and pleasures” are different for different people at different times and places, and they extend outside that which art can offer. If we ask what this approach usually undervalues, we might include: the comforting stability that conventional, non-individualistic, traditional architecture can offer; ecological sustainability; better conditions for the disadvantaged; and availability to many people in many places. In addition, the architecture-as-art position assumes that great buildings spring from one person’s brain, whereas, inevitably, given conditions and other people significantly determine what is produced; architects—as they are often painfully aware—have much less control over their work than poets, artists, and musicians.
Herbert Muschamp’s “The Miracle in Bilbao”(4) (about Frank O. Gehry & Associates’ Guggenheim Museum in Spain) displays similarly impressionistic and subjectivistic responses and values. Visiting the museum was giddily exhilarating for the critic: “Bilbao is a sanctuary of free association. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman. It’s a ship, an artichoke, the miracle of the rose…” (82). One cannot argue, in the absence of direct experience of this museum, that such a response is not warranted—many have found the Bilbao Guggenheim stupendous. One can, however, note how the critic both gives his fantasies free rein and implicitly asserts that buildings that inspire such fantasies are those to be most valued: “The atrium pitches you into an enclosed version of the state of surreality that overtakes you on entering Bilbao,” writes Muschamp. “Pinch yourself, but don’t wake up. It’s better just to dream this” (59).
The critic comes back to his hotel after his first visit to the museum and, from the window, sees a woman on the street, apparently waiting for someone; when he looks back, she is gone. He imagines that she was waiting for her lover and then that she is somehow just like the museum itself—a magical, emotional, ephemeral apparition. Into his associations then pops the thought, “The building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe” (72). Although this may convince us that the writer was enraptured, it cannot convince us that the building is like the disappearing woman or Marilyn Monroe—those responses are too private. “Fools give you reasons” (72), writes this critic, thereby justifying extravagant pronouncements: “If you want to look into the heart of American art today, you are going to need a passport. The word is out that miracles still occur, and that a major one has happened here… . It’s a real reason to scream. Lose composure. Throw hats into the air. It’s a victory for all when any one of us finds a path into freedom, as Frank Gehry has this year in Bilbao, and beyond” (54, 82).5
This evaluative method sanctions the honest statement “I like it, even love it,” but can articulate only vague criteria, as Muschamp does, quoting others: “What is a masterpiece? … ‘interpret[ation] of the community to itself’… ‘continuous working of meaning in the light of the discovery of some truth’ … ‘the myth of the next reality’ … .” (57). It may be that the most inclusive criteria can only be quite general, but they need not therefore be vague. Muschamp suggests such a criterion in this essay—“We know what it’s like to feel fully alive” (82)—a criterion similar to those that many critics, philosophers, and artists (for instance, John Dewey, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Alexander, F.R. Leavis) have espoused.6 More on this later.
It would seem, in sum, that faith in the subjective impressions of one’s sensibility is too unreliable a means to judgment.
Polictics and Morality: Davis, Ghirardo, Frampton
A second common evaluative criterion is that architecture should demonstrate or support social responsibility through action for the disadvantaged, excluded, controlled, or victimized; in parallel, it discredits architecture that victimizes. Partly in reaction against the aestheticism, formalism, academicism, and zeitgeist representation of the 1980s, this criterion has been advanced frequently in the 1990s by writers as diverse as Mike Davis, Diane Ghirardo, Mary McLeod, Margaret Crawford, and Neil Smith. Finding fault with this value seems impossible: by definition, it’s good to be good. The question, as with most criteria, is whether this one excludes other viable criteria and thus undervalues some fine architecture; insistent political pluralism may result, ironically, in narrow judgments about architecture, which, although always political, is always not that alone.
Righteous indignation gives the writing of Mike Davis its power. His City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles7 is a grenade of rage against abuses of power and privilege in his native city, where he sees corruption, greed, callousness, and duplicity everywhere, and thinks despair fully justified. Democracy—especially unrestricted access to a truly public realm—is rare; control, exclusion, and oppression of minorities and the poor are systematized by governments and private security forces. Through this lens, Davis, not intending to be an architectural critic per se, responds to the early architecture of Frank Gehry.
The early Gehry, especially his cheap-material, anti-bourgeois additions to an existing Dutch Colonial house, might seem compatible with this writer’s values, and indeed at one point we read, “Gehry’s strongest suit may simply be his straightforward exploitation of rough urban environments, and his blatant incorporation of their harshest edges and detritus as powerful representational elements in his work … . Much of his most interesting work is utterly unromantic and anti-idealistic” (238). If Gehry’s work were dedicated just to communicating Davis’s own sense of Los Angeles as hell, it would win his full acclaim, even if it did not improve life in the city (only the romantic, in this view, would think it could be improved). But Gehry isn’t Davis. Elsewhere we read: “Gehry’s work has the peculiar quality of transmuting noir into Pop through a recycling of the elements of a decayed and polarized urban landscape (for example, rude concrete, chain-link, empty back walls, and so on) into light and airy expressions of a happy lifestyle (law schools, aquariums, movie libraries, etc.)” (81). “Light and airy expressions of a happy lifestyle”—anything like that would be a travesty for tough and always serious social realism.
The intensity of this kind of political conviction makes its proponent prescriptive: nothing playful, nothing “merely” aesthetic, self-expressive, or innovative will do. The possibility that creating beautiful, funny, and affordable things could be, as Philippe Starck wishes to believe, a political act—helping to uplift the spirits of anyone and everyone—is overlooked. Davis would, it seems likely, disapprove of the Bilbao Guggenheim: the millions spent on an attempt to revitalize a relatively poor and violent region through building a dazzling form rather than through job training, education, nutrition programs, etc.—those millions might represent, to him, the naive belief that a decent life is possible when important material needs are not being met. Exclusionarily, politics can make art seem frivolous, as opposed to another realm with other—usually not “light and airy”—goals.
In addition to seeing a “light and airy” Disneyesque frivolity behind Gehry’s chain-link, Davis sees Gehry as (at times) “Dirty Harry,” cooperating with the exclusionary acts of the privileged against the less privileged: of the 1984 Loyola Law School, he writes, “the radical, or simply idealist, architect might have gambled on opening the campus to the adjacent community, giving it some substantive stake in the design,” and he speaks of the “forbidding qualities of the campus’s formidable steel stake fencing, concrete bloc [sic] ziggurat, and stark frontage walls.” Of the Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library in Hollywood, he writes: “This is undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built… . With its fifteen-foot security walls of stucco-covered concrete block, its anti-graffiti barricades covered in ceramic tile, its sunken entrance protected by ten-foot steel stacks … [it] projects the same kind of macho exaggeration as Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum… . [T]he Samuel Goldwyn Foundation … was fixated on physical security. Gehry accepted a commission to design a structure that was inherently ‘vandalproof’” (239).
These architectural details certainly seem awful. But, in addition to the hyperbole of “undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built,” Davis’s comments display a purist’s insistence: Gehry was told to design “secure” structures; faced with that fiat, the writer would have preferred that Gehry refuse these commissions. But is Gehry so flatly to be blamed? If he had not accepted these jobs, someone else would have; also, we don’t know, from Davis’s writing, whether other aspects of this architecture offer socially positive qualities that a lesser architect could not have produced. This writer, in order to approach architecture in all its aspects, would need more openness, an eager-to-be-positive responsiveness, and the ability to value and enjoy ways of acting and thinking different from his own. Although one may (as I do) embrace Davis’s political/social values, they blinker him to other values.
Diane Ghirardo’s writing, which, like Davis’s, is motivated by outrage against classism, racism, sexism, and elitism, is, unlike Davis’s, avowedly architectural criticism. Two inseparable phenomena repel her: treating architecture as only aesthetic form and ignoring the social, political, and economic realities that surround its production and use. While by no means unresponsive to the aesthetic qualities of buildings, this critic does not believe that architecture is just another art form or that judgments about it as such reflect anything more than socially conditioned tastes. For her, the biased elites of academia and “high design” hold unjustified power and authority to, among other things, exclude non-elite architecture from serious attention.
In “Two Institutions for the Arts,”8 even before experiencing the sensuous forms, materials, textures, and spaces of the Getty Center for the Arts (not yet built), Ghirardo judges the Center, designed by Richard Meier & Partners, based on the social “statement” made by its program and hilltop siting: she calls it “a fantasy of a world apart from the real world … one that remains uncontaminated by the mundane preoccupations of the crowded city at its feet” (121). It suggests “exclusivity and remoteness. There will be no homeless on Getty Center Drive to mar the idyllic landscape” (123). It embodies, for her, a bourgeois fetishism of “white, western European culture … wherein the less meaningful the object of artistic attention (such as irises), the more valuable the work, and the greater the emphasis on formal qualities as the measure of the art to the exclusion of other possibilities” (126).
Even if one agrees that the Getty encourages an overly reverential, aloof-from-quotidian-living response to art, one may find in Ghirardo’s words some of the dogmatism of social realism, in which “important” subject matter (struggling people, not pretty flowers) is prescribed, as if a painting of irises could not embody (as Van Gogh’s does) socially engaged, influential action in the very intensity and rebellion of its painterly vision. There is something formulaic about the critic’s lament that the museum is “scrubbed clean of poverty, homelessness, class, race, or ethnic struggle, and even of labor and industrial production” (126)—as if those particular hard realities must always be in focus, and as if some other museums do keep them in focus.
But Ghirardo’s treatment of a second museum in this essay—Eisenman Architects’ Wexner Center—shows that she can let an open response override her ideology. Despite her well-publicized antipathy toward Eisenman’s ideas, actions, and architecture, she allows herself to admire this building: “the Wexner Center does not depend upon the web of obfuscations spun around it, and quite unexpectedly, it is a fine building” (115). But more important, she reveals a refreshingly self-contradictory (“fetishist”?) love for the art and form of architecture—in Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, with its “sensitively handled … surfaces playing off one another, and with infusions of multiple light qualities” (118) and in Aldo Rossi’s arcades, which “extend with a measured, almost timeless dignity, an elegant and majestic backdrop to the promenade … articulat[ing] with elegant subtlety different kinds of passageways” (119). If these aren’t aesthetic responses, I don’t know what are.
Like Ghirardo and Davis, Kenneth Frampton believes, in the chapter here under consideration, that the architect’s responsibility is primarily to other people and not to the “self” and its expression. But whereas the criticism of Davis and Ghirardo is primarily political, focused on how groups treat other groups, that of Frampton is primarily moral, centered on the quality of life for any and all people. Frampton upholds a “high seriousness” in the tradition of Matthew Arnold.
In “Place, Production and Scenography: International Theory and Practice Since 1962,” from Modern Architecture: A Critical History,9 Frampton is a moderate, self-effacing, “sensitive and sane” (to use his own phrase, 291) empiricist. His is a commonsensical affirmation of the need for accepting given conditions while attempting to fulfill basic functions and needs (like decent housing), to respond to “the public interest” and ordinary lives, and to respect urban context and nature’s ecology. He wants architects to be decent and reasonable socialists. Unsurprisingly, he is repelled by traits he associates with avant-garde and exclusively artistic architecture: self-indulgence, dreaminess, irony, preoccupation with originality, narcissism, introversion, and the production of seductive images, decorations, or populist amusements. Likewise, architecture that springs from arcane intellectualism, ideological dogmatism, or “idiosyncratic obsessions” (Frampton’s phrase, 292) fails to reflect the selfless seriousness he thinks crucial. For this writer, serious architecture (for instance, the work of Louis Kahn) demonstrates “two transhistorical conditions of architecture … the irreducible nature of tectonic construction and its sublime interaction with light” (302).
Sobriety, realism, selflessness, devotion to others’ quality of life and to a civil society—how could one object to such values?10 The question again is: what do they keep one from valuing that can and should also be valued, perhaps for the very reason that it is not serious and earnestly moral—architecture that is fanciful, poetic, humorous, experimental, populist, abstract, playful, or imagistic in some vital and intelligent way? Perhaps, in the chapter under consideration, the writer is too serious in criticizing (and not at least partially enjoying) Archigram, Reyner Banham, the Centre Pompidou, Las Vegas kitsch, the Piazza D’Italia, and the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie. Critics should, I believe, appreciate capaciously, even as they make judgments that, for instance, what the Piazza D’Italia achieves is less valuable than what, say, the Kimbell Art Museum achieves. They should be willing also to say, “I confess that this kind of architecture is not to my taste, although I recognize its quality; I respect it, but I don’t like it.”
Although Michael Sorkin’s Village Voice columns from the late 1970s and the 1980s11 are occasionally sidetracked by self-regarding efforts to turn clever phrases and be entertaining, they demonstrate, overall, a balanced, flexible, and responsive—yet also fearlessly and fiercely judgmental—architectural criticism. A key measure of the quality of the critical responses is their unpredictability and inconsistency: in turn the critic celebrates functionalism, artistic inventiveness, social responsibility, fitting in, standing out, etc. Such openness is that of a maverick, independent of cliques, ideologies, institutions, and power/status brokers, immune to hip intellectual and design fads, and free to use effortfully receptive experience as his guide and to be faithful to that experience no matter what hostility and ostracism his judgments might produce.12
In a sense it is pathetic to celebrate, as I am, the courage to say what one believes when that might result in exclusion from social circles or even access to some architecture—for how could one expect anything less? Commenting on Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, Sorkin says, typically: “Not to put too fine a point on it, the building sucks.”13 However crudely expressed, this judgment reflects a necessary independence. This critic offers his most caustic comments less with gleeful malice than with a weary sense of redressive dutifulness—in fact, he gave up his regular Voice column in 1989 because he wearied of finding little to praise in New York architecture (237). Perhaps I admire this criticism because I agree with many of its evaluations. But in agreeing, I am believing (not insisting) that they go beyond mere preferences, since they are borne up by evidence and argument, and they savor qualities in buildings different from those in harmony with the author’s spontaneous tastes.
This critic admires modern architecture in its broadest manifestations—“the technical, the social, the fantastic, the tectonic, the sensual” (4-5)—not as a style but as a way of making. For him, Modernism went wrong in “expunging pleasure, whimsy, joy, or happy irrationality” (2). Contrast this with the Modernist Frampton’s greater sobriety and narrower appreciative range—Sorkin’s flexibility allows him to appreciate the work of Coop Himmelblau (“spacemen,” 348) and of Paul Rudolph (with its “weight and occasional Roman gloom … unabashed grandeur and thickness,” 157), of John Hejduk (“filled with the congenial madness of the romantic,” 180) and Le Corbusier (maker of “a rare and pleasurable place, dignified, bracing, even serene,” 252).
Although his tough-talking, glitz-bashing persona might lead one to expect otherwise, Sorkin’s aesthetic appreciations are often delicate: of Aalto he writes, “meticulous to the last detail, his feeling for material and the textures of surfaces is supple, human, and careful … . Above all, his work is friendly to people, gracious, never authoritarian… . Today’s architect is so often the anal retentive or the prig, this kind of sensualism can be embarrassing” (22–25). Sorkin says Aalto “makes beautiful forms useful”—a good summation of a humane Modernism. Although scornful of critic Paul Goldberger’s “balance” (his taking both sides in debates), Sorkin often modulates his judgments: “de Vaucanson’s fowl and Johnson’s projects, like the simulations at Busch Gardens and Walt Disney World, simply have no souls. Let’s not be too pious about this—I enjoy Disney World and clockwork mallards—but there is danger in them. And that is that they’ll finally crowd out the real thing” (177). The caveat “let’s not be too pious about this” demonstrates the kind of self-scrutiny that can head off subjectivism.
Perhaps Sorkin’s sharpest knife was used to cut through the gussied-up skins of 1980s Postmodernist architecture and reveal the in-no-way glitzy realities of life behind the façade: “For the woman staring at the CRT screen in the windowless back office, whether the doo-dads on the roof are Tuscan or De-Con will be of no great import” (3). “Let’s not forget that the activities conducted in those [Las Vegas] casinos are both opiate and rip-off, that their calculation is exquisite. The arty view displaces this manipulation, obscuring it in a schlag of decor” (233). Architecture is important only in it relationship to living.
Ultimately, then, the only criterion steadily maintained in this criticism is so broad as to risk seeming vapid in a New Age kind of way: authentic personal aliveness in the making of architecture—“the eccentricity of individuals… the truer comforts of uncertainty… . Art, after all, is our great hedge against the oppressions of a universal sure thing” (202). Sensitivity to the dangers of “a universal sure thing” is, I believe, a key trait of good criticism.
Toward Trustworthy Evaluation
So what then, based on this brief tour of varied writing, might an ideal evaluative response to architecture be like? One that begins in an open-minded, open-hearted, generous receptiveness to its object in all its aesthetic, sensory, social, moral, political, historical, environmental, economic, programmatic, and functional dimensions; is aware of the conditions and limitations of the work’s production; strives to understand the architects’ intentions and the constraints on realizing those intentions; assumes that architecture can and should be judged with many varying criteria and that tests those criteria through a supple, careful apperception of the built work and its broadest context; respects, acknowledges, and enjoys vastly diverse kinds of architectural achievement; is rigorously self-scrutinizing, wary of its own potential subjective, class, educational, and group biases, and able to reach beyond personal desires and tastes to discover what would be of value to persons quite different from oneself; and finally, prizes architecture that is a manifestation and support of maximum aliveness14—the “ur-criterion”—in any of its infinitely diverse manifestations.
An architecture of “maximum aliveness”—to repeat that clunky phrase—is likely to satisfy several (if not most) evaluative criteria at once, or to satisfy one or two criteria to an extraordinary degree. When a building is aesthetically a marvel but functionally weak (or vice versa), the evaluation will give the achievement its full due, yet acknowledge its limitations.15
If architecture that achieves significant artistic, affective, inspirational power while satisfying functional needs is that architecture which most embodies fullness and richness of life, then criticism will attend to and celebrate that architecture above all. Having struggled to achieve objectivity and balance, good criticism will not then shy away from citing and characterizing architecture that stifles life or fails to satisfy any more particular reasonable criterion—and from then denunciating and working against it.16