(Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin on why his profession isn't dead)
Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, is used to generating controversy with his reviews. Yet the Donald Trump outburst that followed Kamin’s critique of the enormous sign the developer put on his Chicago skyscraper last year beat all the rest, earning the critic a mention on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”
Critics write the first draft of architectural history, but historians get the last word. Still, I would argue that, in some respects, your job is easier than mine.
After all, the architects and real estate developers I write about are still alive and can react to negative reviews with icy glances, or by hanging up the phone, or, if they happen to be Donald Trump, by mounting Twitter attacks that call me “third-rate,” “a loser,” and claim that I was fired from my job when, in fact, I was on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. Most of your subjects, on the other hand, are dead. Maybe that’s why I’d really like to trade places with you. Dead architects can’t talk back.
In response to Paul Goldberger’s announcement three years ago that he was leaving The New Yorker, came these apocalyptic stories: “The Architect Critic Is Dead”…. “The Death of Criticism”—a message delivered, no less, by the distinguished critic Witold Rybczynski. This trope about the death of criticism has been proclaimed so often and with such self-righteous certainty that it must, like all conventional wisdom, be subject to rigorous scrutiny.
I suggest we start with Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover lampooning the parochialism of Manhattan’s cosmopolitan classes. In journalism, such pronouncements belong under the pejorative heading: “two facts and a deadline make a trend.” The New Yorker doesn’t have an architecture critic! The New York Times architecture critic rarely writes about architecture! New York is getting short shrift on architecture coverage. Therefore, everywhere else, the architecture critic is dead. This is, plainly, nonsense.
Far more important than this myopic focus on New York is a much broader shift: The rapidly changing media ecosystem. Newspapers—and, by extension, architecture critics—used to have a virtual monopoly on the urban design debate. No more. Not in the age of aggregators, bloggers, tweeters, and snarky real estate websites.
The comment box and social media mean that everybody’s a critic—or, at least, everybody has a digital soapbox from which to shout their opinion. Here I am, on my old blog, delivering my message that architect Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago is “boldly sculptural” and “brilliantly engineered”—in short, a landmark worth saving. And here are readers engaged in vigorous dissent: “If the preservationists want to keep the building intact, then they can buy it,” writes one. Another rebuts me with that famous Yiddish put-down: “landmark, schmandmark.”
Clearly, the days of the critic’s hegemony are done. And even some journalists, like those at The Guardian, are celebrating the shift. Their philosophy of “open journalism” proposes that instead of dictating the news to readers, newspapers should ask their readers what they should be writing about.
Not surprisingly, some critics vehemently disagree. As Goldberger says, “crowdsourcing is not the express train to wisdom.” Yet as I know from years of blogging and tweeting, there is often wisdom in the crowd. The people who live in a neighborhood or work in a building often know more about it than the lazy critic who makes only a cursory inspection.