The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism

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The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism

words Edwin Heathcote

Strange Death? Strange title. Is Martin Pawley saying architectural criticism is dead? Is he suggesting he was the last of the great critics? Can’t say, even after reading all 400 pages of his collected writings from 1968 to 2005.

Pawley, who has been architecture critic for the Guardian and the Observer and editor of Building Design, has a very particular approach to architecture. It is one that emerged fully formed from the 1960s and remained barely altered for the next 40 years.

Pawley’s is a world of Buckminster Fuller, of high-tech, of dreams of buildings assembled in factories. But even more than architecture it’s a boy’s world of cars and planes and stuff. It’s a style recognisable still in the liberal broadsheets he once dominated – Jonathan Glancey and Stephen Bayley are still more easily excited by Spitfires and convertibles than they ever are by buildings. The timbre of Pawley’s book has the air of Corb’s 1923 Towards a New Architecture (see micro review, page 95), with its juxtaposition of technology and temples and pairs of comparative images.

Pawley’s concerns chimed with those of his age: Foster is here, striding and confident of future domination; the tangled web of Rogers’ service ducts is deeply admired; the environment is an ever-present backdrop. Leon Krier, Zaha Hadid and Nigel Coates are here as well, treated with respect and understanding. The spirit of the AA, of Archigram, is pervasive. And dull. We’ve read too much about the era.

That’s not to say there is not good stuff here. At his best Pawley writes sublimely and perceptively, particularly in the longer, earlier essays on the increasing isolation of the individual caused by technology, on the emergence of big sheds, on the architectural effects of terrorism. I also laughed out loud at a long, self-effacing anecdote about Pawley plucking up the courage to approach Robert Maxwell at a dinner to ask for a job as an architecture critic on the Mirror. The great pension-grabber’s response was “Do what?” followed by “Piss off”, returning to his food.

The short, 1998 essay from which the book’s title derives is an attack on a contemporary world of criticism in which the text is as heavily photoshopped as the pictures, in which PR agencies check copy. It is a paean to independence as opposed to the celebrity worship of the (then still nascent) starchitect, and he makes a good point about the lack of critics able or willing to tear into a building the way TV critics do into a new show. But it is undermined by the lack of criticism of individual architects in the book. Zaha, Norman, Renzo – Pawley loves them all. If there is any criticism of them it is between the lines, in the tone, not the text.

Pawley is absolutely right to criticise contemporary criticism though. It often lacks cultural depth and remains in thrall to celebrity culture. But his own solution, to escape into the world of trains, planes and automobiles, undermines his point. Building is culture, potentially more loaded with meaning and the weight of history than any other art form. Perhaps if he’d concentrated more on buildings, or even theory, this big, shambling compilation would have had more to say.

The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism, Black Dog, £39.95

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