Or, must one visit a building
in order to write about it?
The following article was originally published in Issue 17 of Princeton University’s architecture journal Pidgin, which took as its odd theme: “Do You Even Lift?” Other contributors to this issue include the excellent Beatriz Colomina, Michael Meredith, Andrés Jacque, Jonah Rowen, Anna-Maria Meister, and Lily Zhang (amongst others). Definitely pick up a copy if you’re interested. Most architecture and design bookstores should carry it.
Right now their website is being revamped, in any case, so the appearance of these articles online has been delayed. I’m posting the original version I submitted here, which is a bit longer and isn’t quite as tightly argued as the version they published. You can check out a PDF of their copy here. Enjoy!
At MoMA’s “In Pursuit of Architecture” conference back in mid-September, a ten-year retrospective on the output of the journal Log, a pair of questions kept coming up: Must critics first visit a structure in order to write about it? Which is more important, the image of a building or the building itself?
Though billed as a conversation between emerging architects and eminent critics, the most interesting exchanges were the ones that disregarded this format entirely. Sylvia Lavin, a frequent contributor to Log, traded questions and comments with Cynthia Davidson, its editor-in-chief. Davidson insisted that critics must physically travel to a building’s location for their opinions to be considered valid. Her emphasis, therefore, was on the primacy of the built object over its secondary representation through images. Lavin argued this was a false dichotomy. Why separate them at all? Might the building and its image not prove complementary? Critics should of course make every effort to witness a given work of architecture firsthand, but shouldn’t let that stand in their way if circumstances don’t permit. One can get the basic gist of a structure, she maintained, simply by looking at photographs and floor plans. Inferences may be drawn from there.
Neither side can be said to have decisively carried the day. During Q&A, the issue was brought up again, this time by architecture critic Jeff Kipnis, who was in attendance. “I don’t understand why Cynthia thinks one has to go see a building in order to write about it,” he wondered incredulously. “No composer feels like he has to go hear a performance to ‘get’ a piece of music. He looks at the score. Some scores he’s interested in; others not.”
Before Davidson or the panelists had a chance to respond, however, another member of the audience interjected. He challenged Kipnis’ remarks by relying on the very same analogy: “Not true. [Johann Sebastian] Bach walked twenty miles to Denmark just to hear a performance of [Dieterich] Buxtehude’s music.”
“That’s because Buxtehude didn’t publish his scores!” Kipnis swiftly shot back, evidently eager to cover his tracks.
“Again, that isn’t strictly true,” the man started to reply. But this time the speakers on stage managed to intervene and put the discussion back on track.
Unfortunately, no one from the panel subsequently took up the suggested parallel between music and architecture. Of course, the building art is no stranger to such metaphors. Ever since the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling first described architecture as a form of “petrified” music in 1804, the comparison has frequently been made.1 (So frequently, in fact, that the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, a musicologist by training, declared a moratorium on the use of the cliché).2 Nevertheless, despite its familiarity, the panelists seemed reluctant to weigh in on the question of its aptness.
How might the two examples — the architecture critic with an architectural construction and the music critic with a musical composition — be related in this instance? In either case, if distance separates the critic from the tectonic structure to be seen (or the harmonic structure to be heard), the element of mediation enters in. That is to say, if he is unable to experience the object of criticism in person, in terms of its sensual immediacy, then a more intermediate substitute must be found. All this raises the old problem of the artwork in the age of its technological reproducibility, most famously theorized by the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. Of particular interest here is the way a work of architecture or piece of music is disseminated on a mass scale. Lost in this process of reproduction, as Benjamin pointed out, is the object’s “unique existence in a particular place.” What results is thus a kind of spatial and temporal dislocation, by which the object reproduced becomes perceptible at a greater remove. Furthermore, this process allows for the transposition of aesthetic experience into settings and locales where it had hitherto been impossible.3 Continue reading