Friday, May 15, 2009

Criticism: Not What It Used To Be

I wasn't going to respond to Tim Abraham's criticisms of this blog - along with several notable others - partly out of a fear of appearing too defensive. His article may have been a bit of a rant but, then again, I've written a few of those in my time. Besides it's always nice to be noticed. However his article has resulted in some very thoughtful and intelligent responses which I wanted to expand on.

Both Things and Sit Down Man have made eloquent rebuttals of his argument so I'll try not to repeat them here. Nina at Infinite Thought too has elegantly dismantled most of the more reactionary statements about the internet more effectively than I could. I would add though that an article posted on line and linked by Blueprint to Twitter is on slightly thin ice criticising the ephemeral nature of blogs.

But onto more positive things! Tim Abraham's article is interesting because it raises a number of anxieties about the nature of criticism and architecture writing on the web. Firstly there is the issue of who is a legitimate critic. Abrahams seems keen to establish a proper hierarchy ranging from professional paid critics on respected magazines at the top down to the unsolicited plethora of amateurs on line.

As well as the levelling out of this entirely self-serving hierarchy he has a further concern that the internet itself destabilises proper categories of artistic worth. There is, Abraham's states, "no register of what is more important than something else".

A certain paranoia seems to underpin this anxiety, a sense that one might not know what it's correct to think anymore. I would suggest that this fear is a pretty constant anxiety historically speaking and the internet is merely the latest in a long line of "worrying" trends towards a democratisation of opinion.

Things magazine's numerous links and connections can be occasionally dizzying, but they are also intelligently and critically put together. Ironically enough Tim Abraham cites Venturi Scott Brown as forbears of 'proper' critical writing. If ever there was an architectural precedent for something like Things magazine though it is surely the Venturis?

VSBA's research projects into Las Vegas and the American suburb (which resulted in the critically panned Signs of Life exhibition) were disliked by architects precisely for daring to look seriously at everyday culture in a non-judgemental way. Too much information and not enough moralising has always been the received critical wisdom on Learning from Las Vegas and Signs of Life.

Finally, and most centrally, there is the curious criticism of blogs for being nostalgic and for "giving up on the future". Leaving aside the question of why this might be the only legitimate subject matter for an architecture blog, perhaps it's the concept of the future deployed here that needs revising.

The Future is freighted with baggage, already overcoded to the point of being meaningless. Abrahams wants a declamatory THIS IS THE FUTURE sort of criticism, not realising that the desire to return to such linear certainties might itself be reactionary and nostalgic. Perhaps the future is already here? Or rather visions and speculations about it already are. It's just that they don't look like they used to.

There seems to be to be a stiff literalness at work here, a failure of imagination. It's perfectly legitimate to speculate about architecture (and its future) by looking at the recent past (Brutalism or Post Modernism) or at objects that fall outside the accepted canon of good design (Googie architecture, the Popemobile) or at other art forms (jungle, sit coms). This is a way to open up architectural debate, rather than flatten it. And looking at the past is not inherently nostalgic.

Blueprint's article exhibits a self-censoring ideology of what it's acceptable to write about, as well as a perverse fear of the possibilities thrown up by the internet. Not only is the format of internet based writing highly speculative (all those links and new connections) but a lot of the content is too. The considered response to Abraham's article by people like Owen and I.T. seems to speak too of the internet's ability to generate valuable discussion in a way that printed media simply can't.

Ultimately the blog sites that Abraham's criticises are (as Things points out) those of a more speculative and experimental nature. Their value lies precisely in the fact that they aren't looking in the same place as everyone else. Their interests may appear esoteric, eclectic or even bizarre, but that's because architectural criticism is so crowded with the same people all talking about the same old things.

Perhaps the future is not over there at all. Perhaps it's over here.


Blaize said...

I would now like to perform a short piece on Abrahams' deepest fear of the internet, blogging, and public commentary. This piece takes the form of an imaginary comment on Abrahams' piece in Blueprint's online magazine. While not as engaging as Beckett or a "happening", it's my own.

---begin piece---

OMG! Whats wrong w/ U timmy? ur such a poop i hate u and archtectuer and u r teh suck.

---end piece---

Kieran Long said...

Tim Abrahams’ piece is ridiculous. The idea that we are all charged as writers about architecture with cohering a ‘vision of the future’ is obviously bogus, and his idea of nostalgia is strangely moralising and paranoid, as you say.

But your own rhetoric is also suspect in places. The idea that the web ‘opens up’ discussion while traditional media closes it is something I can not entirely agree with. Firstly, the web is not a neutral medium – it can be manipulated like any other. Also, you don’t really know who your readers are. This is not a criticism, it is just a condition of blogging.

Perhaps the value of print media (particularly in architecture where it is so established and has such an active engagement on the part of its readers) is that it is exclusive, it is establishment, and therefore surprise is possible. Is it more provocative for Sam to write about deviant sexual practices at the Milan Furniture Fair in the AJ or on Strange Harvest? The reaction I got (by email and post) to a recent critical article in the Architectural Review about Israeli military tactics in Gaza is astonishing, and shows that we have the power to shock our readers and to make them read things they normally wouldn’t.

I would suggest that if a journalist for a print publication is not opening up debate about the subject and challenging conventional content types, it brings into question their quality as a writer and editor, rather than the legitimacy of the medium.

Any right-thinking individual will have been comfortable with a flattened cultural hierarchy between commentators for some time now – it is a postmodern phenomenon that is not (just) linked to the internet. All of the people behind the blogs you mention are active in print, as well. Don’t turn this into a battle of the media in architecture– we’re all in it together.

Charles Holland said...


Thanks for your comment.

I agree with you by and large. It was never my intention to elevate blogs over traditional printed media. I did say that the kind of instant (and yet thoughtful) reaction engendered by Tim Abrahams' article (from Owen and others) can't easily be replicated in the traditional media. Although it can on your magazines online version I guess. That is really the distinction I would make, coupled with a lack of editorial control too, which is of course a mixed blessing.

I would say that there is an interconnectedness and linkage to the web (which Abrahams' demonises) which I have only found inspiring and refreshing myself too. The fact that there is so much good (as well as bad) writing out there is a revelation to me.

So, yes, I am not questioning the legitimacy of the printed medium at all. And yes, the internet probably lacks the quality of surprise, although that surprise depends on being the exception to the rule (articles on sexual deviancy being generally outnumbered by ones on technical practice for example).

The odd thing about Tim Abrahams' article is that he picked blogs that are generally text based and - as you say - by people who write for magazines too. None of them are image based and tend to use them solely to illustrate an article much as Blueprint does! So, where he gets his main criticism which is the dissemination of ideas solely through grainy jpegs from I have no idea. In fact the bloggers in question tend to post longer, less abundantly illustrated versions of pieces they have previously had in print.

Abrahams' piece was lazy, ill thought out and a bit of a rant. I couldn't work out where it was coming from really, a sense of bafflement felt by most the people who responded to it aswell.

Finally, I'm glad you brought up Sam's column as I've been meaning to write to you about it for a while. Frankly, there is no place for that kind of nonsense in a serious architectural magazine!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I've come late to this. I just read the article which has so incensed you FJ and to be fair, it doesn't sounds as if this guy Abraham hates blogs... he just doesn't like yours and the other ones he mentions.

I think bloggers need to be a little tougher when it comes to criticism. if someone disagrees with you in print, they aren't always disagreeing with the whole idea of blogging. they may just be disagreeing with what you are saying.

I mean as Keran_Long kind of says above you can separate how the argument is delivered from what it contains. I like your blog and I disagree with Abraham but lets have some confidence in what we are doing here.

Charles Holland said...


Well, I think incensed is putting it a bit strong! I took issue with Abraham's article but as this blog was named specifically it seemed reasonable to answer the criticism.

Abrahams (if i can recall the argument properly - its been a while) criticised both this blog and blogs in general I thought (although I agree he conceeded to liking some other blogs). He would deny this but it sounded though he was suspicious of the levelling out of criticism that blogs collectively bring into being as well as the particular content of specific ones, mine included.

I was trying to disagree with his general critique which i found suspicious of new media in general and borderline reactionary whilst defending the specific content and approach of my own. Not unreasonable I thought. Anyway, I don't want to go over the reasons again. They're all there above.

But glad you like FJ too and appreciate your comments.