[This text originated as a talk at the CICA Critical Juncture symposium session “Architectural Criticism Now” in February 2014 at the Architectural Association in London, and was subsequently published in Louise Noelle and Sara Topelson de Grinberg, eds. Critical Juncture: Joseph Rykwert’s Royal Gold Medal and CICA Symposium]
I have been asked by CICA’s Trevor Boddy to discuss blogs and other new outlets for reporting and debate, presumably because I’m a blogger. But since some of my writings are also published on paper, what I thought I would do here is compare these two platforms, based entirely on my own personal experience. The first thing I should say is that, as I see it, digital and print media perform increasingly different functions in society. I’m not a proselitizer of one or the other, nor do I believe digital online publishing will ever completely “kill” print. The printed page will continue to be a medium for documenting things of great importance or great beauty for some time; things such as history, art, architecture, etc.
In order to have a historiography of architecture, there must first be a criticism of architecture. For what is criticism, ultimately, but the taking of a position within a debate over a work’s or a school’s admittance into a canon, and therefore an essential “first step” toward the writing of a history? A work of architecture does not become exemplary without critical debate, and the only thing that the blogosphere has added is another platform for such debate; one that is more open to outsider participation, for better or worse. Thus critics participate in the writing of history, just as historians participate in critical debate. There is, indeed, an important juncture between the two fields, a “critical juncture” that is so clearly exemplified by the work of Joseph Rykwert.
Many texts of architectural criticism appear now in both paper and online versions. The major difference between the two is that online versions tend to have a more open and immediate “reader’s comments” section, which accelerates the debate and keeps it less isolated within an élite sphere. This means, of course, that such debate is not always of the most intelligent and well-informed kind. But such is democracy, alas.
My own modest blog, called “Criticalista”, is both an archive containing texts I originally wrote for print magazines as well as more straightforward blog posts in which I rant about things. My blog’s tagline is “occasional random thoughts on architecture and the built environment.” It’s in English (my native language), while being largely about Spanish architecture (Spain being where I live). I don’t presume to be one of those global architecture critics writing about an Asian building one day and then a European one the next. I see architectural criticism as a form of cultural criticism, so I’m never interested in purely formal criticism of architecture, which is the only kind that a single critic can reasonably deliver when constantly trotting around the globe. I think of myself more as a regional critic –which is not to be confused with being a critical regionalist.
My blog is a personal blog, meaning that I am the blog’s sole contributor, as distinct from the growing number of blogs with multliple contributors. The content is original, moreover: I never re-post content by others, such as press releases, unless they implicate me directly. Twitter, Linked in and Facebook are where I re-post articles by others. I also use my own photography whenever possible, and limit myself to writing only about buildings that I have seen in person (I did once write about the architectural photography of a built work I hadn’t actually seen in person, without pretending to be writing about the building per se). Finally, my blog-posts are signed using my real name. We critics stick our neck out, so it’s important we stand by what we say and not hide behind a pseudonym.
Thus my blog is a bit of a hybrid; part archive and part megaphone. With the latter, I have lately taken to analyzing news events in terms of architectural relevance or possible architectural implications. I consider myself lucky to be able to do what I do in Spain, where, to be sure, there’s never a dull moment.
My blog’s stats are not a hell of a lot, but considering it’s a personal, critical, English-language blog largely about Spanish architecture, two thousand readers a month is not bad. I’m also encouraged by the fact that the readership has grown slowly but steadily since I started blogging in 2008, considering the large number of new blogs and online magazines that are constantly launched. A site like Arch Daily has much better stats, of course, but then they publish nearly anything that’s sent their way: 25 thousand posts, 384 thousand comments, 6.3 million monthly visits, 55 million all-time pageviews. Who can compete with that? I don’t even bother trying.
The word-cloud of my blog’s tags or key words show what the blog is more or less about. It’s about a lot of things; sometimes I fear it’s about too many. When I write in my blog, I don’t have an editor who tells me “that’s crap–don’t publish this!” So one of the things about my blog, like the blogosphere in general, is that it’s full of all kinds of stuff; some good and some bad.
The overall quality of the blogosphere is not helped, of course, by the fact that seemingly everybody has a blog. When everybody has a blog, everyone’s effectively a critic. Perhaps not a very critical critic, but a critic none the less. And we all know that nobody likes a critic. Hence the title “Criticism 2.0, or Nobody Likes a Critic when Everyone’s a Critic”. The term “criticism 2.0” is of course a reference to web 2.0, the term used to refer to the latest generation of more participatory websites such as blogs, wikis, social networks, and microblogs that is turning us all into critics, pundits, opiners and experts on everything under the sun from history, medicine and politics to art, architecture and design.
Before these kinds of web 2.0 sites, the web was more unidirectional, and so in some way a little more like traditional print media, but nevertheless with some very significant differences: when the internet became public in the mid-1990s, anyone with merely some knowledge of Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML, could launch a website for very little money. That person could, if they desired, use an alias to remain anonymous. The content they uploaded could be endlessly reproduced with little loss of quality, bit-rot notwithstanding. Hyper-links could establish instant connections with other websites, thus creating a readily available network of information –or misinformation, as the case may be.
But when web 2.0 sites like Napster, YouTube, Flickr and Blogger came along in the late 90s / 2000s, just before the dotcom boom and bust, it became much easier to create a presence on the internet. Soon it became possible for pretty well anyone to upload videos, photos, sound recordings or text to social networking sites, or to make a comment related to a news-story on a digital news site.
We could identify the following five attributes of web 2.0 as being the ones that most differ from print.
- Lower publishing cost. This is why almost everybody can have a blog.
- Anonymity. It’s how everyone can be a critic even though nobody likes a critic. Noms de plume have always existed, true. But the web takes anonymity to another level; one of multiple personalities and parallel lives.
- Reproducibility. As we know, certain items occasionally go “viral” on the net. The quest for such notoriety has created a bizarre mass-culture on the web, making it possible now for complete strangers to instantaneously become global celebrities gangnam style.
- Immediacy. A blogger, microblogger or social media user with a smartphone can now post images, video, sound or text to the internet from nearly anywhere. But immediacy also occurs with respect to reader feedback. Updating a story online, or correcting or editing it, is another aspect of immediacy. When an error is made in print-media, an addendum can be issued, but the original error is still there. A blog-post can be changed or deleted, although if it has already gone viral in the meantime then it may be pointless.
- Interactivity. Web 2.0 is having an enormous effect on criticism. Anyone can comment on anything now, as the web is no longer the exclusive domain of corporations, computer geeks and hackers. Information is more bi-directional, and the hierarchical distance between author and reader is reduced significantly.
The political implications of Web 2.0 are obvious. Below is a screenshot of how my blog appears in Iran, where blogs and social networking sites are censored (though this may be starting to gradually change now). The site that pops up in place of mine recommends other, approved, websites.
But it’s not only countries like Iran that don’t like criticism. Edward Snowden has revealed a very dark side of the web. The “crisis of criticism” is, I would argue, increasingly generalized, and not limited to architectural writing. Architecture itself is in crisis, for one thing, as is indeed democracy right now. Interestingly, it is web 2.0 sites such as Wikileaks, in conjunction with certain newsmedia, that are becoming our fifth estate now. As everyone becomes a critic, official intolerance of criticism is also growing. But so are the means for publicly denouncing it. Are we creating a vicious circle?
There’s even a site called Archleaks where anyone can upload “dirt” on architectural offices and schools. The internet generally abounds with gossip, rumors, scams, conspiracy theories and lies, reflecting human nature in all its imperfections.
Another thing that abounds on the internet is misinformation, much of it unwitting. Reproducibility and lack of professional editing and fact-checking mean that misinformation can spread like wildfire. An example is an item I recently saw in the design blog of the Spanish news medium El País. It contains an image of a shantytown, the caption of which states “Detroit”. Turns out this image is captioned similarly on dozens of websites, in a classic example of “cut and paste”. In reality, it’s Manila, completely on the other side of the world from Detroit. Never mind the fact that palm trees don’t grow at Detroit’s latitude, or that poverty in that city, the result of white flight, is characterized by life in and amongst magnificent turn-of-the-century buildings in a state of ruin, and not shanties.
Images are the lingua franca of today, and today’s architectural criticism is almost always accompanied by images. Photography, in its current digital version, has become so good, that I wonder if one of the reasons for the crisis in architectural criticism might not be that critical words are having an increasingly difficult time standing up next to highly seductive images which architects are only too glad to provide design magazines with free of charge. When editors of architecture magazines make the editorial decision of whether or not a work of architecture gets written about, most of them are doing so based on photographs of buildings, not texts. Photography has thus come to dominate architectural reportage like never before, especially with regard to the web, where high-quality color photography can be reproduced for a fraction of what it costs to print it on paper.
The increasing prevalence of seductive photography in architectural publications is a sign of how architecture culture is becoming increasingly mainstream and glamourous; much more like the current cultures of fashion or gastronomy. More than ever, in the context of pressing ecological concerns and the concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, architectural criticism needs to be independent. But there are fewer and fewer truly independent media groups. Blogs, because of the negligible publishing cost, can at least be more independent, if not always good.
The French magazine Criticat is noteworthy in this regard: it’s a print magazine of architectural criticism, as distinct from an architecture magazine. Its few images are black and white, and it contains no advertising and receives no grants, meaning it is financed purely by subscriptions and sales. The drawback: there is no fee for writers. But at least this magazine is independent and “critical”, in contrast to the growing number of architecture publications whose only written texts seem to be architects’ own project statements or press releases.
An interesting example of an “architectural” website being used to denounce government corruption and abuse of power is CalatravaTeLaClava.com, which means something like “Calatrava bleeds you dry”. Started in 2012 by the leftist political party Esquerra Unida del País Valencià, an opposition party in the Valencian autonomous region’s parliament, it collects all digital newsmedia articles and videos related to the work of Santiago Calatrava, who is known to be close to the Partido Popular that has governed Valencia for decades and that is currently mired in corruption scandals. Calatrava’s structures have, in the last years, gained notoriety for their cost overruns and technical problems. The website, part of a concerted campaign by Esquerra Unida to discredit and pressure the Partido Popular, has had over a million visits and been written about by numerous international newspapers, including The Guardian and The New York Times, causing serious damage to the Calatrava brand. Mr Calatrava is currently suing Esquerra Unida for defamation over this website.
While we’re on the subject of “technokitsch”, I would like to point out the sidebar of my blog, where I display a quotation by Octavio Paz that I find to be highly relevant today: “Modernity is measured not by the onward march of industry but by the capacity for criticism and self-criticism.” Paz’s may not be an idea of modernity subscribed to by the kinds of countries that build nuclear bombs, but the capacity for criticism and self-criticism is essential in the building of a more democratic society. Which, incidentally, is also what “the first moderns” attempted.
Digital technology, e-commerce and multi-media on-line publishing are clearly now where the onward march of industry is headed, especially with the emerging “internet of things”. But what really matters, of course, is the end toward which we put all this technology. Criticism and self-criticism are essential in this regard, and my blog Criticalista is merely my two cents’ worth, knowing full well that nobody likes a critic when everyone’s a critic.