What is criticism?

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Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic at the <em>Los Angeles Times</em>, makes the opening address at the 2017 NZIA in:situ conference.

Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, makes the opening address at the 2017 NZIA in:situ conference. Image: David St George

In response to architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne’s in:situ lecture, architectural zine ELIZA asks ‘what is criticism'?

The decision to open this year’s biannual NZIA in:situ conference with a critic was a good one. Briefed to provide “an overview of the current [architectural] landscape” as it appears from his home town, Christopher Hawthorne, architecture writer for the Los Angeles Times, covered a lot of ground.

From the ‘Starchitecture’ boom years between the completion of Bilbao in 1997 and the financial crisis in 2008, to the architectural preoccupations that have followed it, he was quick to conclude that – in response to that heady decade in which architects and critics alike struck a Faustian bargain with neoliberal economics that tethered architectural glamor to economic growth through touristic notions of urban-renewal, thus overseeing and underwriting its subsequent reduction from a socially-necessary to socially-irresponsible machine for the production of increasingly novel, spectacular “and highly operatic form-making” – the swing back towards the “social and humanitarian”, in as much as it precipitated a reactionary atomisation of form and resulting focus on “the ad-hoc, temporary and open-source”, has gone too far.

Citing the curious awarding of the 2016 ‘Curry Stone’ Prize for social efficacy in architecture to 100 practices, instead of one, as the apotheosis and likely climax of this trend – a decision that illustrated “both the spread and sameness of this kind of work” – Chris dedicated the remainder of his lecture to speculate on five “uneasy registers”: history, primitivism, the low-key uncanny, performance and satire, which he identified as presently budding pathways back to a kind of architectural form-making different from that produced by “global capital”.

The thing is, criticism is not just a story; it’s a magic trick. Like all magic, its efficacy is proportional to the ambiguity of its punchline – a sleight of hand or point of inflection at the critical moment that both conceals and revels – opening up alternative truths and new possibilities through some necessary deception.

By way of case study, I table here a little-known classic of local critique, A Snake in The Grass, by our very own ‘absent (and now American) father’ Mr. Mark Wigley. A golden-handshake, outstanding holiday-pay, redundancy package, or keep-sake? I can never quite decide. A debt, at least. Repaid with interest before he cut us off the payroll.

Whatever the case, one thing is certain, in claiming that New Zealand architecture is defined “not by a certain history, but a certain resistance to it” he both ‘threw us a bone’ – securing a last-minute invitation to the global architectural after-party through the critical relevance of tabula-raza as history – with one hand, and relegated us to the trash-heap – conjuring this invitation from the very absence of any local architectural history, style or content – with the other. Clearly, if the critic/magician has anything to really say, or hide, we will find it in this moment of deception…

If such a moment could be said to reside within the conference in general, and I believe it can, my sense of this unsaid said, or secret plea, takes the form of a series of nostalgias: for form, beauty, the architect’s hand, civic significance, theoretical substance, artistic merit, a return to innocence, etc.

This being the case, it is a testament to Chris’s keen eye and prophetic powers that between the lines of his scene-setting ‘uneasy registers’, we can hear the faint and always nostalgic call for the autonomy of architecture that ultimately secures the various nostalgias that were to follow. That this call was made here, in a nation built on a contract, by a ‘native’ of the Wild West – that vast and ‘empty’ frontier whose founding myth was the very ideal of fetterless liberty – seems, well… remarkable, and reminds me of another similarly sentimental Californian – Wile E. Coyote of Warner Bros. fame – and his endless attempts to catch the enigmatic Roadrunner.

You know the drill: the trap is set. Wile E. lies in wait. Invisible paint disguises a freshly-laid brick wall, now blocking the path of an otherwise empty highway in a psychedelic desert landscape. Only a blood-red boulder and anticipation separating him from the site of his soon-to-be next meal… “Beep-Beep!”

The Roadrunner enters stage left, his distorted translucent image rounds a corner, passes though the invisible wall as if one or both of them were actually as insubstantial as they appear and collapses into the horizon. Disgruntled and somewhat confused, our anti-hero gives chase only to run head first into his own fabrication. Which got me to thinking, what else do these two Californians have in common? Nothing you say? Perhaps not… Let us continue by that most arcane tool of architectural reasoning: geometrical proof!

Definitions:

1) Coyote. As is well known, Wile E. is a much-simplified re-presentation of ‘Kai-oot’, the mythological Navaho trickster, creator of the earthly world, ingenious inventor of hunting and interpreter of signs across California, New Mexico, Idaho and Nevada.

2) Language. In The Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco defines his subject as “concerning everything that can be taken as a sign”, going on to define “a sign as anything that can be taken as meaningfully substituting for somethings else” , and concluding that semiotics is therefore “the discipline studying everything which can be used to lie […] and by virtue of that capability is always such”. Eco stops here but a surprising world soon appears if we accept and develop his definition a little further: if everything in language is fundamentally a lie, what is true is, in fact, a subset or function of what is false, rather than its opposite, because only through the possibility of a false thing can we begin to speak of a true one, and only then does the object, true or false, become a sign.

3) Criticism. The analysis and explication through rhetoric of the various ways in which signs effect and are effect by the world.

4) Lines. All signs are made of lines. They exist within language and, like signs, have falsity as their precondition. Lines are the central means through which human culture creates order, that is, identifies distinct objects from an otherwise undifferentiated background and locates them in conceptual space.

Axioms:

1) The trickster is a humanist: Even a cursory jog through the recently globalised RAM of mythological tricksters, from Coyote to Maui, reveals them to “embody an [‘anthropo-eccentric’] experience of ‘Reality’ in which humans feel themselves to be self-sufficient beings for whom supernatural spirits, social norms, and authoritarian politics, (that is, the various ways in which the cosmos in divided and controlled), are powers not to be worshipped but, rather, ignored, overcome and, finally, mocked”.

2) All structure begins with lines and relates to the body: Language is built into the very way we understand our bodies, and the delineation of order and disorder upon the body is the original structure.

3) Design is the organisation of lines. The rhetoric of design is always one of inclusivity, however “designers and their designs are indefinitely suspended between generosity and authority”. Every design inhabits a fictional world where only those actors best positioned to be seduced rather than screwed by it are given licence to exit. Generosity to one group is the total exclusion of, and authority over, another.

4) The first architectural thought is to offer shelter. This ‘first thought’ “is not one gesture of hospitality among many, it is the very origin of hospitality”. It is this fundamentally inclusive original condition of architecture that give rises to its necessary exclusivity and in a world of scarce resources and an overabundance of fragile individual and group egos.

Propositions:

1) The trickster is a critic of the boundary.
Proof: D1, D2, A3, D3

2) As the ‘first host’, architecture is an open invitation to change and be changed.
Proof: D2, D3, A2, A3, A4

3) The architect is a trickster.
Proof: A3, P3, A1

4) All criticism is criticism of the boundary.
Proof: D3, A2, A3

5) The architect is a critic.
Proof: P1, P2, P3, P4

6) The architecture critic is both the critic of a critic, and an architect themselves.
Proof: D1, P1, P2, P5

7) The critic is an architect is a trickster is a critic.
Proof: P3, P5, P6

While Wile E. and his mythological namesake share a number of important attributes (resurrection, hunger, cunning, and inventiveness etc.), the first falls far short of capturing the full complexity and significance of the second’s role in native American storytelling as disruptor of the cosmic order of things (D1 + A1).

A literal caricature of his efficacious inspiration, Wile E. Coyote is a fanatic, that is, “one who redoubles their efforts after forgetting their aim” (A2 + D4 – D3). Never quite able to learn from his misadventures – or entertain the possibility of alternative devotions – he constructs ever more elaborate contraptions to catch his elusive prey that invariably fail to account for the predicable physics of his cartoon universe.

He is caught in a loop. A darkly repetitive and interminable psychosis (A3 – D2); the barren landscape, all-knowing Roadrunner and misbehaving traps all aberrations of his own imagination.

Like the agreed ‘whiteness’ that provides the necessary background for the benevolent autonomy of theoretical Modernism, the otherwise empty desert and transcendent Roadrunner together symbolise a simultaneously irresistible and unobtainable Order – a return to Eden in which absolute knowledge of the cosmos resides innocently within it (A2 – D2).

The only conclusion: though submitting himself to an omnipresent transcendental signifier – the imagined Roadrunner – our trickster/critic has become a historian (A2 – D2).

So, is Christopher’s lecture criticism or history? In suggesting “registers”, even tentatively, “uneasily”, does he revel mechanisms of power and control or, perhaps accidentally, like a prophet, create new ones that establish him as Greenbergian-like father figure?

Can the critic be a prophet without becoming a historian? Should she? Or should her last and most critical act be, like the mythological Kai-oot, to steal herself away? Further, as architect/critics (P7) to what extent do we realise this ideal? Are we tricksters or historians?

For more on ELIZA, see here.

1. Unless otherwise noted all quotes were given by Christopher Hawthorne during his opening lecture at In:Situ 2017, the biannual conference of the NZIA.

2. The Roadrunner

3. Umberto Eco in The Theory of Semiotics

4. ibid

5. Lewis Hyde in Trickster Makes The World

6. Pascal Gielen in Performing the Common City

7. Mark Wigley in Extreme Hospitality

8. George Santayana in The Life of Reason


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