Two Critics, One Literate

November 22, 2014

The English speaking world has given up on the notion that journalists should offer critical commentary on the built environment. Few periodicals or newspapers have full-time architecture critics, and the number of periodicals devoted to architecture has shrunk to a handful. Gone are the days when British and American journals competed for attention from both professional and non-professional readers–Nicholas Pevsner wrote for The Architectural Review, Lewis Mumford for The New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable was at The New York Times, and Charles Jencks crossed the ocean to offer his talents to London when New York no longer found him stimulating. Often the Brits seemed more trenchant and literate than the Yanks, though Progressive Architecture had the best stable of writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I find it strange and a bit disconcerting that the United Kingdom is in the same doldrums as the U.S. when it comes to real design criticism these days. Yes, Colin Amery still writes regularly for several newspapers in London, and Alain de Botton publishes witty books on houses, but there is otherwise little to celebrate in London’s contribution to the current debates about architecture and urbanism. The sorry state of affairs can be summed up in a comparison of two recent books by Gavin Stamp and Rowan Moore. The former has been at his craft for many years, the latter for a few.

Mr. Moore was trained as a architect, and has written for two London papers: The Observer and the Evening Standard. Stamp is a historian and writes a column for the elite journal, Apollo. Both are highly critical of the world as they see it today, and for somewhat similar reasons. All similarities end there.

In his book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Moore surveys contemporary architecture with the eye of a sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified Everyman. He takes the role of client (for a building by Zaha Hadid), user, and coddled journalist (when flying in a helicopter above Dubai’s follies). Chapters treat topics as diverse as sex in architecture, home economics, financing buildings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Many of his rather naive observations ring true, as long as we accept a degree of detachment. Anyone with knowledge of the history and theory of architecture will find his book topical, but often trite. But he aims for a lay audience, writing prose that might attract the attention of tabloid readers.

There is nothing wrong with standing with the masses when confronting powerful interests like developers, Arab princes, and hedge fund moguls. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore’s observations and opinions spew forth like an out-of-control fire hose. His prose is no better than that of a cub TV reporter. Worse, his editors seem oblivious to numerous errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Clichées ring out like cell phone alarms; there are passages of embarrassing crudity.

No English architecture critic that I know of proved incapable of writing in his native language, so with Moore we have a first. How has he earned kudos from the likes of Frank Gehry, Martin Filler, and The New York Observer? How has he achieved his popularity? Most important, why does he occupy the post of critic at a major newspaper?

To Moore, cities “have always proceeded with hiccups and belches,” “symmetry, doubling and repetition are signs of might,” and Stanford White’s buildings are so animate that they can “pluck wood, stone, tapestry or carving from whatever forest, mountain or palazo they please [sic].” He cannot use one sentence when five are bouncing around in his brain.

Meanwhile, in the protected world of connoisseurs and peers Gavin Stamp continues to write short essays about the historical and contemporary built environment. His new book is called Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, a title that should have set editors’ teeth ajar.  Paradoxically, what is inside is not only literate and urbane, but also much less elitist than might be expected.

Stamp has contempt for the globalizing interests that have destroyed much of the British countryside and wreaked havoc on historic cities. He also looks critically at architectural cartoons, other writers like John Betjeman, and even at popular magazine illustrators. Refreshingly brief, his essays educate, provoke, and entertain.

But Stamp stands firmly among Britain’s intellectual and social elites, at least as he is popularly known. He can write scathingly about a darling of the conservative classicists, Quinlan Terry, but because he reveres Edwin Lutyens he will be pilloried in progressive circles. He argues for the preservation of an early Modernist building and praises Coventry Cathedral, but will be remembered for defending eccentric owners of “mock-Tudor” castles.

Which book, and which writer, will reach a larger audience? Which will sell better? It seems very likely that Mr. Moore will succeed in capturing the attention of Starchitects and powerful developers, despite his complaints. His book looks trendy and provocative. Alas, the little volume with the atrocious title won’t cause much of a splash, but anyone still looking for literate criticism will find gems between its covers.