THE NEW CRITERION is an interesting and learned journal of a conservative bent. It writes encouragingly often and smoothly on the built environment, and I appreciate that. I have a sense that I would agree with its authors on specifics, if they ever got down to specifics.
Perhaps I am overly-enthusiastic for practical solutions, so I when I read an article such as Architecture & ideology by Roger Kimball, my reaction is to ask "And? Yes? What is to be done? How does this essay inform a local government writing a new comprehensive plan or zoning code? How does it help a developer build more urbanely?" Of course, it doesn't. It's engaging, to be sure; but where does one go with an insight such as:
There is a large retrospective, even autumnal, ingredient in the current celebration of work by Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier. We are invited to look back a couple of decades or more to explore the work of two energetic architects whose words and whose work helped set the agenda for important aspects of contemporary architectural theory and practice. It is, in all senses of the word, heady stuff, full of breath-taking ideas. Are they, for all that, good ideas? Well, I will leave you all to answer that question; or to leave it unanswered if that course seems more expedient. Leaving it unanswered, I suspect, is what Brendan Gill would have done, if for no other reason than that he wanted to keep the fun of architecture going as long as possible. Fun is nice. I like fun. But fun remains most fun when it keeps to its appropriate place. The ambition to transform all of life into a playground is a prescription for the ruin of fun. Brendan knew this, too, fortunately. I am convinced that he would have approved of my concluding quotation, from the nineteenth-century American historian William Hickling Prescott. "The surest test of the civilization of a people," Prescott wrote, "is to be found in their architecture, which presents so noble a field for the display of the grand and the beautiful; and which, at the same time, is so intimately connected with the essential comforts of life." It's a lot to live up to. But the alternative is having a lot to live down.It's fabulous stuff but it is so far removed from the daily issues that face a planning commission or city council in their decisions on physical development as to be comical. Does it offer any guidance except thunderingly abstract pieties? It is indeed the mirror image of what it detests the most: abstractions meant to guide the concrete.
Even when Kimball tries to get into specifics, he leaves one hanging:
The third admonition concerns what we might call the 'pudding test': architecture must be not only looked at but lived with, indeed lived in, and so what works marvelously on paper may fail utterly on the street. The proof of architecture is concrete, not abstract. Seductive theories do not necessarily produce gratifying buildings.And I happen to agree with him, very strongly in fact, (to the degree I can interpret his words and translate them into rules for the job site.) But if you substitute the term "architectural criticism" for "architecture" --- and that's a fair test, I think --- what do you get?
The third admonition concerns what we might call the 'pudding test': architectural criticism must be not only looked at but lived with, indeed lived in, and so what works marvelously on paper may fail utterly on the street. The proof of architectural criticism is concrete, not abstract. Seductive theories do not necessarily produce gratifying buildings.(italics added)Kimball is on the right track but he needs to follow his own advice --- get concrete --- before his criticism will have the punch it deserves to have.