Culture & Livability

BOOK CLUB: Alexandra Lange’s Writing About Architecture, Discussed

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the subject of Herbert Muschamp’s “The Miracle in Bilbao.” Credit: Flickr user encontrado.es

Hi, everyone! Welcome to the first installment of Next American City’s urbanist book club. I’m very much looking forward to discussing Alexandra Lange’s Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities you over the next few days.

My immediate reaction to the book was to wish that we could disassemble each chapter separately. But the plan for this book club, insofar, is one blog post per book. While I hope that the comments will spawn a concentrated discussion of each chapter, I’m going to use this space to address the book in total.

Overall, I was quite delighted with Writing About Architecture. I’m a sucker for critical essays as it is, and some of those that Lange chose to pull apart have long been favorites of mine. Some, like Herbert Muschamp’s “The Miracle in Bilbao,” were new to me, and I enjoyed reading them not in a vacuum but with an immediately subsequent deconstruction.

My favorite chapter was the fourth, “Monuments.” I enjoyed Charles Moore’s “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” and thought this comment by Lange was widely applicable: “The future of the monument is in harnessing the qualities that do seem to matter to people in their everyday lives and in seeking inspiration in the built environment that had previously been seen as the periphery” (p. 115). Was there a particular chapter — that is to say, pairing of critical essay and Lange’s commentary — that you liked or disliked? Was there an essay you liked, but commentary you disagreed with, or vice versa?

The most significant fault I could find with Writing About Architecture was that it reinforced the canon of architecture and design critics. While referring to the masters — Mumford, Olmsted, Jacobs — does seem necessary from an instructional point of view, I wonder what kind of space there is for new voices. I appreciate Lange’s inclusion of female critics (for instance, I was thrilled to see the book open with reference to Ada Louise Huxtable), but did feel that the opinions were largely those of people who were inculcated into the ivory tower. Did you think the canonical works that Lange chose to include were appropriate, or was there a voice you think was grievously omitted? Are there names of any architecture critics that you think we’ll be talking about a la Lange within the next decade or so?

Additionally, though all of the critical essays in Writing About Architecture are about ostensibly public spaces — Southern California, the Whitney Museum of Art, Jacobs’ Greenwich Village — how public are those spaces, really? Walking down the street in Greenwich Village as a visitor is much different than walking as a resident. And access to the Whitney, for example, costs $12, which is enough to discourage at least some people from going to it. Does access matter, or should criticism be so transformative that readers don’t even need to visit the spaces that are being written about? (Moore takes a stab at the notion of “public” in his essay, which Lange considers on p. 112.)

Minus the questions at the end of each chapter, which felt a bit too elementary-school, I found the format of Writing About Architecture utilitarian in the best way. Lange’s responses to canonical criticisms were smart, succinct and easy to digest, and there are methodologies she imparts that I’ll try to remember for my own work, especially her explication of activist criticism’s role (p. 86). Did you take away any advice as a writer, reader, critic or otherwise?

Lastly, what do you think are the predominant responsibilities of an architecture critic — to truthfully describe something, to transport the reader to a place, to make an argument or advocate for a certain position (as in Michael Sorkin’s “Save the Whitney”), to dismantle the popular notion of something as monolithic as a monument or a park, all of the above or something else? Would you want to be one yourself? If so, what would you want to write about?

Leave your own thoughts, questions, musings and considerations of Writing About Architecture in the comments. Talk to each other! I’ll jump in too, of course. And if you’d like to share your feelings on Twitter, I’m @alexbaca.

Tags: culture, new york, architecture, book club, alexandra lange, michael sorkin, writing about architecture