More than one way to skin a building

Last Thursday a fascinating event entitled “More than one way to skin a building” took place at the University of Melbourne. Presented by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, the panel discussion was the first of a series of events known as the ABP Agenda. The focus of the discussion centered on the role and evolution of architectural criticism.

ABP Agenda: More than one way to skin a building

ABP Agenda: More than one way to skin a building

To explore the subject, a high quality panel was assembled which featured the special guest speaker Alexandra Lange (New York architecture critic and author of Writing About Architecture, 2012). Supporting her were the equally impressive  Justine Clark (architectural writer, editor of Parlour and former editor of Architecture Australia), Michael Holt (editor of Architectural Review Asia Pacific and former practicing architect and critic in New York), Dr Rory Hyde (broadcaster and author of Future Practice, 2012), and academic Dr Karen Burns (University of Melbourne).

The role of the critic

The night began with an introduction from Justine Clarke followed by a monologue from Alexandra Lange about the changing landscape of architectural critique. It was interesting listening to Alexandra describe the traditional role of architecture critics in the USA. In Australia, architectural columns in newspapers are written by practicing architects and academics, whereas in the US, there are 11.5 dedicated architectural critics writing for specific newspapers.  As Lange explained delightfully, one is both an art and architecture critic, and so only counts for half.

A local critic writing for a major newspaper can wield enormous power. A scathing review of a project during the planning stage or even mid construction can shape public opinion significantly. A local example of this which comes to mind is Melbourne’s Federation Square. In this case public commentary led to political pressure and then last minute design changes to what is now the visitor’s information centre.

A question that was on the audiences mind was what exactly is the role or purpose of the architecture critic? Lange suggested that an essential part of the critic’s role is to advocate on behalf of the public, seeing the public as the critic’s client, however in questions from the audience, two other models of the critic’s role were highlighted.

Simon Knott from The Architects radio show and podcast put forward that the critic’s most essential purpose is to help educate the public about where architecture comes from.  Rather than focusing purely on the final built outcome, it is important to help people understand the process and the context.  Buildings can take years to be designed, under changing social and political forces. This means that there are often important design elements which don’t make the final product.  Michael Holt pointed out that Architectural Review will be covering more about the process of construction and what goes into making our buildings in a new section, Under Construction.

Donald Bates from Lab Architecture Studio made the point that one of the purposes of academic and theoretical criticism is to help architects to become better at their job.  He highlighted the need to maintain a place for writing aimed at architects rather than at the public.

In addition to considerations of the audience, it was emphasized that there is no single correct way to write criticism. The author’s personal background and perspective will always play a role in how they see their built environment.  Justine spoke about how she commissioned reviews when she was editing the Architecture Australia magazine.  She would carefully select the reviewer based on what she knew of their background and experience to try to ensure that the criticism of a building would always be an interesting engagement, although they usually surprised her by being knowledgeable in unexpected areas.

With so many roles to be filled and angles to be covered, it is important that we have a wide variety of people participating in all forms architectural criticism.

The Online revolution

 “With a change in media we can change what [Architectural criticism] is.”

Rory Hyde

A big focus of the discussion was on the way in which social media is changing the public discussion of architecture.  The traditional local architecture critic might have been able to build up a relationship with their readers over time, but it was a one way relationship.  The online revolution has closed the feedback loop and changed the time frames.


Lange in particular highlighted the positive impact of twitter on her career and of the role it can play in delivering the critique.    

“140 characters is not a bad beginning as long as it is not an end”

 Alexandra Lange 

Services such as twitter and blogs allow people to form “online communities of common concern” and talk to people they would otherwise not have access to. This allows for a more democratic discussion and allows ideas to spread rapidly.


Blogs were particularly discussed as an emerging format for architectural criticism. A blogger has more freedom than a newspaper columnist. They are unrestricted by word limits (although it was suggested that 9000 word blog posts may not be ideal for all readers) and the author can be more expressive about their own interests and perspectives. This allows for a stronger relationship between a blogger and their readers.

Karen Burns described the less formal and faster world of online criticism as “formalisation of the unsaid.” We are now getting access to the conversations people would have at dinner parties in a public forum.  Discussions which would have been held privately are now happening on blogs. This allows everyone a greater insight into a variety of perspectives on their built environment.

An interesting trend that was commented on is that building reviews from blogs tend to be more positive than their in print counterparts. This trend to me seems counterintuitive given the anonymity that the internet can provide. It is also at odds with the reputation of social media’s trolls to be needlessly nasty.  Lange’s advice to her students as to the bloggers in the audience is that every review must have some “pepper”, so that your audience doesn’t think you’ve “fallen asleep at the switch.”

Whilst the traditional building review has become a substantially more positive affair online, they have also become very few and far between. This is contrasted with greater discussion other aspects such as the practice of architecture, about planning policy, about other aspects of our built environment.

Many thanks must go to the panelists and the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne for facilitating such a fascinating event.

Mentioned in dispatches

Archi Leaks, a place for architects to talk about working for companies.

Architecture and Design Book Club, a group started by some of Lange’s  students

Clog, an upcoming architectural magazine, with non-traditional themed editions.

A final thought

 “Everyone should be a critic and have an opinion about buildings in their city”

 Alexandra Lange

Architecture is for everyone

For further reading on ‘More than one way to skin a building’ check out Warwick Mihaly’s excellent piece here


About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Review, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More than one way to skin a building

  1. Linda says:

    I agree with Alexandra. Tradition approach to criticism has been to translate the architectural medium for the layperson. It’s a top down approach that is condescending and talks down to people. This is why architectural criticism doesn’t engage anybody except architects, and I would argue that it doesn’t engage anybody except the architects who built the building that was reviewed.

  2. Pingback: Words and Buildings – A meandering review | Neph Wake

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