Critics Love Critics

Critics Love Critics

By Aaron Britt
The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, with the prize for commentary going to Sarah Kaufman, a dance writer, of the Washington Post. I was heartened immediately that a dance writer took the prize—I was equally chuffed when the Post's top-drawer fashion writer Robin Givhan won in 2006—and started to wonder how often critics of architecture have won. Six times, it turns out, including the first ever Pulitzer for Criticism in 1970 which went to the game's grande dame Ada Louise Huxtable (in what might be the best picture of all time, below) then writing for the New York Times, and now for the Wall Street Journal. The other five winners for architecture include Paul Gapp (1979) for the Chicago Tribune, Blair Kamin (1999) of the Chicago Tribune, Allan Temko for the San Francisco Chronicle (1990), Robert Campbell in the Boston Globe (1996), and Paul Goldberger then at the New York Times (1984), but now at the New Yorker.

I started thinking about the critics that I find indespensible. I never miss John King in the San Francisco Chronicle, whose judicious prose and sharp eye make me a better viewer, and ultimately citizen, of San Francisco; Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post is another favorite, though to call him simply an architecture critic gives short shrift to his knowing essays on classical music and film; and when I finally log off the computer I'll confess to having Paul Goldberger's new Why Architecture Matters and Huxtable's Kicked a Building Lately on my nightstand.

This photo of a young Ada Louise Huxtable is from the Life Magazine Archive.

I wrote to a handful of the critics and collagues I know and admire to find who they read, and why. Here's what they had to say:

Sam Lubell is the California editor of the Architect's Newspaper.

I try to read as many critics as I can, but I'd say that I certainly read Christopher Hawthorne [in the LA Times] and Nicolai Ouroussoff [in the New York Times] because of where they are, and the kind of reach they have.

Christopher does a great job combining architecture as art with its place in the city and I like his style and insights quite a lot.

Inga Saffron [in the Philadelphia Inquirer] is also great. I'm originally from Philly so I'm always interested in what's going on there. It's funny because I get a lot more upset when something goes wrong in Philly architecturally than when it does here in Los Angeles, where I live. I think that Inga combines a love of her city with a love of architecture itself. And she's a great storyteller. Not too academic, which is my criticism of a lot of architecture writing, some of which is just too esoteric. But Inga and Christopher are great because they're really interested in their cities.

Blair Kamin is the Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic in the Chicago Tribune.

Well, there are the obvious, no-brainer choices:  Ada Louise Huxtable is the gold standard by virtue of her decades of razor-sharp prose and dead-on observations. Paul Goldberger writes with seemingly effortless grace about all aspects of the built environment.

But these are the New York critics who are going to be on everybody's list. I think it's equally important to recognize top-tier regional critics who express the global through the local:  I love the way Inga Saffron goes after the bad guys--and the bad buildings--in Philly. She's great at being mean without being mean-spirited.

I love the elegant simplicity of Robert Campbell's writings about Boston and how he's not afraid to take the contrarian point of view. He did that so well in 1995 with his hilarious take-down of I.M. Pei at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (I just re-read that piece and it still makes me smile).

John King keeps the flame of first-rate environmental design writing burning brightly in San Francisco and David Dillon [in the Dallas Morning News] does the same for Dallas.

At a time when the newspaper business is under siege, I feel privileged to be a colleague of these journalists.  And I am especially thankful to Kristen Richards of ArchNewsNow for picking out the top architecture stories every day so I can check out what these critics are up to. After all, they're my friends, but they're also my competitors.

Jay Pridmore lives in Chicago and has written extensively about the city. His books for the Chicago Architecture Foundation include Soldier Field, Marshall Field's, The Rookery, and Sears Tower, and his most recent book is Shanghai: The Architecture of China's Great Urban Center.

I'm sorry to say that I don't much like the critics these days. They intone like oracles and are proven wrong as often as Alan Greenspan. Moreover, architecture is a great subject for narrative, and only a few some seem to perceive that. Goldberg does. Huxtable does, usually. I think Brendan Gill [at the New Yorker] was good at it.

Franz Schulze [author of Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography and Philip Johnson: Life and Work] is one of the few living who is truly readable in book form. But he, like the rest of my favorites, is old and/or from the past.

I also like Witold Rybczynski in Slate. Again, he tells stories, and criticizes only when it advances the tale.

Of course no one will ever beat [Architectural Record founder] Montgomery Schuyler in Record 100 years ago. He was good, but what's fun about reading old criticism is that the passage of time renders those judgments a measure of depth that a mere thumbs up on yesterday's building cannot have.

I think Blair Kamin does very well in covering what's new in architecture in Chicago and elsewhere, and this is a much more important service than any criticism.

Inga Saffron is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are so many good critics writing today that any one of them could win the Pulitzer Prize. I read Ada Louise Huxtable for her elegant formulations and deep well of architectural memory. When I want someone passionately engaged in the challenges facing our urban places, I go to the San Francisco Chronicle's John King.

Blair Kamin's writing at the Chicago Tribune never ceases to astonish me: He never misses the target, he's never wrong and he is able to deliver even the strongest pans with good cheer.

I also admire Britain's Hugh Pearman's ability to find deep cultural meaning in architecture and his willingness to go against conventional wisdom, the New Yorker's Paul Goldberger for his wise, non-ideological evaluations and Metropolis' Karrie Jacobs [founding editor at Dwell] for her meditations on the intersection between the personal and the formal in design.

Geoff Manaugh is the founder and author of both BLDGBLOG, the BLDGBLOG Book, and a former Senior Editor at Dwell.

I would definitely say Christopher Hawthorne, both for the breadth of his references and for his global, streetscape-level enthusiasm for new developments in architecture. It's not just signature forms, or iconic additions to the skyline, that attract him, but actual changes in the urban fabric—historical mutations in neighborhoods over time, future implications of transportation technologies, the economic circumstances within much of the built environment is produced today and more.

I also like Will Wiles, from Icon magazine, who isn't afraid to add a level of stinging political critique when writing about new projects such as the U.S. embassy in London.

I also think blogs, however, are filling a void left by the retreat of architecture critics from much engagement with everyday spatiality - and so sites like Pruned, Mammoth, Strange Harvest, Free Association Design, and many others are well worth reading for a new kind of criticism, one that's as much about landscape and culture as it is about built form.

John King is the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice.

As a daily newspaper journalist I'm biased toward critics who continue to ply our trade in print, where you're writing for the general public rather than like-minded design buffs at this blog or that website. And everybody still in the field contributes in his or her own way, be it the value of the observations or the intelligence of the prose.

That said, two newspaper critics in particular make me aware of what's still possible in this beleagured field. Blair Kamin's architectural criticism in the Chicago Tribune is a punchy wonder, ideally suited to terrain in which he operates. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Inga Saffron goes beyond pure criticism to make a wry and rooted case for the ways that design decisions shape our daily life. I hope their editors appreciate the value of what they do.

Miyoko Ohtake is Associate Editor at Dwell Magazine and sits right next to me. I wouldn't be surprised if she wins a Pulitzer Prize at some point.

Architecture is meant to be experienced, and as such, I like to be able to experience the topics I read about in architectural criticism. I admire San Francisco Chronicle's John King's writings not only because I am a San Francisco resident and thus can go see, live, or imagine the buildings, plans, and ideas he write about myself, if I haven't already, but because he verbalizes ideas tangential to SF residents' everyday lives and interactions: What can we do with developer-abandoned land in our city? What if moving to Treasure Island was desirable? It's a big world and reviews of works in places I cannot go to most certainly have a huge value but at the end of the day, I like learning more about my neighborhood.


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.