UrbSanity: Architecture, more than we picture

Originally published in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard

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“Down by the bay (street)” and “Cheese of the World.” Photos by Christopher Ryan.

What is architecture and who is an architect? We all sort of know but sort of don’t. I have been studying, designing, and writing about architecture for fifteen years and I don’t really know. I can say the answer is not as simple as “an architect makes architecture, and architecture is something made by architects.”

Last month I attended Critic’s Night at the Phi Centre in Montreal co-hosted by the Maison de l’architecture du Québec (MAQ) and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). The evening included a wonderful bilingual discussion between two greatly respected architecture critics; former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Emmanuel Caille, senior editor of D’architectures.

M. Caille is an architect. Mr. Goldberger is not. Both are obviously exceptionally knowledgeable about architecture. Both are highly influential voices in architecture. They raised some very important issues and questions about the role of criticism and what it contributes to architecture.

A damaging review by a theatre critic or food critic might shut-down the show or restaurant. It is hard to imagine that a bad review by an architecture critic has ever shut-down a building or stopped people who planned to use it from using it. So what is the point of architecture critics if the object of their criticism is already built and not going anywhere?

There are many reasons why architectural criticism and journalism are important:

  • It advocates for and sets a bar for good and better architecture.
  • It gives the general public increased access to understanding what can seem to be an overwhelmingly insiders’ discipline.
  • It gives architects recognition for their hard work.
  • It also keeps architects accountable to the general public.

Architecture has the potential for huge public impact. Codes and regulations keep architecture physically safe and keeps architects accountable to public safety. Critics and academics help to give us the tools to understand and evaluate—among other things—the social and cultural impact of architecture. Afterall, it is not enough for architects to produce something to make their clients happy and just conforms to codes.

Hopefully, architecture criticism and journalism make us all better critics and appreciators of architecture. It gives more people access to understanding what architects do, what architecture can be, and what standards we should expect. It raises the discussion beyond personal taste. It can help us place architecture in the context of the important issues that shape our cities; economic, social, environmental, political, historical, and aesthetic issues.

The world celebrated Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday this month. As one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, Jacobs had a greater impact on the shape of our cities than any architect. She reminded us that cities are not just skyscrapers and freeways. Not just built by planners and architects.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

Google doodle for Jane Jacobs 100th birthday.

I love reading and talking with fellow architecture critics, writers, and journalists. Again, some have architectural training, some do not. We come to architecture from different paths but share a passion for our shared subject. Here in Ottawa, Jonathan McLeod, often discuss architecture and urban design, both in his Ottawa Citizen articles and on his blog “Steps from the Canal.”

Last fall at the Canadian Urbanism summit CanU7 held at Lansdowne, McLeod was on the very popular National Media Panel on urbanism. He was asked about how he approaches writing on urbanism issues and how he balances specialized knowledge and still being accessible to his readers. McLeod explained he does not have the expert knowledge, nor can he speak for the general public, but he can try to address both and how that helps both sides find potential shared ground.

His answer gave me a lot to think about. I admit McLeod’s articles sometime used to annoy me because I would think he missed the critical architectural issue. Now if I hit that moment in one of his articles, instead of getting mad it makes me think: What am I taking for granted as an architecture insider?

There is also Christopher Ryan’s twitter and Instagram cataloguing of the huge variety of the everyday buildings that surround us. He has a talent for capturing the character of Ottawa’s minor architecture. Some were designed by architects. Many were not. While maybe not individually remarkable, these buildings form what architects and planners call “the urban fabric”.

The popularity of Ryan’s photographs probably comes from how comfortable and familiar we all are with this kind of architecture. While his captions are always amusingly punny, the buildings themselves need no further explanation. We all get it. That is important to remember. We all have a vast amount of lived experience with architecture. Architecture is not just all glossy magazine images of spectacular buildings.

Looking slightly further abroad but not far, there is Thomas Allen’s blog and Instagram Rebuild Hamilton. Last fall, while passing through Southwestern Ontario, I swung by Hamilton to meet up with Allen who took me on a personal tour around downtown. A couple architecture nerds loose in the city. It was fantastic.

Allen studied journalism and is self-taught on an impressive amount of architectural knowledge and history. Despite being warned against specializing in architecture because it was too niche an interest, Rebuild Hamilton has become hugely popular both in and out of the profession.

I believe most architects and planners do what they do because they want to make the world and their community a better place for people. But like most disciplines, those on the inside who have been formally trained, can become a little narrow-sighted by that training. Tunnel and expert vision is a hazard of almost any trade or profession.

Despite all good intentions and striving to act in the public interest, architects need to be kept honest and aware of perspectives that see the city differently and the diversity of needs that exist beyond the professional definition of public interest and even their definition of architecture.

Architecture is not just by architects. Architecture is not just for architects.

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