Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Criticizing the Critics

This post may seem to be what one of my editors disapprovingly calls "inside baseball." It grows out of my post yesterday, responding to a critic who criticized my criticism of a critic. Have I lost you already? Probably. Nevertheless, here goes:

Why do you rarely see strongly negative reviews about new or newly expanded cultural facilities? Cesar Pelli's (pre-Taniguchi) expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, Santiago Calatrava's new wing (with wings) for the Milwaukee Art Museum---all received generally favorable notices when they opened, only to become more controversial with the passage of time. Similar revisionism also seems to occur in reviews of the acoustics of new concert halls---Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center in Philadelphia comes to mind.

And now that the initial euphoria over the November 2004 reopening of the Museum of Modern Art has passed, a second wave of assessments has been considerably more critical than the first round of polite plaudits.

As one who has enjoyed her share of hardhat tours and press previews of expensive, ambitious museum construction projects, I can attest to a natural reluctance to rain on these elaborate and expensive parades. So many well-meaning, talented people have spent so much time, intellect, money and effort on these new cultural facilities that it's hard to be unkind, let alone censorious.

And there's another dynamic at work: The most successful architects are also great salesmen. They convince clients to hire them by making their concepts and designs seem like the most appropriate and creative solutions to the problems at hand. They are such powerful advocates for their own work that they (or their enthusiastic museum-clients) also succeed in winning over the critics with the same rhetoric. Too often, these writers see with their ears instead of their eyes.

So we have Taniguchi "making the architecture disappear," with walls that seem to "float." We have "a flotilla of sails" atop Renzo Piano's addition for the High Museum in Atlanta, and "piazzas" (that might otherwise be called merely "lobbies" or, if outdoors, "plazas") at Piano's addition to the Morgan, his planned Whitney expansion and the High. All of these were originally the words of the architects and their clients, which were later appropriated by the critics as their own. Too often, however, the reality is more prosaic than the hyperbole.

The architects and museum officials think about these buildings far longer and more deeply than the critics, who spend a few days at most to arrive at their pithy assessments. It is tempting, while up against a deadline, to adopt the intelligently expressed, well-honed party line. But it's a temptation to be resisted, or at least carefully examined.

As for Michael Kimmelman's initial MoMA appraisal, it seemed like a grudgingly positive review, with a more skeptical assessment struggling to get out. Maybe (if last Friday's swipe is any indication) it soon will.

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