Museum at Lilydale by Williams Boag architects (photo by architect)

This newspaper review of a new museum in Lilydale by architecture writer Stephen Crafti is pretty good as these sorts of things go. But the trouble with architecture reviews in the mainstream press is they don’t go far enough.

This one tells us Williams Boag Architects did what almost every other architect would do – they “deferred” to the existing Victorian buildings and park. However save for an overall sense that the author likes the design effort, there’s not a lot here that’s genuinely critical.

The text is interesting and well written – the museum is partly focussed on home-town girl Dame Nellie Melba – but it’s almost entirely descriptive. There’s some background on Melba and there’s a description of the building’s functions, exterior and interior that complements the single photo (of the street frontage – it’s not the one I’ve used above).

This is all interesting enough but it doesn’t get to the central questions we routinely expect from reviewers of paintings, novels and symphonies – how and why did the architect arrive at this solution and does it succeed?

I have a lot of sympathy for architecture reviewers. Newspapers don’t provide enough space to permit a reasonable account of the ‘problem’. It would be very hard for the writer to set out in the allotted space the various environmental, contextual, financial, functional, political and regulatory constraints the architect faced.

Nor is there room for an analysis of the various ways each constraint might’ve been addressed. Or to explain why the particular set of optimisations and trade-offs ultimately selected by the architect was chosen.

I don’t extend that sympathy however to professional journals as they have space for more extensive articles. Yet the articles they publish usually present only one solution (the adopted one!) and tailor and massage the constraints to flatter that choice – to make it seem like it was the inevitable, best and only one.

More often than not these “reviews” are written by the architects themselves and consist largely of pictures. Even those written by others are rarely critical and seldom in any way that isn’t awfully nice and awfully oblique. They’re really fluff pieces, not reviews in any meaningful sense of the word.

There’s little of the plain-speaking criticism a novelist or painter might expect from a critic. One would be shocked to hear an architect panned by a reviewer in the robust way Guardian critic Jonathan Jones took Damien Hirst to task over his latest exhibition:

Seriously – Mr Hirst – I am talking to you. It seems you have no one around you to say this: stop, now. Shut up the shed…..This exhibition is a warning to young artists. At 18, you may long to be Damien Hirst when he was 30. But in his 40s, Hirst apparently wishes he was the artist that, who knows, he might have been, had he spent his youth drawing day after day after day.

Reviews don’t have to be as scathing as this, much less as brutal as this one written by Cambridge historian Richard J Evans about a new book. But that possibility should exist. As things stand, we seldom see even quite tame critical comments like these ones made by Sarah Williams Goldhagen reviewing a new rowing shed in Boston:

This is a modest building, however, and it is not perfect. At 30,000 square feet, it cost $11.5 million, more than it should have to build. Owing to bad value-engineering rather than the architects’ miscalculations, some of the attempts at sustainability failed, including a green roof that was never installed (CRI is still raising the money), and a geothermal heating system that was cost-cut into irrelevance (only one well was dug, not enough to heat the building, so they use gas).

It’s hard to know why critics of architecture are so reluctant to call a spade a spade. Some argue it’s down to fear of litigation. I suspect that’s exaggerated – provided a reviewer gets her facts right and refrains from maliciousness it should be alright. Still, I’ll leave that one for the lawyers.

Whatever the reasons, there’s an even bigger impediment to quality architectural criticism. Unlike Damien Hirst’s works, buildings are also functional. How “good” a building is depends on factors like budget performance and user satisfaction. The problem though is it’s very hard for a reviewer to get that information.

Compare a review of a car to a critique of a building. Of course there are differences (e.g. buildings are site-specific), but it’s nevertheless a useful comparison because they’re both concerned with function as well as aesthetics.

The reviewer of a new car usually gets to drive the vehicle for a few days, often covering 500 km or more in mixed driving conditions. She has access to precise and detailed information on variables like top speed, acceleration, fuel economy, emissions, carrying capacity, turning circle, and many, many more. She can use this information to evaluate the vehicles fitness for purpose.

Some reviewers describe in detail how the manufacturer has traded off weight/space against power/economy to arrive at a particular price/market offering. Good ones compare this process against the compromises made by rival manufacturers and give the reader a sense of the key differences.

The architectural critic however has absolutely no idea how well a new hospital (say) performs as a hospital. He doesn’t know if it will work or won’t work for patients, medical staff, visitors and administrators. He doesn’t know if they’ll love it or hate it. It’s a rare reviewer who independently examines the brief.

Nor does he have a clue if it came in on budget, if it represents good value for money, or what its operating and maintenance costs over time are. He’ll know about various energy and water innovations because they’re vigorously marketed by the architect and client (as if they’re extras!), but he won’t know if they’re the best solution or even if they’ll deliver on the implied claims.

So determining what’s a “good” building – certainly a key aspect of any review/criticism – is hard. There are real practical constraints which mean it’s not easy to meaningfully assess a new building. We shouldn’t blame the critics, but we should understand that even the best ones are limited in what they can tell us.

What disappoints me most though is that those institutions who do have a remit to evaluate the quality of buildings – our architectural schools – have given very little attention to this task. They’re in a position to do post-occupancy surveys of users and intensive interviews with clients, architects, builders and approval authorities. They could take a hard look at the numbers.

Yet there aren’t many hard-nosed, methodologically sound evaluations of major buildings around (actually, are there any?). They could be hard to do in the case of privately owned buildings but that argument holds no water for major publicly funded ones that routinely cost tens of millions of dollars.

Have a look at what post-graduate research projects are being done at our architectural schools. They’re all creditable topics no doubt, but it seems no one’s critically evaluating specific buildings, not even campus buildings. In a world where there’s pressure to make evaluations of even small-scale economic and social policies routine, that seems remarkable.

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