Poynter Fellow Ellis Woodman on the challenges of writing about architecture
Why can’t we talk about architecture? It’s a question that architect and critic Ellis Woodman, a 2014 Poynter Fellow in Journalism, has been mulling over for more than a decade.
He addressed the subject in a panel discussion on Dec. 15 at the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA) with architects Sam Jacob, writer, critic, and founder and director of FAT (Fashion, Architecture, and Taste); and Keller Easterling, a professor in the YSoA. The conversation was moderated by YSoA critic Jennifer Leung.
“Why can’t we have a public discourse?” asked Woodman, a writer for London’s Daily Telegraph and a critic-at-large for Architectural Review and The Architect’s Journal. Since taking up journalism in 2003, Woodman said, he has often wondered why there isn’t a better vocabulary for discussing architecture with the seriousness that art and film critics address their subjects.
Woodman noted in particular an absence of discussion around contemporary architecture. Instead, he noted, recent events like the Venice Biennale and “Sensing Spaces” in London have favored discourse around social activism, technology, and material culture. He added that the 2014 Pritzker Prize — the Nobel Prize of the architecture world — went to Tokyo architect Shigeru Ban for his “humanitarian efforts rather than for the quality of the architecture.”
When writing reviews, Woodman said, the two questions he always asks are: “Does it work?” and “Does it expand the idea of public life?” He acknowledged that he does not write from a specific position, such as a social activist.
“Ultimately, I want to be surprised, to enjoy a range of architecture. It’s a way of engaging with the subject that is generous,” he said.
Easterling presented five challenges to discourse around architecture, including a “this kills that” proposition that suggests ideas have to be successive, rather than coexisting at the same time. She also noted that many readers see the work of architects through the reductive lens of the art world.
As an opinion writer, Jacob said, he does not take on the work of other architects, but prefers to write about “the most ridiculous subjects.” By way of example he read a piece he wrote on “Sex and the City 2” as a proposition about the modern city.
“Perhaps there is already a debate about cities and architecture, but we’re just not participating in it,” he posited.
Jacob said he began writing a few years ago because he wasn’t seeing the types of criticisms that he wanted to read. The Internet made it possible to publish immediately and directly.
Woodman agreed that the Web as a forum for discussion has provided a huge range of new voices and breaks down the traditional siloed format of newspapers.
“It is no longer the case that a critic is the sole point of authority,” he said, adding that in two or three years many papers, some with very long histories, will stop printing.
“The economics of printing papers is no longer tenable,” he said.
Whether criticism continues in print, online, or in the classroom, Woodman said, the critic’s chief responsibility is to describe how architecture operates, as form and as an urban proposition.
“I hope by doing that it’s possible to give the reader the vocabulary and critical tools to reach their own judgments.”
Upcoming Poynter Fellow events include a talk by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and New York Times contributor Angélique Kidjo on Jan. 28 at 4 p.m. at Ezra Stiles College, 206 Elm St. All Poynter programs are free and open to the public.