Critics view the world in a particular way. Their singular approach is the applied aggregate of life experience, technical education, and curated preference. This lends critical evaluation a fluid identity as objectivity and subjectivity are combined in dynamic measure. In application, this means designers’ work is typically grounded in assessable quality and function with their opinion operating as a stylistic garnish.
If you are reading this issue, you likely believe yourself to be a critic. As a collection of loosely guided student observations, our audience undoubtedly includes people looking for insight, perspective from contemporaries, or something to distract from the void.
But whether you are a contributor to Bnieuws, a student of Faculteit Bouwkunde, a professional, or a chance reader, all are critics. And in a world where everyone’s opinion can be dressed in presentable attire, it becomes difficult to divine charlatans from connoisseurs.
Yet, every charlatan has convinced someone they know best and every connoisseur has made an enemy through pretension. So why is their distinction important? Could it be that these varietous differences in taste are compelling because of, rather than despite, their distinctive character? Perhaps having any viewpoint at all is the most important component of criticism.
When it comes to architecture, criticism is evidence of this digestive process. After we have been fed some particular combination of heritage, physics, and artistry, we digest and discuss what we have experienced. The criticism this process produces might persist separately from or be codependent with the ideas it critiques, but it must reflect the complex reality that everyone has the requisite education to contribute meaningful commentary.
In seeking to cut through the noise and channel their perspective, architects have a tendency to be declarative. No matter their level of experience, this responsibility is adopted in written texts and everyday conversations. This solemn engagement with the state of architectural discourse introduces pithy observations like:
“That building is good.”
“I’ve seen better first-year projects.”
Depending on the author, these statements are often notably better reasoned, yet their central interrogation remains the same: How do we know if a design is good?
In order to answer this question myself, I employ a personal method called the “boop” test. Much as a child might select the plushest stuffed animal from a store or an animal lover might boop an adorable canine on the nose to convey affection, I convey similar treatment toward inanimate architecture.
To practise this method, I first experience a building or urban space with my senses and, if it is proven to be navigable, logical, exceptional, and enduring, I boop it. This can be done mentally, but I prefer to stand at a reasonable distance, reach out with my hand, visually squish the object, and sequester it in my mind. While this method is technically the result of an architectural canon, institutional pedagogies, and personal perception, it is also simply a fun, accessible way to interact with architecture.
If you find this method too personal, quirky, or qualitative, that is okay! The important concept is simply to understand we each have our own ways of approaching architecture and determining its value. After all, the discipline is complex and to muster a truly adequate response, we must:
1. Read the Menu (evaluate individual “ingredients”)
From considering the materials utilised and the quality of the individual assemblies, to the carbon footprint of each component, this can be a data-centric analysis.
2. Prepare the Dish (evaluate the “recipe”)
This includes quantitative and qualitative analysis as we consider the architectural team and its oeuvre, involved engineers and contractors, the style of the building, and the cohesion of the overall structure, form, and function.
3. Eat the Meal (evaluate “plating” and “flavour”)
This analysis requires interpretation of the architecture’s relationship to its context, its position in physical and societal space, as well as internal and external connections to facilitate user satisfaction.
As a symbol, buildings are polysemic — a representation with the capacity to have multiple meanings. They are simultaneously metonymic, literal, abridged, and comprehensive. When we experience this complexity, our mental digestion considers its quantity and quality, becoming a barometer for instinct. This means every evaluation may not be rigorous, as reasoned positions can be supplanted by this gut feeling.
While we prefer to feed our preferences and have been trained with the technical knowledge to operate with excellence, we have also each lived long enough to recognize not every building is memorable. Between the distinctively sweet and odorous lie the simpler mundanity which sustain societal progress. The potential for improvement is great, but to exploit it designers must be aware of the voices around us. The public we serve have valuable experiences which inform the functions and forms which matter to their daily lives. It is therefore our responsibility to gather and package these critical ideas alongside our expertise to prepare an appetising, sustainable future.