In early June, I put on a white KN95 mask and a black sweater and left my apartment like thousands of other Chicagoans to protest the murder of Black Americans by police. An hour or so of marching and chanting culminated at an intersection near my home dominated by the Stewart School Lofts, an erstwhile public elementary school redeveloped as luxury housing in 2018. The building is a perfect piece of red-brick Dwight Perkins design that the developer Morningside spent $16 million to renovate and upgrade. Inside, the architects at Pappageorge Haymes Partners covered the walls with Perkins’s original blueprints, left chalkboards in the units intact, and integrated other remnants of the school fabric, up to and including the gym flooring. Stopping in front of the school, protesters took a knee, as speakers shared their thoughts on white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence in America, and I got a succinct lesson on architecture I shouldn’t have been surprised by.
Speaker after speaker framed the violence against Black and Brown people in explicitly architectural terms, with the Stewart School Lofts as Exhibit A. They called out disparities in the care and upkeep of buildings, streets, and infrastructure in the North and South sides, neatly captured in what Chicago Urbanism Twitter calls The Only Map of Chicago. Though located on the far North Side, Stewart had for decades served Black and Brown kids until declining enrollment prompted Chicago Public Schools to close the branch in 2013, at which point its landmarked building was snatched up for more than $5 million. It was as clear an example as could be of how infrastructure used by marginalized people is degraded and devalued until it becomes an easy target for capital to re-purpose toward its own ends.
Inequality inscribes itself in brick and mortar, and so buildings may very well be our most faithful stenographers of late capitalism. But as political as they are—and as much as they embody the hopes of their designers—buildings simply aren’t political actors themselves. Rather, they’re the result of political actors working in a given economic and cultural context. As my friend, architect Keefer Dunn, says, “No building has ever walked a picket line.” That’s a job for the architect. And the critic.
Now is a particularly good time to reevaluate the role of architectural criticism in my city, and everywhere else. Last month, Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin announced that after nearly three decades of service, he was taking a buyout from the paper. The cradle of American modernism has no full-time daily newspaper architecture critic, and with the recent shuttering of Curbed Chicago, fewer and fewer places for dedicated coverage of the city’s architecture. It remains to be seen whether the Tribune and its hedge-fund owners will replace Kamin, but it’s clear that the next person to occupy this rare perch (one of only a handful left in the nation) will need to approach the beat differently.
Because in our current political moment, architectural criticism finds its highest calling when it’s interrogating, at some level, how the built environment codifies and perpetuates the bone-crushing inequities present at every level of American life. Absent this frame, it runs the risk of drifting along as an unwitting distraction or, worse, becoming a complicit cog in a reactionary apparatus.
That’s not to say that Kamin never did any interrogating. His series of articles on the blatant privatization and securitization of Chicago’s lakefront earned him a Pulitzer in 1999 and was an early inspiration to me as a young design writer. When I moved here many years later, more intimate contact with the lake made this even more clear, and Kamin’s commentary more pointed: Not sharing this city-defining resource with all Chicagoans was a profound moral failure. But the focus on equity has to be the starting point and consistent through-line.
Often, Kamin and his contemporaries approach architectural criticism as technocratic liberal reformers and aesthetic tastemakers. In their writings you find a good deal of confidence that the developer class that sets the parameters for buildable architecture can be induced to do the moral, equitable thing if the right mix of goodies is dangled in front of them, and if they can’t, that stern, but sensibly moderate, penalties will set them straight. More often than not, these critics presented their work as helping to develop more discerning citizens, smarter at seeing the city, clued in to what fits in a neighborhood of three-flats or bungalows. This frame for criticism seeks to bring up savvier consumers.
But consumption is an inherently passive act. It hands over agency for what is produced and what goes to market to people who already sit atop the economic food chain. Consumer choice is what the populace is offered in lieu of actual material politics, whether it’s the convoluted “marketplace” of Obamacare, or the bevy of arcane affordable housing vouchers that can’t keep pace with need. And that’s to say nothing of the Trojan-horse phrase “school choice” and its weaponization against public schools like Stewart.
It’s not enough, then, to cultivate the discernment of a readership so that they tsk-tsk a developer for overplaying their hand on the massing of a tower, or frown at the clumsy details where louvers are welded to curtain walls. When median wages have been flat for 40 years, when Jeff Bezos makes more than enough to cover rent at the Stewart School Lofts every two seconds (about $5,000), life expectancies are declining, cities and the stock market soars while hundreds of thousands die in a pandemic, a well-honed sense of compositional balance just isn’t the best tool to push back with.
Criticism, I am arguing, should adopt an outwardly activist, agitational bent. If you’re perturbed by such an ideological prescription, I’d say there is no criticism free of ideology, and the pass the free market is given to create and wreck cityscapes with abandon is itself wildly ideological. For the critic, tracing and revealing fissures in the built environment’s seemingly sturdy foundations is something like plotting for their survival, though it’s very much secondary to the advocacy and grassroots organizing work it must nonetheless be aligned with.
This doesn’t mean we can or should avoid aesthetics altogether. After all, there are few people more qualified to address them than designers, and their critics. But aesthetic properties change meaning as they move across space, time, and culture, such that no set of signifiers can connote a definitive moral position. (Trump was gross and boorish and the buildings that might result from his halfhearted classical federal architecture mandate would likely be as well, but the moral worth of an ICE detention center does not hinge on its chosen mode of architectural expression.) If in the past critics aligned themselves with stylistic movements and the purported values they espoused, we no longer have that luxury today. To persist in this mindset is to see a building solely as an amalgamation of cultural signifiers that might nod in a progressive direction when its funding and operations tell a different story.
Ultimately, architecture is downstream from culture and the economy and has relatively little effect on them. The most architecture can do is accelerate already extant feedback loops. Much to the frustration of many architects, no building has ever triggered a revolution, but architecture is required to codify and commemorate one after the fact. Some might be upset at the notion that buildings are largely incapable of pushing against the tide of our political economy; they may feel that this is a sad narrowing of the horizons of criticism. But this realization hasn’t tempered my own obsession with architecture. There is still so much here. A downstream point of view can still tell you just about all you need to know about the inequities designed into a system that showers investment dollars on Chicago’s North Side at the expense of the poorer and less white South and West Sides. Looking downstream can also bring into focus the places where architecture and policy quite literally overlap, as in the Green New Deal, a design “commission” we have to get right if we’re to have a future at all.
For the critic, this means placing greater emphasis to building sectors starved of capital and accountable to the broad mass of the citizenry—namely the public sector, and especially schools, public housing, and commercial corridors in disinvested areas. It means refraining from fixating on those sectors already well served by capital: hospitality, retail, offices, market-rate housing. At the end of the day, the critic must contend with the fact that most of what gets built is of this latter, commodified variety. There is precedent for this. Michael Sorkin, cruelly taken from us by COVID-19, always placed his work at the intersection of the winners and losers of racial capitalism and how this dynamic expressed itself in the fine grain of the city.
Critics must also acknowledge that the methods of design production are just as important as the final product. Buildings are not simply objects but indicators of an exploitative labor system. This is the critique offered by the Architecture Lobby, and it starts from a place of clear-eyed rank-and-file realism that holds that the average architect is more likely to be saddled with debt and financially precarious than well compensated and in a position of complete creative control.
The same goes for architecture critics, who, with the contracting design media and the oncoming extinction of daily newspaper critics, are in an even more advanced stage of labor precarity. In the hopes of attaining some bankable form of micro-celebrity, we post and we meme, and are reminded: We are workers. We practice criticism as gig-economy strivers, with little hope of ever landing a travel expense account, a W-2 job, or employer-provided health insurance. Recognition of this precarity, and the imbalance of power between the ownership class and the people who write the words (or design the buildings), is a dominant theme in the work of Chicago’s immensely talented up-and-coming critics—Anjulie Rao, Kate Wagner, Elizabeth A. Blasius, and Marianela D’Aprile among them. Yet the poor financial returns of this work, as well as its cultural biases, act as impediments to diversifying and thus sharpening criticism. We need a wider repertoire wielded by critics from a wider range of backgrounds, and so must work tirelessly to bring marginalized voices aboard.
Finally, architecture critics need to pay special attention to designers who actively push on the individuals and institutions that commission architecture. Architects don’t have a great track record as policy thinkers, but targeted criticism can give them a few clues in the right direction. If architects want to bring into being structures that nurture and ennoble people who need it, if they want to live up to their own rhetoric, they have to become design activists, with their greatest commission redesigning the organizations that sponsor their work. These are precisely the metrics that critics should judge them on.
Zach Mortice is a design writer and critic living in Chicago who focuses on architecture and landscape architecture.
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