goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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CW: And to define the terms in such a way that they can push back the legacy of the sixties—which is to say the legacy of the social movements, the legacies of ordinary people willing to live and die for various ideals to ensure that injustice doesn't reign in the same way  it did before they began the struggle. And that battle is actually lost for them. That's what's so significant about Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, because on one hand it was clear:  it was the closing of his mind, because he was unwilling to accept the fact that he now lived in a different world! And it's just the facts; there's no way that he could ever go back to a time in which just he and his white, highly cultivated and highly cultured peers, hiding and concealing all that racism, sexism, and homophobia, could constitute this gentleman's club that's just long gone.   

MC:  Is that the loss of cultural safety that you speak about when you refer to Matthew Arnold?   

CW:  That's exactly right. Now of course they make the link between cultural safety and that genteel context, and safety on the street where the barbarians are raging. The barbarians for them—who are taken into custody, and they see [it on the] six-o-clock news—tend to be black/ brown men. And we  "barbarians," like myself, who are inside the academy and calling intoquestion that very narrow consensus that had served as the pillar for the conversation that was so genteel and civil. Now that's gone! And he knows that. And they're upset at the liberal administrators who preside over the institutions that allow for pluralism to take place. I think it's become vicious partly because they know they're so far removed from creating a situation that they want. I mean, you read the New Criterion, you know what I mean:  you see Hilton Kramer—he is upset every issue! You say, "Come on Kramer, settle down brother. The Marxists haven't taken over, the feminists haven't taken over, you know that and I know that."   

MC:  So there's a lot of hyperbole out there?   

Previous pageWhat does this have to do with architectural criticism? I think it has much to do with architectural criticism because there is certainly a new energy, an excitement among the younger generation of architectural critics. Theory is now fashionable in disciplinary studies, an absolute necessity. The next decade promises to be a period of intellectual ferment in precincts once rather staid and serene. Architecture, "the chained and fettered art," as John Summerson put it twenty-seven years ago in Heavenly Mansions, is the last discipline in the humanities to be affected by the crisis of the professional managerial strata in American society. This crisis is threefold:  that of political legitimacy (what is the political legitimacy of architectural practices?), intellectual orientation (how we think about them, how we understand the forms and styles, how does it relate to that rearrangement of space that is so very important for inhabitants therein?), and social identity. 

 Like their counterparts in critical legal studies in law schools, feminists, poststructuralists, and Marxists in humanities, and liberation theologians in seminaries, oppositional architectural critics are now turning to the works of people like Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, Annette Berzhaid and Sheila Roboth, and a host of other cultural critics trying to respond to the present crisis in the larger society. And though we are, I suggest, in the embryonic stage of this response, intense interrogation of architectural practices will deepen. The political legitimacy of architecture is not a question of whether and why buildings should be made; rather, it has to do with how authority warns that it does not want the way in which buildings are made. Architecture, viewed as both rigorous discipline (science), and poetic buildings (art), is often distinguished from other arts by its direct dependence on social patronage and its obligation to stay in tune with the recent developments in technology. Yet architectural critics are reluctant to engage in serious analysis of complex relations between corporate firms, estates, and architectural practices. The major fear is that of falling into the trap of economic determinism or economic reductionism, of reducing the grandeur of precious architecture to the grub of pecuniary avidity, and surely the forms, techniques, and styles of architecture are not reducible to the needs and interests of public and private patrons. But this deadly reductionist trap should not discourage architectural critics from pursuing more refined investigations into how economic and political power helps shape how buildings are made and not simply how they come to be. Needless to say, Manfredo Tafuri's Architecture and Utopia is a move in this direction. Yet even that text stays a bit too far removed from the ground, where detailed historical work should focus on a plausible objection to this line of reasoning that architectural critics simply don't have the historical and analytical training to engage in such an inquiry, so it's better to leave this work to cultural historians. 

That objection leads us to the crucial issue of the political legitimacy of architectural critics. Why are they trained as they are? How are they produced? What are the assumptions and presuppositions that regulate the curriculum that is producing these elites—talented, but elites? Gone are the days of Montgomery Schuler and George Herbert Shipale and the great and now late Louis Mumford. This professionalization of architectural criticism, which has its own traps of insulated jargon, codes, and etiquette. The changing frameworks and paradigms have become dominant at particular historical moments, and these frameworks and paradigms yield insights and blindnesses for those who work within them. These genealogies should highlight not simply the dynamic changes of influential critical perspectives in the academy, but also how these perspectives shape and are shaped by the actual building of edifices, and how these perspectives relate to other significant cultural practices going on in other fields—for example, the impact of painting in the early work of Le Corbusier, or the populism in Venturi's work and how he understands populism given a historical moment in which he is writing, while he could end up in Las Vegas rather than Harlem. What Aaron Betsky calls "a trivialization of the architectural profession" and James Wines dubs its "failure of vision"—must be unpacked by means of structural and institutional analysis that goes into molding architects and their critics. In this way the issue of the political legitimacy of architecture is posed in neither a nostalgic, moralistic manner that translates the will of an epoch  into space, nor in a nihilistic mode that promotes an easy (and ironically a lucrative) despair; rather, the challenge is to try to understand architectural practices as power-laden cultural practices that are deeply affected by larger historical forces such as markets and the state and the academy, but also as practices that have their own effects, their own specificity, even if they are not the kind of effects of which one approves. Next page

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