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Some Thoughts on the First David Dillon Architecture Symposium

by Jerome Weeks 2 May 2012 10:19 AM

In which I recount a favorite personal anecdote and a bit of wisdom from the late architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News.


For KERA’s Think, Krys Boyd talked with architectural historian Alexandra Lange and Kate Holliday, assistant professor in the School of Architecture at UT about the inaugural David Dillon Symposium on Architecture:


  • Michael Granberry’s Dallas Morning News column

The inaugural David Dillon Symposium was held over the weekend at the DMA and the Nasher — it was named in honor of the late architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and was presented by the new David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at UT-Arlington. The keynote address Thursday was by Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of The New Yorker who’s now on his way to Vanity Fair.

Perhaps the highlight of Goldberger’s speech came when he read passages from Dillon’s droll takedown of Philip Johnson’s Crescent design. It wasn’t a happy response, but Goldberger and the audience enjoyed David’s writing so much, Goldberger happily continued to read from it. The passages perfectly demonstrated one aspect of Dillon’s writing that Goldberger had cited: Even in a witheringly negative review, David gave the impression of disappointment more than scorn, of honestly wishing the building were better, wishing the designer hadn’t embarrassed himself. He didn’t heap abuse; he simply noted the facts of the work, conveying how its sheer scale dispelled any French delicacy or charm, how it may display an appreciation of the mansard roof not often seen in, say, fast food outlets, but it simultaneously neglected any of other design advances of the French chateau, notably the way it dealt with its base. The Crescent just plummets into the ground.

In effect, Dillon’s work provided Goldberger with the perfect example and platform to talk about the state of contemporary architecture criticism, its purpose, its methods, as well as the state of contemporary architecture, period.

The two are obviously related — “if architecture matters, it should go without saying that critics matter,” said Goldberger, although he also noted at length that architecture criticism has never been more au courant — with our visually sophisticated and visually bombarded culture, the widespread awareness of the ‘starchitecture’ cult-celebrity phenomenon and the very public financial-political-aesthetic tensions rippling around current endeavors, such as the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the World Trade Center re-design.

Yet because of the upheavals in contemporary print journalism, architecture criticism — of the kind and caliber that David practiced — has never been so absent from daily newspapers and magazines, not in the past forty or fifty years. As Goldberger put it, “Critics are caught between a crisis in journalism and a growing public fascination in all things visual, with no clear sense of which will prevail.”

David was a journalist, meaning his criticism was rooted in reporting and interviews, not theory. He was very aware of design as more than an isolated physical object, an awareness of urban realities and social forces. I never thought the words “D Magazine” and “Tim Rogers” would be spoken with approval by Paul Goldberger, but he cited Rogers’ fine feature on the Museum Tower’s microwaving the Nasher Sculpture Center in the current edition of D as a rare example of this kind of architecture criticism, the kind that went into history and financial background.

So much of what’s encountered today in print is real estate boosterism or online, it’s insider esoterica. Yet perhaps the greatest link between architecture and criticism — the link much of today’s architecture writing fails —  is the fundamental need to engage the public. Yes, that could be said of almost any art form (though I reserve judgment on the revival of court masques). But because of its physical presence in the cityscape, architecture is the one art form that can’t help but engage (or bore or irritate or bedazzle) the public. It has no choice, and as Goldberger pointed out, in the same manner, we have no choice with architecture. We can ignore a film like The Five Year Engagement. We can’t ignore Victory Park, though I’ll continue trying in case it might work.

What began as something of a eulogy for David became something of an elegy for architecture criticism. The internet has blessed us with access to countless new voices and outlets all over the world. It has ‘leveled the playing field,’ Goldberger said. On any particular day, a dogged, talented blogger can outdo a legacy media outlet when it comes to breaking news, putting up video, penning a judgment that catches fire. But Goldberger added, with this level playing field filled with thousands of participants all at once, the question becomes: What game are we playing?

To be fair, Goldberger went on to make a number of wise — and more optimistic, balanced — observations about criticism and contemporary architecture. But I’d like to pause here to drag out a personal but relevant anecdote. My favorite item on David’s desk at the News was a gag gift — I forget from whom, but anyone who was at the News knows what I’m talking about. It was a tiny, plastic, wind-up figure of Godzilla, still in its product packaging. This particular model came with a couple of  little buildings for Godzilla to knock down, and whoever had sent the toy to David had taped over the product’s original name and had written in marker: OFFICIAL ARCHITECTURE CRITIC’S KIT.

After trading pleasantries with David about this item, I pointed out the obvious. The toy mockingly traded on the popular image of the critic as a destructive force, an unproductive source of bitter energy. OK, I said, that’s what you knock down. What does an architecture critic build?

I was thinking of those artists in different fields — George Bernard Shaw in theater, Rem Koolhaas in architecture — who were at once critic and practitioner. I half-expected to hear some fond memory from David about the time he tried his hand at design or even a home remodeling project.

Instead, he replied, ” Well, I hope, an audience.”  A pause. “It’s all I’ve got, really. All any of us have got.”

Which is ultimately what lies behind Goldberger’s concern over the current state of arts journalism.  If we’re all out on that level playing field, who’s in the bleachers or keeping score? Where’s the audience? It’s what the News gave David and what the News sold to advertisers. Where did it go? And have all these blogs and websites and Twitter feeds really replaced what the big-city dailies have lost?

Turn that around and look at it from the audience’s side: If you just moved to, say, Minneapolis, and wanted to learn more about the current architecture in town, why all these buildings went up like they did, what’s coming next, why that one over there is especially odd — where would you turn? If the newspapers and glossy city mag and the alternative weekly don’t provide an intelligent voice, where would you go? And if you found some blogger who seemed to make sense, how would you know he’s not actually in a developer’s pocket?

In other words, this over whelming digital outpouring we’re all swimming in has increased the burden on the reader to learn, investigate, read, research on his own — and who has the time? Easier to go back to tweets.

Once upon a time, a newspaper like the Dallas Morning News gave Dillon a pulpit and a readership — for awhile. It didn’t grant David some permanent stamp of must-read authority. Consider how many critics in influential media outlets you’ve given up reading long ago because they simply didn’t merit the time.  His audience was David’s to lose — or to grow, enlighten, provoke,  inspire. He earned his audience. Every good critic does.

I could not attend the Friday afternoon panel on ‘Criticism Today,’ so I’m dependent here —  God help me — on Michael Granberry’s account (above): During that panel, Tom Fisher from the University of Minnesota contended that the internet is providing “an opportunity to capture a new audience.”

Yes, mos def. But for a critic, a new web reader could be across the planet in Hong Kong. Of what purpose or point would that be if the critic’s focus is Texas architecture? The internet audience is anywhere, but that audience may not be next door in the immediate community that matters. It’s not just that a big-city newspaper delivered so many impressive thousands of readers; it’s that the thousands were all in (roughly) the same place and so had a degree of shared destiny, shared concerns.

For a critic like Goldberger, this may not matter as much; he’s been writing on national-level platforms for so long, the destiny we share with him is in such wide areas as the Art of Architecture and Good Practices and City Life and American Ideals. On this particular Venn diagram, Dallas-Fort Worth certainly appears but only as a relatively small, contested spot. That spot was an entire landscape for David.

Goldberger was not completely comfortable with one audience member’s question about “regional architecture,” whether local varieties still existed, still influenced. His is an understandable wariness. Regionalism is one of those loaded terms that immediately trigger a boosterish response or an argument about defining the term. A quagmire for another symposium.

But I mention it here because, whatever else it is, all architecture is local. More than any other art form, it may have an urbane, universal, even an ages-spanning, historic reach. But ultimately, it exists in a particular space and time. It’s the eyesore the locals have to live with; the people who admire it on TV won’t get hurt if it falls over.  In that sense at least, all architecture is regional, even the sleekest, most impersonal, Miesian work of International Modernism

Which is even more why the architecture criticism David practiced, the architecture criticism once found in the local paper or magazine (or, ahem, radio station) matters. And, of course, it’s why the UT-Arlington center is called the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture.

I should end with saying that, as a colleague who knew David, lunched with him, argued with him and took the 2006 buyout from the News with him, it did my heart good to see a symposium in David’s name. And to hear it open with a talk as thoughtful as Goldberger’s.

It provided some consolation for what we’ve lost.

Image outfront is from Shutterstock.