Last September 16, Los Angeles’ cognoscenti found themselves unintendedly admiring the Biltmore Hotel’s restored ceiling murals while contemplating critical wisdom from architecture critics, architects, redevelopment officials, and a developer.  They were there for an even entitled “Critics and Cranes—Building Downtown Los Angeles”, which was organized by LA Architect and sponsored by the Los Angeles AIA.  The purpose was ostensibly to discuss the role of critics and criticism against the backdrop of the new buildings that are either under construction or were recently completed at the intersection of Fifth Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.  Three new high-rises, Library Tower by I.M. Pei’s Harry Cobb, Grand Place by SOM’s Richard Keating, the completed Biltmore Pfeiffer’s rehabilitation and addition to the Central Library, are clustered at this strategic location.  This coincidence of prominent new buildings should have been the catalyst for critical conversation on the making of a new Los Angeles urbanism.

Suzanne Stephens, Architectural Digest critic-at-large and keynote speaker, began the morning with a rambling recitation of history of American architectural criticism.  Her main point was that mass-media critics are fickle.  They change their positions every ten years, are vain (they can be bought off for the price of a moderately good meal), and most of the time are stupid (they are incapable of seeing what in hindsight is so obvious to the rest of us).  To prove her point, Stephens examined Lewis Mumford’s writings on Rockerfeller Center over the span of a decade.  First, Mumford excoriated its gigantism, then ten years later reluctantly acknowledged its urbanism.  Unfortunately, Stephens’ and the audience’s assured chuckling at Mumford’s lack of prescience overwhelmed her real point, that time and history judge and then rejudge.

A panel discussion of critics ensued, led off by Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe.  Campbell succinctly defined criticism: to stimulate debate and interest in the built environment.  Diane Ketchum of the Oakland Tribune then spoke in unconnected fragments about the negative impact of local boosterism on the freedom of the critic.  John Pastier, the only local critic on the podium, gave one of his raspy sermons chiding the mostly professional audience on their silence with regard to the AIAs’s recent sale of the independent-minded Architecture to Billboard Publications.  Finally, sitting stage left, both literally and philosophically, Michael Sorkin of The Village Voice launched into wily discourse on the Stealth Bomber.  Its recent unveiling in the press and its invisibility in its maiden flight was used as a means of demonstrating how the point of view of the writer, or the discourse the writer chooses to operate within, fundamentally shapes the content of the message.  Throughout the day, Sorkin attempted to “deconstruct” the symposium with a discourse that would open up and focus the conversation, but was unable to stimulate anything more than a nervous acknowledgment of his stealth-like presence.

After lunch, unfocused conversation moderated by Stephens demonstrated that most of the critics were still wrestling with their first impressions of downtown Los Angeles.  Standard criticisms of the general banality of late twentieth century architecture and urbanism (local vs. international culture, extraordinary vs. background buildings, the best of the past combined with the promise of the future, etc.) contrasted with Sorkin’s attempt to fix the premise of the debate through his recitation of “375 possible discourses”.  These included skyscrapers, Manhattanization, and what he called the “master discourse of the day” – the symposium’s constant harping on the concept of preservation.  After describing approximately 20 of his critical conceits, Sorkin was politely snubbed, first by Campbell, who claimed that the New Yorker was engaging in an infinite regress, and second by Pastier, who challenged Sorkin to address the issue at hand, namely the nature of the architecture at Fifth and Grand (yet another discourse).

To Pastier’s credit, he was the sole critic to directly discuss the site by taking Cobb’s tower to task for its up-close unarticulated skin, praising Keating’s corporate deconstruction and Grand Place, acknowledging Landau’s tower as reasonable if stumpy, and crediting the public review process for the evolutionary improvement he witnessed in Pfeiffer’s Library addition.  To Pastier’s and the rest of the critics’ discredit, they fell into the trap of disjointed and fragmented chatter that wildly digressed and never really inspired the debate they all professed to foster in their craft.  In the absence of a focused subject, “Critics and Cranes” demonstrated that criticism, while at the time entertaining, isn’t entertainment.

John Kaliski

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