The Design Vacuum
David Dillon exemplified why good criticism is local.
David Dillon, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News for 25 years and longtime contributing editor of this publication, died unexpectedly on June 3. His passing marked a sea change for many of us in architectural journalism, forcing us to reflect on the current state of the craft and how it has inalterably shifted with the rise of the blogosphere. Dillon — who graduated from Boston College and held a master’s in literature and a Ph.D. in art history from Harvard — forged a deep relationship with his adopted subject, the city of Dallas, offering not a superficial review of its buildings, as too often occurs online, but a polychromatic view of its entire urban development, for good or ill. Erudite but piercingly clear, as good journalists can be, he personified how authentic criticism speaks most convincingly from local knowledge. The following are his words, excerpted from a speech he presented in August 2008 to the Council of Architectural Component Executives in Richmond, Virginia.
“… [There is] a huge vacuum in serious design commentary, in which architecture, the most public of the arts, is losing touch with its public — its customer base, if you like — and has less and less influence on how our communities are planned and designed.
To restate the obvious, American newspapers are in a meltdown mode, with revenues dropping and market share shrinking. And one of the most endangered areas of coverage is art and architecture.
This coverage is being marginalized or eliminated across the country. To give you an idea of what this means, three years ago my paper, The Dallas Morning News, had 17 full-time arts writers, one of the largest arts staffs in the country. Now it has only five, and that number will likely drop further.… The architecture beat will disappear, ironically at a time when Dallas and Fort Worth are rising to international prominence in the arts.
This is disastrous because newspaper critics are the front line of architecture coverage, always more timely and often more comprehensive than the design magazines. Newspapers are where the public gets most of its architectural information, as well as most of its information about planning, community development, neighborhood preservation, and other matters that it cares about. Online sources can’t begin to plug this gap, which means that conversation has virtually stopped on most of these critical issues. Dialogue and debate have given way to deafening silence.
However, I don’t believe for a second that the public no longer cares about architecture and planning, that it’s become a niche subject. Just look at the proliferation of design and planning review boards around the country.… Whether this indicates that the public is passionate about design or scared to death of what architects might do to them is a different matter.
What’s lacking everywhere, however, is a common language and shared frame of reference for talking about these issues. Architects and the public inhabit different worlds when it comes to identifying and analyzing what really matters in communities.
Architectural Record, for which I’ve written for 15 years, recently polled six national critics about what was most important to residents in their part of the country. And almost without exception the key issues were public and civic — affordable housing, regional planning, access to transit, neighborhood preservation, congestion, sprawl, open space. Architecture with a capital A, as in what are Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry up to now, barely made the list. Which is to say that there is a big disconnect these days between what architects are doing and what the magazines are publishing, and what the public is doing and interested in.
Correctly or not, the public perceives the profession to be largely indifferent to its concerns. They think architects are interested mainly in architecture as art, in architecture as a business, or in defending the autonomy of the profession, which has been largely squandered, whereas they see themselves as custodians of the public realm and the social and communal elements of architecture and design.
This is a very simplistic division, I admit, but the communication gap is real, and architects and architectural journalists bear much of the responsibility for creating it, and for closing it. Small regional and component magazines have an opportunity to fill some of the coverage gaps and in the process rekindle the public design dialogue.… Another way to put this is that architects and architecture magazines are looking for a way to regain influence and establish authority, which is not the same thing as power.
Power is the ability to make something happen, or not happen, or happen differently. Authority is a different matter. Authority means that your work is read, listened to, talked about, paid attention to. Influence or authority comes not from stopping Project X in its tracks, but from being able to gradually sharpen community perceptions about good design, and thereby to raise public expectations about what is acceptable and what is not.
The great critic Ada Louise Huxtable once said that the public knows its rights when it comes to the law, or Social Security, or Medicare; it’s up on all the entitlement programs. But it does not know what it is entitled to in terms of architecture, urban design, or environmental policy. One job of a good design magazine is to help educate the public about its rights in these matters, because in the end its biggest ally is a concerned public, and its most powerful weapon the ability to arouse public opinion in the service of good design.”
This excerpt is adapted from an article that first appeared in Texas Architect Magazine. We thank its editor, Stephen Sharpe, for bringing it to our attention and permitting us to reprint a portion of it here. It is a fitting memorial to an enlightened spokesperson for our profession and a valuable journalist. We will miss him.
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