How could your otherwise fine magazine allow…” Thus begins a lament, an actual complaint about a writer’s point of view. We get letters like this all the time from readers who want to tangle with a writer expressing a strong opinion in print. We exult in these arguments, even the hyperbolic ones, since few publications share such a committed, vital constituency as ARCHITECTURAL RECORD. You always tell us what you think, as if the future of the architectural profession depended on it. In a sense, it does, and we treat your opinions with that same concern.
Ironically, the challenge to integrate more critical writing into these pages has come both from our editors and from you, who have continually asked, like Oliver Twist with his porridge, for more. Your desire for a critical voice reflects shared years of academic conditioning, where we regularly face scrutiny (sometimes withering, sometimes cruel, sometimes enlightened) of professors, practitioners, and fellow students. In the design studio and jury, we learned to question and debate, to take nothing for granted. Then at graduation, the clouds parted; suddenly, our clientele seemed too accepting of our work, prompting us to yearn for those tougher early crits. Can’t a magazine provide the equivalent of a splash of cold water?
Up to a point. Although you will encounter more of the writer’s voice in our pages today, we mete out critical writing judiciously at record. While the magazine began publication as a critical journal (as in offering evaluation), over time it had broadened its point of view to become a literal record of the world’s most relevant ideas and structures. For years, a project’s mere inclusion in the magazine implied a positive assessment. After strong internal debate, in recent years we have arrived at a consensus on our approach to different types of reporting: Simply put, categories should be clear.
Certainly, project stories now often combine straight reporting with points of view. But you, the reader, can expect to know what you are encountering elsewhere in the magazine, whether factual reporting (which characterizes the news, for example), descriptive text, or opinion. Your signals lie in the small, significant headings that precede each story in our departments. Read them. “Editorial,” for example, announces the editor’s own perspective, speaking for the magazine. “Critique” describes an essay, replete with Michael Sorkin’s or Robert Campbell’s personality, language, wit, and individual worldview. “Commentary” contains the musings of a qualified staff or outside writer. Those small tabs outside the projects act like road signs—important, but easy to miss.
In addition to clarity, expect balance. If architectural record veers heavily toward one extreme, don’t panic. Read the accompanying article that tilts the argument from right to left, such as the twin stories we ran about Chicago’s Soldier Field in May 2004, in which Joseph Giovannini and Stanley Tigerman took opposing corners. Or look during the following months for an answer to a question raised in an article, a response in a letter or occasionally in another piece. When Michael Sorkin wrote a strongly worded essay on Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance (which provoked a firestorm of controversy), we agreed to publish a countervailing opinion from the client’s perspective that should air in August. Sorkin deserved ink, versed as he is as a professor who has studied the beleaguered city’s planning; but we are also making room for the museum’s client—a rare case, but an important one.
Criticism can probe where the camera cannot, since ultimately real buildings (and unbuilt ones, too) are only as good as the ideas underlying them. We need critical writing to sift through the layers—social, environmental, psychological, tectonic, or aesthetic—piercing through the rhetoric, exposing the emperor’s new clothes, balancing our praise with understanding, and offering the occasional, bracing splash. In the days to come, you will see more criticism; but remember, you asked for it, and we agreed: It’s critical.