Architecture critic finds no regrets

HIGH IMPACT: Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis possesses steely, leaping aesthetic power.
HIGH IMPACT: Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis possesses steely, leaping aesthetic power.
(Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
Times Architecture Critic

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Regret -- nostalgia turned upside down -- is a strong word. For a critic, it’s also a loaded one. My feelings about buildings have certainly shifted or deepened over time. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had the experience of writing about a piece of architecture one year, then going back the next and finding that my feelings had changed so markedly that I had to look back on my earlier judgment with embarrassment -- or anything resembling shame, which is a close cousin of regret and maybe even a prerequisite for it.

What I’ve learned, instead, is that if there’s one reaction to architecture that I know I can trust and that won’t waver on later visits, it’s a visceral rather than an intellectual one. A great building (or a really terrible one, for that matter) hits you in the gut. It provides a kind of aesthetic jolt that is essentially irreversible -- regret-proof.

Aside from certain postcard landmarks -- the Pyramids, say, or pretty much anything by Bernini -- the list of buildings that knocked me out on first viewing includes work by Louis Kahn, Alvaro Siza, Bernard Maybeck, Carlo Scarpa, Kevin Roche and a small group of other architects. (Sometimes that reaction comes as a complete surprise: Who knew Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which I considered a simplistic tourist-route staple before visiting it a decade ago, could possess so much steely, leaping aesthetic power?) And almost always, revisiting those buildings has only strengthened my earlier reaction.

Order amid the chaos

For me, the idea that one piece of architecture is simply better than another -- more accomplished, more significant, more innovative -- is far from a way to express some vague arrogance about taste or to try to turn an elusive process into a quantifiable one. It’s a way to grab a lifeline in a cultural sea that gets choppier by the week. The newspaper industry may collapse, economies may run off course, oceans may rise all the way to our chins. But we have our judgment, and we like to comfort ourselves by thinking of it as a constant.

To admit that we rarely feel regret, though, is hardly the same as saying we’re infallible. Far from it. Unlike the eternally finished products of moviemaking or novel writing, buildings have moods. They change from day to day, depending on the weather, the season, the quality and intensity of light. Critics tend to fly or drive in, see an unoccupied and thus unfinished building for a few hours -- or on consecutive days, if we’re feeling really committed -- and then pronounce judgment with a practiced finality. But a building in March, wrapped in fog, is not the same as in July, beaten down by the sun, or in late November, throwing long shadows. This is true even in Los Angeles, a city supposedly lacking seasons.

What changes from month to month, though, is not a building’s basic achievement as much as the way it expresses the shades of its personality. In that sense, a piece of architecture is not so different from a theatrical script or a musical score in performance, where the product that a critic is asked to judge is dynamic and unsettled. If a play or a piece of music is made when it meets its audience, and can be expected to do so in a different way every night, a building is made in a series of mostly irreversible steps when its design meets the world and everything in it: physics, zoning, the indignities of ill-chosen furniture, wind, hail, earthquakes, terrorism. And, of course, the passage of time.

As fixed and eternal as a completed building can seem, in other words, architecture is actually among the most contingent of the arts. Compromise and change are built into its DNA. So is the path to ruin, the inescapable fact that buildings are foremost things, which fall apart.

A word about writing

When it comes to writing about architecture, what usually vexes me after the fact is phrase-making rather than ideas -- not the what but the how. (It must say something about regret that while I was waiting for this essay to appear in print, I went back twice to rework it.) Making a judgment is, for me, the easy part; expressing it in clear and persuasive language is where the real effort begins.

There’s also that steady, low-grade anxiety about facts. Were those panels steel, as I wrote, or aluminum? Was that really a Vierendeel truss? Did I really use the same adjective in three straight sentences? Now there is shame.

In “Garlic and Sapphires,” a memoir recounting her years as a newspaper restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl describes a similar worry keeping her up the night before her review of Le Cirque appeared in the New York Times in October 1993.

“It was 2 a.m. when I sat straight up in bed,” she writes. “ ‘Sea bass?’ I asked. ‘Did I say it was sea bass?’ Fear went shooting through me. . . . I had called the restaurant’s signature dish sea bass instead of black bass, and it was too late to do a single thing about it. . . . Le Cirque was my seventh review in the New York Times, and it would surely be my last.”

For the halibut

Notice that Reichl feels no need to second-guess her critical take on the restaurant, her sense that the “halibut with mushrooms on soggy rounds of potatoes” was “dull” and “forlorn,” or that as a woman -- at least before she was recognized as the most important critic in town -- she was made to feel like a rube and an interloper in Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni’s clubby, male-dominated realm.

Something similar holds true for architects. I know plenty who kick themselves about how a staircase or a facade turned out, but I’ve never heard one express regret for the concept or the goals behind a building. The problem for architects, as for critics, lies not in saying the wrong thing but in saying it the wrong way.

Actually, if we’re being honest, even that second kind of regret is rare among particularly talented and self-involved architects (now there’s a redundant phrase!). What they regret about a building is usually that some underling -- a young associate, a cabinetmaker -- screwed up some part of it. They regret leaving their vision in the hands of people who fail to execute it. The greatest ones regret only the fact that they aren’t running the world.