I had originally planned to discuss Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for the new Broad Art Foundation, which has recently been flooding architecture news sites and magazines, by taking a look at the reviews published in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and analyzing the way their architecture critics organized their point. But inspired by a recent essay by Guy Horton for Metropolis Magazine’s P/O/V section I think there is a larger point to examine.
Nicolai Ouroussoff, no doubt the most influential critic at the moment (as is traditional for all New York Times architecture critics, since Ada Louise Huxtable created this title for herself in 1963), felt the design for the Broad museum fell short. While he called aspects of the design “alluring,” unfortunately not pinpointing what these might be, his overall reaction to the building in his New York Times review was one of lukewarm disappointment.
In the LA Times, Christopher Hawthorne was more pleased with the design. While mentioning that this building is a rather stripped down version of usual DSR architecture, and the client was to blame for this rather than the architects, he argues that the design takes the right step towards reviving the Bunker Hill neighborhood, as part of the Grand Avenue redevelopment project.
Both reviewers consider the neighborhood’s needs central to their argument, and only superficially discuss the architectural concepts and designs. With an unbuilt project, shown to press as part of a publicity presentation by the architects, there not much more to do in a review than repeat their jargon, adding renderings to illustrate descriptions. Critics cannot yet experience the space for themselves, test its functionality, and judge its final design.
Especially for this building, the newest addition to a neighborhood with a rich but tumultuous past, the relation to its site is crucial. Does it matter whether the design used a white interior finish rather than a light grey? Or whether it’s a steel frame or a concrete structure? Ouroussoff states that the “galleries, in particular, are deeply flawed.” This is a statement he once again does not further explain, but also just doesn’t need. In the end, the only design decisions worth analyzing are the ones that directly affect its potential to benefit the neighborhood, such as how entrances meet the street, how visitors arrive, and how the program of the museum may strive to engage its community.
Guy Horton wonders whether there is any sense in reviews of architecture in this preliminary phase, adding, “perhaps architecture is too complex for this rapid-fire approach.” With an unbuilt design, especially one that might change considerably in the next months, a review that, “looks too much around the thing is in fact trying to replace the thing with something else.” Horton laments that, “future architecture is being used as a proxy for urban, economic, or political issues.”
While Horton is right to raise the question of “Why We Look at Architecture,” his conclusion is too exclusive. Architecture does not stand alone, especially when a design is first revealed. There is a larger point at stake here. Ouroussoff and Hawthorne were right to question the building’s positive effect on the neighborhood and could even have made their arguments stronger by taking a closer look at the clients intention for this building. They use their reviews to point out the importance this building will have in its surroundings and leave their in-depth design criticism for a later review.