Critic discusses writing about buildings

McGuigan, center, says that authenticity is the key to designing a successful building.
McGuigan, center, says that authenticity is the key to designing a successful building. Photo by Amir Sharif.

Newsweek Magazine’s architecture critic Cathleen McGuigan had forgotten her tape recorder at her first interview 30 years ago, but the lapse turned out to be a minor problem, as all the answers she received were monosyllabic. She was interviewing Andy Warhol.

McGuigan, whose writing has appeared in several national magazines and newspapers such as Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, gave a talk Monday evening at the Jeffrey H. Loria Center to an audience of roughly 35 students, professors and architects. The event was organized as a conversation among McGuigan, architecture writer and School of Architecture lecturer Carter Wiseman ’68 and Paul Needham ’11, a former editor in chief of the News. The discussion focused on the intersection of journalism and architecture, exploring issues such as celebrity architects, the role of women in architecture criticism and, of course, how a critic can tell if a building is any good.

McGuigan said that “authenticity” — an original overarching idea — is essential in a successful building, but there are also tested indicators that guide the critic’s assessment.

“I don’t want to say there’s a gut feeling, but there are always certain criteria — materials, lighting — that you can rely on in evaluating a new building,” she said, adding that if a building is highly unusual it must have a reason for being so.

The conversation focused extensively on Frank Gehry’s famous design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which McGuigan said represents a turning point for architecture criticism in the transition from being “the poor step child” among other art disciplines to making national headlines.

Gehry’s design, which incorporates curvaceous titanium panels on an elaborate sculptural frame, is acclaimed today by many architects and critics as one of the most successful designs of the twentieth century. But at the time of its construction, it stirred a public debate because of its flamboyant appearance in an otherwise quiet Spanish town.

Such public controversy and the following celebrity status that Gehry attained was unusual for any architect, and, as Needham pointed out, McGuigan was one of the first critics to visit the museum and write about it.

While she did have the scoop on Bilbao, getting to the site even before the gallery’s interiors were completed, McGuigan said she was attacked by a fellow architecture critic for reviewing an incomplete building. She added that there is always competition among architecture critics to be the first to write about a new building.

“It’s hard to persuade your editor to let you revisit a building a few months after it’s built to see how it’s working and how people are moving through it,” she said, noting that there is always a rush among critics to get to a building before it is old news. She added that once a story is covered by other publications, editors often think it’s too late to write about it.

The conversation also turned to the relationship between architects and architecture critics. McGuigan said while book reviewers or film critics don’t have to “hang out” with writers and film producers to write a review, an architecture critic has to talk to the architects about their intentions and their selection of certain materials or design elements.

“If the architect doesn’t like [the critic] you don’t have access to the information you need,” Wiseman said. “But when they talk to you because they like you, this puts you in an awkward position.”

McGuigan, Wiseman and Needham also discussed the role of the Internet in architecture criticism.

“Were you alive before the Internet?” Needham quipped to McGuigan near the end of the talk.

Most of the attendees were School of Architecture students and undergraduate architecture majors. Architecture major John Holden ’12 said he found it interesting to see how critics approach architecture.

“We’re taught at school that the overarching idea behind a building is very important,” Holden said. “It was interesting to see how much this also matters to the critic.”

McGuigan is currently working on a biography of art and architecture critic Aline Saarinen, the second wife of famous architect Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, who designed Yale’s Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges as well as the David S. Ingalls ice skating rink.

Comments

  • ROFLCOPTER

    another great read from ms. pamuk. brava!