The New York Times’ architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, once said in an interview that “buildings don’t exist in a vacuum. [T]hey’re not sculptures. They’re inseparable from issues like urbanism and economic development, from politics, infrastructure and questions about social equity, the environment and technology”.
His words gave credence to the 1927 Corbusian adage, which branded buildings as ‘machines for living’ – well, houses to be specific, but we can massage his meaning. Kimmelman swells that old sound bite, dethroning it, and graduating the role of buildings to one of service and representation within the denser tissue of human activity. “Architecture isn’t just about aesthetics,” he says. “[It] is, at heart, about how we live, who we are, and what we value”.
It’s time now to put meat onto the bones of what that means for Malta. What does our architecture say about what we care about? Our collective temperament, volition and concerted gumption for improvement, or lack thereof?
Space Matters is a new column exclusively dedicated to architecture, urbanism and the public realm. The Times of Malta has taken a leap of faith in giving a regular space to an issue that, even during a global pandemic two years ago, was voted by Maltese residents as one of the most concerning of our time.
So, what does local architectural criticism look like now? It exists in abundance – in social media tirades around callous demolitions, botched constructions, and unchecked sprawl; in guerrilla accounts that catalogue the ugliness of ascending steel, concrete and glass; in verbal exchange at the proverbial dinner table or water cooler, and so on.
This kind of criticism is not nothing. Rather, it is a different version of what another architecture critic, the late Michael Sorkin, untangles when he writes about ‘critical mass’ in the Architectural Review back in 2014. The legitimacy of these formats is sound – it constitutes our own critical mass as citizen-critics and exists because it mirrors the way we consume and exchange information and analyses. But it is not enough.
In 2016, Petra Caruana Dingli visited the topic of architectural criticism in an article published by Times of Malta, where she wrote how “in Malta, reviews are rarely harsh,” and how this was “understandable, considering the small networks of people”. She highlighted how “practising architects might hold back [on criticism] for personal reasons,” and then questioned whether there might be “any retired, experienced, non-practising or foreign architects out there who might have an opinion?”
Drawing in a chorus of voices from the broader architecture sphere
While I debate whether it is understandable to self-censor for the sake of social civility, I join her seven-year-old cry of exasperation at the lack of a learned, diverse and – where necessary – dissenting ecology of critical voices. As for why architects have remained overwhelmingly mute in critical debate, aside from the hesitation to bite the hand that feeds, it is because they themselves form part of that larger contextual web Kimmelman points to.
So deep are architects entangled in the local context of economic, political, infrastructural, social and environmental bedlam, that they are too prey to the critical paralysis that defines our national conversation. As Muriel Cooper, a pioneering book designer once said, “too often, the role of the designer is to clothe a set of messages they’ve had no participation in”.
Architects are frequently dressing a mess that already exists. The role of criticism is to point out the shape of that mess, and how architecture can either cure or create more of it. This brings us briefly back to Sorkin and his luminous point about how “it is not sufficient for criticism merely to note that things change, our task is to influence the direction of change.”
That’s what Space Matters is about. It’s about carving out a space for commentary that works in earnest to cover content that is useful and a weapon for progression. This means talking directly about construction materials, urban planning, architectural education, the client-architect relationship, conflict of interests, infrastructure, the natural environment, conservation, retrofit and more.
I have been writing about architecture for over 15 years, speaking with architects, planners, environmentalists, researchers, historians, clients, end-users and several built environment professionals to develop language around why we build those machines for living, and – more importantly – how we can articulate what we need from them.
I’ll be calling on that network to funnel knowledge into the conversation that begins here. But that call extends to the wider public – this is an invitation to anyone to write in with issues they want covered (send me your thoughts at email@example.com with the subject line ‘Space Matters’).
This column will be hybrid in nature, drawing in a chorus of voices from the broader architecture sphere and dissecting topics of communal concern. It will do its best not to pull punches, highlighting careless practice and bad building. It will also not spare fashionable architecture whose sanguine visuals look to convince that poetry will compensate for environmental, social, and urban neglect. It won’t.
We are at a precarious point in the trajectory of our built environment. Our critical mass must solidify to address the treatment of space in Malta. Because it matters, to everyone.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series.