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Against Pluralism, Again: Two Books Rethink Theory and Criticism’s Role in Architecture

Not Interesting and Possible Mediums both depict and challenge our pluralistic age, in which architects are pressured to package themselves as commodities.

Possible Mediums architecture
Architect Jennifer Bonner’s Sandwiches project, featured in the new book Possible Mediums. Courtesy Actar

“Art exists today in a state of pluralism: no style or even mode of art is dominant and no critical position is orthodox.” Postmodern art critic Hal Foster wrote these words in 1982 in an essay under the title, “Against Pluralism,” but the diagnosis rings true of architecture today. Then as now, the most that can be said of the field as a whole is that, as currently constituted, the condition of no orthodoxy is the orthodoxy. As Foster put it, pluralism has become institutionalized: architecture “of many sorts is made to seem more or less equal—equally (un)important.”

But this is not a failure of architecture or of architects. Rather, the disposition toward many coexisting and diverse projects stands as a rebuke of the reactionary politics of our time. The heterogeneity of the field today is perhaps its defining characteristic and an indicator of its vitality. So what then is the problem with pluralism?

Put simply, pluralism arises out of a condition of no criticism, which is itself a symptom of theory’s persistent failure to articulate and negotiate architecture’s role vis-à-vis structures of oppression. Today, criticism often comes in one of two polarized forms: either as scorched-earth screeds against an apparatus beholden to neoliberal power; or aesthetic navel-gazing that treats politics as the subject of much hand-wringing but little commitment. Each evades reality in its own way, and both do the field a disservice. There are today no coherent critical frameworks that grapple with the discipline’s political and aesthetic urgencies on the one hand, but also the structural foreclosure of their rapprochement on the other. In the absence of cogent frameworks for critique—that is, to be left without criteria—cultural production is ruled by a subtle logic of banality: everything is equally good or equally bad, and consequently, nothing is (nor can be) at stake. This is an illusory leveling. The problem is not the sheer diversity of options, but the lack of capacity to come to terms with this condition.

Possible Mediums architecture
Possible Mediums presents the work of (mostly) early-career architects. Pictured: First Office’s entry to MoMA PS1 YAP’s summer pavilion competition. Courtesy Actar

Yet our moment is not without criticism or theory. Theorists and architects are now engaging critique—that is, criticism and theory—directly and vigorously, as demonstrated by two recent publications. These books, Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture by Andrew Atwood, and Possible Mediums, edited by Kelly Bair, Kristy Balliet, Adam Fure, and Kyle Miller, propose new conceptual frameworks for architecture in a milieu mostly unbothered by the vexations of theory. These books do not impose new orthodoxies, but rather each works against the contemporary void of clear disciplinary priorities.

Not Interesting and Possible Mediums belong to a time in which the critical apparatus—journals, conferences, institutions—that made critique essential to previous generations has atrophied or has been absorbed into the ambit of architectural practice. Both books—efforts of practicing designers, critics, instructors all—reject the premise that theory be left to theorists or criticism be left to critics. Instead, they posit fundamental questions: How can “possible mediums” form the bases for new critical projects? And, how can we move shoptalk criticism beyond the tyranny of the merely “interesting”?

In contemporary pluralism, architects are pressured to package themselves as commodities.

What these books have in common, besides the benefit of the talents of Sean Yendrys, who designed both, is the incisiveness of their purposes. Whereas earlier forms of critique often left architects with a fatalistic sense that “there’s nothing to be done,” each of these titles is undertaken with a spirit of generosity aimed at jump-starting critical conversations in contemporary architecture, just when the discipline is stubbornly unwilling to ask difficult questions of itself. These two books might just mark the leading edge of new alignments of theory, criticism, and practice.

Possible Mediums is a collective effort that grew out of a conference of the same name convened in 2013 at The Ohio State University. The editors all received degrees in architecture from UCLA in the 2000s. Not coincidentally, many of the contributors also entered the field at the end of the 2000s, and their often highly original work can in some ways be seen as a rejection of the slick formalism ushered in by the digital turn.

Not Interesting architecture
In contrast to Possible Mediums, Not Interesting features relatively few illustrations. For those, Atwood re-drew elevations of buildings like Gordon Bunshaft’s 1974 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (pictured) and juxtaposed them with fanciful settings, such as a mountain-scape or even the surface of the moon. Courtesy Applied Research & Design

At moments, the book reads like a guide on how to see and decode contemporary architecture, as Whitney Moon’s cunningly titled contribution, “A Contemporary (Self-Help) Guide to Profile-Spotting in Architecture,” suggests. Possible Mediums presents the work of (mostly) early-career architects, who each offer their own explanations of what is happening at the same time that their work posits basic but provocative questions about composition, representation, structure—that is, architecture’s traditional disciplinary concerns.

The term medium is employed here as something between techniques and thematics. It calls to mind Rosalind Krauss’s theorization of the “post-medium condition,” the idea that an artist produces new mediums when “certain procedures, techniques, or constraints are elevated to the level of a defining characteristic,” as the editors write. These so-called possible mediums, then, are more than a nomenclature of shared formal similarities, and rather identifications of theoretical kinships.

The section on “Stacks,” which are usefully defined as “discrete objects accumulated vertically,” is illustrated by Jennifer Bonner’s “Best Sandwiches,” Andrew Kovacs’ “Medusa,” First Office’s “Dolmen” for PS1 in New York, and The LADG’s “The Kid Gets Out of the Picture,” among others. More than a formal technique, stacks are shown to carry water for designers pursuing varied preoccupations. Formal resemblance, found objects, part-to-whole structuration, the list goes on, but all emerge as recurring figures of ongoing projects. Notable too is the fact that the book contains just about as much original writing as design work. An introductory essay by John McMorrough defines medium in no less than a half-dozen possible ways, and an afterword by Dora Epstein Jones offers a complementary excursus on the possible.

Today, the architect’s need to differentiate their work from everything else that is “equally unimportant” intensifies the value placed upon the production of difference.

By contrast, Not Interesting takes the culture of criticism as its object. Observing the ubiquity of the fuzzy signifier “interesting” in the language of everyday criticism, the author Andrew Atwood diagnoses the effects of its overuse. What is circumscribed by “interesting” or rather, what constitutes the field of its negative? “What if we forced ourselves to turn from the interest of the urgent, the signal, the foreground, and deliberately attend to the boredom of humdrum, the confusion of noise, the comfort of background?” he asks in the book’s first pages. What, in architecture, receives attention and what does not?

Atwood expands the critical terrain of the interesting by planting it alongside its logical complements: the not interesting, the boring, the confusing, the comforting. As he spells out in a particularly striking passage, this reconfiguration has its roots in the conviction that the ways in which architects decide what matters, matters: “Our instinct to turn away from those things that do not seem to warrant our attention is to concede to established systems of power in architecture and to refuse to challenge some of the aesthetic habits of critique embedded in our contemporary debates.”

Pluralism theory criticism architecture
The German architect O.M. Ungers’s House without Qualities (1955) in Cologne is contrasted with a slice of anonymous Oakland, California, architecture. Courtesy Applied Research & Design

Like Possible Mediums, Not Interesting gathers a circle of friends. These are the protagonists of debates that Atwood engages through his teaching at UC-Berkeley and the work of his practice, First Office, founded in Los Angeles alongside Anna Neimark in 2011. Atwood’s examples are drawn from the broad sweep of history: very recent projects, such as House No. 7 by MOS Architects, completed in 2015, are joined by the Lanyon Quoit, a dolmen erected in modern day Cornwall during the Neolithic period. In a chapter on “comforting” architecture, Atwood annotates key texts excerpted from historians Sylvia Lavin and Lucia Allais alongside quotations of figures from further afield such as Demi Moore and Marcel Duchamp. If Possible Mediums is a generational self-portrait, Atwood’s monograph offers a revealing, idiosyncratic view of a heterodox thinker coming to grips with contemporary discourse. Still, Atwood would identify himself with that cohort; he and his peers are early-career designers, theorists, or historians just hitting their stride. Many are teaching. And all are striving to find traction in a situation of disciplinary diffusion.

Taken together, these two books set out a provisional ground in which these two questions, what is interesting and what is possible, will be contested, debated, reworked.

Hal Foster claimed of pluralism that it is isomorphic to a market that craves choice and demands novelty. This stands today, and some effects can be readily identified. The renewed entrenchment of spectacle is apparent. The architect’s need to differentiate their work from everything else that is “equally unimportant” intensifies the value placed upon the production of difference. What has historically been termed “the Project” (capital P; a theoretical agenda pursued through architectural work) is now partly displaced by the cultivation of brand, that is, the recognition of one’s variance from the crowd. In contemporary pluralism, architects are pressured to package themselves as commodities. This is a strong market force exacerbated by digital platforms. Paradoxically, these are the most accessible discursive venues but also the same means by which the possibility of resisting reification is foreclosed. Critique offers a form of resistance to these conditions.

Architecture is a field whose relationship to capital is “virtually unmediated,” as Fredric Jameson has written, but the qualifier “virtually” disappears as soon as discourse no longer recognizes its role as the self-critical faculty capable of interrogating this relation. Pluralism metabolized in the same moment that architecture’s capacity to critically articulate its material and theoretical conditions has withered.

What Not Interesting and Possible Mediums deftly accomplish is the reinvigoration of the theoretical project and the establishment of terms for a language of criticism adequate to the moment. Taken together, they set out a provisional ground in which these two questions, what is interesting and what is possible, will be contested, debated, reworked. That neither of these books offers a new orthodoxy is by no means a concession to the idea that everything is “equally (un)important,” but rather an unambiguous assertion that to answer these questions, always only provisionally, is the basis for any architecture today.

Phillip R. Denny is an architecture critic and historian. He is a PhD student at Harvard University, where his research focuses on technocultures and architecture history from the postwar to the Postmodern. 

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