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Architectural critism in the context of individualism and utilitarianism.[1]

24 June, 2015

Architectural critism in the context of individualism and utilitarianism.[1]

The critical discourse of recent decades does not usually consist of an expression of opinion about works of architecture and architects in order to identify their positive and negative features.

By Eleni Fessa-Emmanouil

Greek version

The fragmentary thoughts that follow were motivated by the realisation that the architectural criticism that is levelled today without social, political or professional cost to the critic is only minimally related to the etymology of the word criticism (kritiki).[2] The critical discourse of recent decades does not usually consist of an expression of opinion about works of architecture and architects in order to identify their positive and negative features. Equally rare is the intention to produce "documented evaluation of a work or an artist, i.e. to assess them on the basis of specific criteria."[2] On the contrary, criticism or kritikarisma, which means "the levelling of criticism with the intention of emphasising the negative aspects of the work being judged and of underestimating its positive ones"[3] - has flourished, as has utilitarian[4] commentary, which places the effectiveness or expediency of the argument above truth or a fair assessment, recalling the art of the Sophists in antiquity.[4] Thus it is natural for architectural criticism today to lean in the direction of irrationality, exaggeration, and commentary that is ignorant of history, seeking to make an impression with its rhetoric, but also with its fallacious reasoning, irony, complacency and factionalism. Deconstruction and utilitarianism provide the prevailing moral and philosophical foundations for critical discourse today, which sometimes praises or flatters and at others "pans" people, ideas and works, or treats them unjustly, reflecting the ambitions of those judging and the vested interests of the group to which they belong.

Needless to say, these words do not apply to architecture alone. They are also characteristic features of today's consuming, individualist, pleasure-seeking and neo-conservative societies. In such societies, it is natural for fashionable criticism to be at the opposite moral and philosophical pole from the critical discourse of the past, which was characterised by greater boldness, stronger social and aesthetic concerns and more constructive relations between the critic and the artist, as well as with the reading public.

But since fashions come and go, and sometimes return in a refurbished or changed form, and since it is much easier in all the arts to criticise than to create, I believe it would be meaningful to turn our attention to the permanent, common and major issues of critical discourse in architecture including: attention to the substance and historical, aesthetic, social or other merit of the works being judged; seeking to assess these works fairly, using modern and/or classical approaches; and for critics and theoreticians to refrain from treating practising architects as either inferiors or competitors.

by Helen Fessas-Emmanouil
Architectural historian, Professor emeritus Athens University

 

Notes
The words in Greek used here and their definitions taken from the Greek dictionaries below do not always correspond to the meanings of these words in English, and some do not have a precise English equivalent.

1.Utilitarianism (ωφελιμισμός and χρησιμοθηρία) is the moral and philosophical view according to which the right act is that which produces the greatest pleasure or happiness (service or profit) in him who performs it but also in anyone who is affected by it. In its everyday or negative version, utilitarianism is the attitude and the practice that aim exclusively to serve selfish personal goals, and reap personal profit. See G. Babiniotis, Λεξικό της Νέας Ελληνικής Γλώσσας (Dictionary of the Modern Greek Language), Athens, Centre of Lexicology, 1998, pp. 2030, 1988 and Dimitrakos D., Μέγα Λεξικόν της ελληνικής γλώσσης (Great Dictionary of the Greek Language), volume XV, Athens, Ch. Tegopoulos - Α. Asimakopoulow Publishers, 1964, p. 8055.
2.See Dimitrakos, ibid, vol. VIII, p. 4132-4133; Babiniotis, ibid. p. 966 and (γ) Tegopoulos-Fytrakis, Ελληνικό Λεξικό (Greek Dictionary), Athens, Armonia Publ., p. 403.
3.Babiniotis, ibid., p. 966.
4.In antiquity, Sophists were teachers of rhetoric and political philosophy. Today the term is used to describe someone who is capable of sophistry, i.e. clever inventions and deliberately specious or deceptive reasoning that seeks to convince with ostensibly rational conclusions that are difficult to refute. See Dimitrakos, ibid, vol. XIII, p. 6612; Babiniotis, op.cit. p. 1649 and Tegopoulos-Fytrakis, op.cit. p. 705

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