The price of architecture criticism

Ole Bouman and Bernard Colenbrander (Copyright Archined)
Ole Bouman (left) and Bernard Colenbrander (right) (Copyright: Archined)

“It doesn’t have to cost a lot”, the Dutch historian Bernard Colenbrander claimed in his lecture at the Masterclass Architecture Criticism that I am following this autumn: “Architecture criticism costs about 250.000 euro a year. With that kind of money you can pay about seven editors, at least a couple of them full-time.”

In the nineties, Colenbrander had been a regular contributor to Archis, the predecessor of Volume. In that magazine, Colenbrander remembered, architecture criticism flourished. Back then Archis was state-funded through the Dutch Architecture Institute by the amount of… 250.000 euro a year. Architecture criticism can only exist if it’s funded like that, Colenbrander believes.

Can architecture criticism really not survive in a commercial environment? The answer to that question definitely depends on one’s definition of architecture criticism. The Dutch ‘Van Dale’ dictionary defines architecture criticism simply as analytical writing on architecture. Bernard Colenbrander however uses a much more elaborate definition. Next to an analysis of the actual architecture, in his view architecture criticism should dive into the physical, ideological, historic and academic context too.

“A difficult job, that requires a lot of knowledge”, Colenbrander said. It also requires an independent position, independent from the architect. “Although the architecture critic is obliged to be informed about the architect’s practice, it can help to not talk to the architect to maintain an independent position. The architecture critic should build his own argument.” Most architects make bad architecture critics, Colenbrander thinks, as they lack an independent position. There obviously are exceptions, like Rem Koolhaas, but these are rare.

In the view of Bernard Colenbrander architecture criticism in the Netherlands came up around 1975 during the democratization process happening at the TU Delft. It was the book ‘Critique and Design’, by Umberto Barbieri and Cees Boekraad, in which architecture criticism for the first time appeared in the Netherlands. It became a discipline of its own, independent from architectural design. Before 1975 there was only architecture journalism (in for instance in the architecture magazines) and architecture marketing (like the writing of Le Corbusier or Siegfried Giedion).

“Architecture criticism in the Netherlands died the moment Archis was privatized”, Colenbrander argued. That was the year 2000. Archis became Volume and went ‘beyond’ architecture. Volume mostly doesn’t discuss architecture as such, but everything surrounding architecture. “Currently there is no architecture criticism: not in the Netherlands, not elsewhere.”

On the 17th of December 2009 Architectuur Lokaal and Arcam are organizing a discussion on architecture criticism in Amsterdam. As participant of the Masterclass Architecture Criticism I have been asked to join the panel.

Related: A new architecture criticism


Not that I am qualified to argue with him because I’m a young student, but it has all a sense of that it was all bad before him and all bad after him. Because before him it was just journalism and after him it wasn’t intellegent anymore.

Looks like he’s trapped into the wellknown rusty-people-trap.

Thanks, Vincent. I agree that the argument by Bernard Colenbrander has a scent of nostalgia to it.

What I like about the argument Colenbrander makes, is that he defines architecture criticism and sets a period for it. It is a double provocation that provides a perfect ground for discussion.

Speaking about the Netherlands (with my own limited knowledge) I at least have to agree partly with Colenbrander. In the past decade architecture criticism did not reach high levels. Why was this the case? That is a difficult question to anwer. I do think there is more to it than just the privatisation of Archis. Maybe everybody was just too busy making money all over the world.

Nice piece on the masterclass. But what are we (the younger generation) going to do about the low level of critism in The Netherlands? Looking back is one thing; looking forward is important too.

PS> Did you ask Bernard for a reaction?

I guess it also had to with that the 80s and 90s were the heydays of intellectualizing architecte, postmodernism had come of age, paper architects started building, and there was a lot of intellectual/theoretical drawn from philosophy (especially a whole bunch French philosophers). Now practice is perhaps following the money (for as long as it lasted), and they’re not in search for stardom through academia, at least its not flirting with the intellectual so explicitly.

Perhaps it’s as simple as that the ‘market for criticism’ is down as well, just blaming the subsidy system makes no sense (Volume is also still largely dependent on funding).

I agree with Edwin that you cannot solely blame Archis for the demise of architecture critism in the Netherlands. Their choice to make an international magazine instead of one rooted in the Dutch reality is just that, a choice. Looking back, its an important one though.

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