The final essay ‘On Criticism 6: On Bias in Criticism’ comes from Stephen Rustow and completes what has been a really fun, if quick, review of the status and possibilities of landscape criticism inspired by Urban Omnibus. The concept of criticism is laid out as a ‘revealing’ to the larger public what the intentions and for lack of a better word, ‘meaning’ of a design is: “It is the first job of the critic to list and elucidate for a larger, non-professional public what those questions are; then to ask how, and how well, the project responds to those questions. Finally, the critic must ask what value those questions have in a larger context and whether they are the right questions to be asking at this moment in time.”
This personal viewpoint opens up the idea of bias, as the critic is inserting themselves into the argument and taking a stance about some specific contexual or stylistic piece of the work. The goal is not to diminish the importance, but as stated, the critic must have a ‘stance’ that is well-founded and appropriate. While I’m not convinced that the audience (of the critic, not the work) is actually the ‘non-professional public’ which is somewhat of a dichotomy. While the users of the work are specifically that public, it is debatable whether the critic is writing to this particular audience – and if it even matters. Either way, perhaps it is the critic that informs the larger discussion within ‘architecture’ which can engage both the public (users) and the designer (author) in meaningful ways – perhaps just to connect the two is dialogue.
The idea of criticism of that which is ‘bad’ is an interesting dilemma. While the focus should no solely be on good or bad, there is the need to celebrate both sides – one as exemplars the other as learning moments. Each of these must come with appropriate context as gushing praise without foundation is equally as detrimental as derogatory remarks that are based on nothing tangible. Again this goes back to the question of audience – what is bad to one group may be good to another. Designers may be able to see the constructive criticism, whereas a less educated reader will just blindly say ‘That’s bad design’. Are they given the tools to make this interpretation for themselves, or is it just given to them from one viewpoint?
As case in point, I recently attended a meeting of green roof professionals where the idea of discussing project ‘failures’ was met with uncomfortable silence to downright anger. The crux was that anything negative was going to diminish our ability to grow the profession by making us look bad. My thought was that a dialogue about lessons learned removes the danger of making similar mistakes over and over, but also to learn how to get better, more efficient, and more technically solid. While it is hard to hear or discuss dissenting views, if any group is suited to this it is the design professions, which has education and practice based on criticism as a way to learn (a process which never stops for an entire lifetime). You learn to listen, accept that which is valid, interpret that which is directive, and dismiss that which is irrelevant (or perhaps hyperbolic).
Returning to bias, Rustow ends with the thought that contemporary criticism lacks the necessary distance to evaluate context in a meaningful way. Historical referents are great for providing necessary lessons from the past (thus the teaching of history in design schools) but critique of current work, within our messy and unexamined context, is still vital. Locally, we discuss often the work of Halprin in the sequence of connected parks in the south auditorium district – both in the context of today as well as the previous context in which they were built in the early 1970s. Viewpoints vary, opinions fly, and we all think of how landscapes change and culture changes and sometimes the relevancy of longevity of our work will be judged long after we die, as well as the moment if goes into the ground (or maybe earlier).
The connection is between all modes of discussion that span from today towards the past (which the late Howard Zinn shows us is subjective for sure) – all of which incorporates bias in good measure to be successful. Rustow ends:
“Criticism of course is but the first draft of history, not the thing itself. It is journalistic in the original Latin/Francophone sense of the word — ‘of today.’ Its historical aspirations, such as they are, can only be to serve as the raw material of some future, more dispassionate, analysis. But in exchange criticism can — must — make full claim to passion, to the convictions, enthusiasms and biases that animate discussion today, now, in full understanding that once our passions are spent they too will become the subject of more broadly contextual and quieter historical methods. Deprived of any pretense to history, criticism has nothing left but bias: without bias criticism is worthless.”