The August / September issue (#20) of Argentinian magazine PLOT includes an essay by Iker Gil titled “Criticism as exploration.” The text is based on Iker Gil’s presentation during the symposium What Criticism? organized by Florencia Rodriguez and that took place on February 14, 2014 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
You can find the published essay below. To read the issue, please visit PLOT.
Criticism as exploration
“A critical action is precise (intentional) and transgressive (undisciplined); a nasty but salutary shock of and for possible dormant scenarios, aimed at stimulating the present and arousing possible future spaces. It signifies alternative possibilities ¬– anticipatory lines of research or decisively innovative projects – and accepts, at the same time, the risks of all hazardous adventure that ends up involved in – and marked by – the action itself.
A critical action is more geared towards the quest of the emergent – the new, the “non–homologated” than the description of the time-honored, the “previously documented.”
Explorations signal a will to propose, for the contemporary scenario, spaces of change approachable only from open orders of definition, in accordance with the evolutionary potential of interchange and information; processes destined, in the last instance, to become further complicated and transformed beyond the old closed doors of shape. Explorations as opposed to chronicles.”
Manuel Gausa 
Criticism interests me as a vehicle for exploration as opposed to chronicle. The implication of a search, a discovery, of alternative possibilities, of looking forward.
Produced for the cover of the Trace issue of MAS Context, I am also interested in this image (Figure 01) by John Pobojewsky that says “Nothing is New.” Trace as physical remnants and selective memories, tangible and intangible reminders of a past that influence our present and future. The way we put things in context, relate architecture with other disciplines, with contemporary realities, connect seemingly distant dots, and establish lines of thoughts will be critical in advancing the discipline of architecture. And I think it is the collective exploration, the engaged conversation by multiple people that does it more successfully than the single authoritarian voice typically associated with “criticism.”
That is what we have been attempting to do with MAS Context since its inception in 2009: to create a platform to explore selected topics open to multiple disciplines and perspectives. The publication was created five years ago as a side project to my architecture office MAS Studio. My background is in architecture and I run an architecture office so I very much think of myself as an architect and not necessarily as a critic. However, I understand these discussions as an integral part of the profession. A way to explore contemporary conditions around us and raise questions about our environment and the different disciplines.
I’d like to illustrate this exploration with a few examples of some of the contributions that have opened up conversations in different areas:
In one of our Living issue (Winter 2009) we published a piece about the Cabrini-Green public housing development located in Chicago. It was a series of memories from James Lockhart, a former resident of Cabrini Green, talking about violence and drugs but also community, friendship, education and respect. His words were more telling about the many layers of public housing than the ones of most so-called “experts.” “We would just sit back in amazement looking at the John Hancock building. Words like “architecture” were not a part of our vocabulary yet but we understood the building was special. We could view it right from our bedroom window; as a matter of fact we could view the entire Chicago skyline right from the projects. We did not realize how valuable the real estate truly was until the gentrification started.”  Public housing is an unresolved issue in the US in general but particularly in Chicago. Sometimes memories from those directly involved can open up more constructive conversations than academic articles.
A year later in our Public issue (Winter 2010) Francine Stock, president of DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana, discussed the present and grim future of midcentury public schools in New Orleans. She mentioned that “of the city’s thirty public schools designed and built in the 1950s (most of them award-wining projects), only four are left standing today. Soon only one may remain.”  At the time of the article, the effort was to save Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, a building designed by Charles R. Colbert in 1955, and with an immediate threat of demolition. What was interesting about this article is that it was used in support of the building in the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission hearing discussing the demolition of the school. Unfortunately, the building was ultimately demolished a few months later after that hearing but it was important to demonstrate that these articles don’t need to stay on paper and can be part of a very public conversation.
As we know, this threat is not unique to New Orleans. Many midcentury buildings are facing demolition across the US and other countries, and that will inevitably continue in the future. In Chicago we are currently watching the slow and painful disappearing of the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Prentice Women’s Hospital designed, a building that used an innovative structural solution and whose program organization influenced many hospitals afterwards. As a profession, we need to find ways to discuss the importance of these projects, demand more from the replacement if they can’t be saved, and be part of conversations with stakeholders that usually do not include architects.
For our Aberration issue (Winter 2011), guest curated by architect John Szot, we confronted two contributions discussing the Metropol Parasol project by Jürgen Mayer H. in Seville, Spain. The initial contribution was an interview with Jürgen Mayer H. by Vladimir Belogolovsky that was then responded in the same issue by Ethel Baraona Pohl, co-founder of dpr-barcelona. In between the time of the initial interview and her response, the Metropol Parasol became the urban scenario of the massive protest related with the so-called movement #spanishrevolution, in which the project was appropriated by the local people. All of the sudden, the project that represented all the issues that people had complaining about became the center of resistance. Architecture is inevitably connected to and discussed as part of larger conditions. This exchange captured a time of change in Spain, of indignation and reaction.
Other contributions propose new scenarios that respond to issues that cities are facing. In Narrow Streets Los Angeles, photographer David Yoon documents existing streets of LA and narrows them to see the effects that his manipulations have on the city. His fictional depictions of the streets, while they are not literal proposals provide the perfect platform to discuss if another city is possible, one that puts human scale in the foreground.
(Im)possible Chicagos is a series of hallucinatory joyrides through one hundred and twenty-five Chicagos envisioned by Alexander Trevi. Under these seemingly impossible cities, there lies a series of very real conditions. Here you can see Chicago as an artificial island in Dubai. Modern Masterpieces Revisited, by Luis Santiago Baptista, confronts the modern architecture masterpieces with both the utopian archive of the discipline and uncontested contemporary realities, opening up discussion about architecture and blurred realities.
Besides the different contributions and the conversations they generate, we also question the type of discussion that different formats can enable. What type of discussion can each format enable? How do we bridge and relate formats, from the digital world to print and to events, and build upon each other?
In the fall of 2013, we organized the exhibition Architecture Narratives as part of a larger MAS Context Analog event in Chicago. It featured the work of architect-graphic novelist Jimenez Lai and architect-cartoonist Klaus, showing the different ways in which they use narrative and drawing either as a way to conceptualize architectural form and space, or as a tool to reflect on/criticize/satirize the profession and the discipline. Out of that initial pairing, and seeing the potential of the further exploration of the topic, a full issue of MAS Context was generated, with Koldo Lus Arana and Klaus as guest editors, on the role of architecture and graphic narrative.
In the end, a critical and comprehensive look at topics that we feel are important to our discipline can help explore the possibilities of a complex and unstable present that is not likely to get any simpler. It is important that we establish and define these channels for constructive criticism and exploration.
1. Manuel Gausa, “Critical action,” The Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture: City, Technology and Society in the Information Age (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2003)
2. James Lockhart, “Living in Cabrini,” MAS Context Living (December 2009), 70-83.
3. Francine Stock, “Is there a future for the recent past in New Orleans?” MAS Context Public (December 2010), 70-87.
Issue: August / September 2014 #20