Everyone's a critic...
The reality is that everyone is a critic. Everyone has an opinion, everyone an idea of what works and what doesn’t, what should be done, what shouldn’t. But some, some rise above the din of the general public. They are the ones who others read, whose words shape the larger public conscience. They are professional critics, whose lives are lived in telling others how to think.
These people fascinate me, these professionals whose words so many seem to rely upon, who so many seem to hold in such high regard. I mean, how does one really go about getting others to “respect my authority”? I am sure education has something to do with it. Pedigree as well; I have no doubt that an Ivy League degree facilitates a certain immediate respect, regardless of actually competence. Wit, l assume, charisma with the written word, all combining into some singular entity that some organization then hires to communicate to its enraptured populous.
But, on the other hand, is it, like most other things in the world, all due to exposure, popularity? I mean, like high school, where some seemed pre-destined to walk the halls, enthralling others, do these people achieve their influence by luck as much as by talent?
Ever read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson? His central character might be considered one of the best critics; her innate ability to gauge the potential success of brand and logo is her calling card, her professional edge. Because of this, she is sought after, paid handsomely, to tell others what will or will not be cool. I believe she reflects a unifying ability amongst the most popular of critics, whose success lies not in their years of experience and education, but in their ability to predict trends, movements, shared ideas and shifts in ideologies.
It was this quality I admired most about one or two of the most successful classmates I met in my undergraduate and graduate years. They had this knack for understanding trends and fads. Like premonitions, these people knew what others were interested in, or looking for, before they even began looking. And they capitalized on it. Because the other trait these people all share is a keen sense of how cool they are.
It is amazing how that confidence propagates influence. So many times, in studio, I saw others beginning to mimic the aesthetic choices of this leader. Always unspoken, the inclusions, but nonetheless obvious. But, by that time, the leader was onto something else.
But, here’s the big question. If not for the initial arrogance, the aura of being influential, would others so readily try what this first person ventured to do? And would others be so receptive to the outcome, had not this designer, whose reputation had already been cemented as avant-garde or forward thinking, done it before others?
I ask because, well, I know for one that nothing I ever did ended up influencing others. I may have done well at school, even well in studio, but I wasn’t that guy, the one that everyone looked to, everyone secretly envied, tried to emulate. So, while I may have, on one level, qualified to be amongst the primary sphere of influence, I never was elevated to that revered status of design guru.
It is a chicken and egg scenario. Who exactly shapes the dialogue of architecture? Is it those whose positions of authority lead an air of credence to their words? Or is it those designers who can get these critics to continually write about the work they do? Do architects gain influence only after gaining notice by the literati of architecture? Or does the literati of architecture gain influence only after developing a record of uncovering the trends of forward-thinking types who have defined the expected?
In the end, maybe high school is the best analogy. Maybe we can’t get past the need to be popular, even if we try to actively avoid it. Like Thom Mayne, whose rebelliousness only lent his persona, his work, greater gravitas, and who now is shaping a very distinctive style emulated by many a current architecture student. And, despite our most noble intents, or desire to practice an architecture that benefits others, that adds to the built environment, perhaps a small part of architecture will always be about what people are saying is cool right now. Determined by who we think is cool right now.