Belles-lettres, from the French, means writing that is fine or beautiful, crafted or polished. In this sense belles-lettres applies to all specifically literary work, including fiction, poetry and drama. But the term is also more narrow and more nuanced than that, and these days it is archaic and rarely used — except among librarians who give the name to categories of literature that do not fit within other genres. In large libraries, for instance, humor, essays, and volumes of letters, speeches and literary criticism, will have their own category; but in small libraries they are just as likely to be gathered under the heading of belles-lettres. It could be described as the “etc.” — the excess that refuses to be categorized and thus threatens to explode the system of categorization, or at least reveal its values and omissions.
Here I would like to explore the genre and mode of the belle-lettre as one model for what architectural writing, and architectural criticism, might aspire to. I have written elsewhere about the “complaints” commonly made about written architectural criticism in Australia, complaints which may well be complacent and under-theorized, but which remain pervasive (and which surely apply beyond our shores). 1 Let me caricature them briefly simply to get them out of the way, even though they are arguable, sometimes dubious, and not my main focus.
They are: that architectural criticism is not critical enough, that our culture of amiability mitigates against “real” critique and creates a culture of anodyne politeness; that criticism in the professional journals is not objective because tainted by commercial bias, and hence it is sycophantic, fixated on glamour photography, unduly attracted by novelty and spectacle, and complicit in the architectural “star system”; and furthermore, that critics are vague or simply incorrect in their criteria for judgement, or that they refuse to be drawn to judgment at all and instead shade into timid, impressionistic and descriptive criticism, which is more about the critic than the building and which therefore has little role to play in improving future buildings or the built environment. All of these interrelated ideas have contributed to a widespread belief that architectural criticism, in Australia and elsewhere, is in something of a state of crisis. 2 But my primary complaint with architectural criticism is with its conventionality as a specific genre of writing. It is indeed a practice with very strong and well-defined conventions — of tone, of vocabulary, of comportment, of image-text relationship. So I wonder how these strong conventions came about, and I especially wonder how they might be bent, or broken.
Much of the most current and lively debate about architectural criticism has occurred online. Part of this has been gathered on the influential Design Observer website; for instance, Alexandra Lange’s essay “Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough” discusses the work of the former critic of The New York Times and proposes that he might be “the last architecture critic” and that the role itself might be “doomed.” This article garnered a huge response and generated much online discussion, including a follow-up article by Nancy Levinson, in which she condemns the notion that architectural criticism is a mode of art criticism, arguing that this promotes a dangerous emphasis on formalist critique and on “aesthetics over function, technology, comfort or performance.” In a later essay entitled “Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?, Lange again speculates on the ongoing viability of the role of architecture critic, this time on the grounds of the “uncertainty of the media landscape” in an economic downturn, where new commentators increasingly begin their publishing ventures online. A good example of this trajectory is Loud Paper — dedicated to “increasing the volume of architectural discourse” and created by freelance writer Mimi Zeiger — which began as an independent printed zine and then migrated online.
But despite the many and varied predictions of the death of criticism — of architecture as well as other forms of culture — it seems to me that a radical rethinking of critical practice might be prompted by the potentials of writing for online media, and that this rethinking might result in a new belle-lettrism. Surely there are few arts as popular as architecture, in the sense of being widely used and ubiquitous. So why does it not then appear in the pages of the pop-culture blogs like Brisbane’s Four Thousand? The short answer would be that it’s not groovy enough, but the longer answer would include the fact that architectural writing is very rarely populist, in the good sense of that word. I am interested in the (small c) writerly culture of the new media, as manifest in the particular tone struck in much online writing — a distinctive tone of knowing, hip insouciance, which speaks to a particular sub-culture of savvy and culturally literate people from all over the world, people who are just as much at home in B-grade pop culture as they are in capital-A art, and who delight in flitting across this spectrum in a way that collapses traditional boundaries between high and low.
Belles-lettres and the “gentle reader”
As the literary historian David S. Shields writes, belles-lettres has now “become a vague term, collecting so broad a reference that it now designates the whole of ‘humane letters’ … that is, all imaginative literature or all writing evincing ‘literariness.'” But this was not always the case. Shields continues: “[In England,] prior to the term’s semantic expansion in the 1760s, it had a precise employment, naming a mode of writing that subordinated the traditional tasks of edification, revelation, and memorialization to the work of stimulating social pleasure. Belles-lettres was characterized more by its effects than its forms. ‘Ease’ and ‘agreeableness,’ qualities adjusted to the taste of the ‘gentle reader,’ were the primary belletristic virtues.” 3
As is perhaps anticipated in the refined pleasures described by Shields, by the time we get to the present day, belles-lettres has come to carry some bad associations — of sophisticated elegance but also excessive refinement, of aesthetic aspiration but also aestheticism, of literary pleasure but also trivial flimsiness and lack of substance. Belles-lettres are pieces of writing that emerge from and exist within literary culture, within what might be called the archive of literature — in a self-conscious relationship to other literary work, and in the pursuit of literary art. The Encyclopædia Britannica describes belles-lettres as “the more artistic and imaginative forms of literature, as poetry or romance, as opposed to more pedestrian and exact studies.” 4 The parallel here is clear: Belle-lettrism (as a subset of literature in general) is to the majority of writing what architecture is to the majority of buildings. This is a mode of writing that is more than simply practical or informative; rather it is a pleasurable, literary end in itself. One can see how this might have come to seem rather circular and rarefied in the practice of literary criticism — elegant literary texts that describe and discuss other literary texts, for the appreciation of the few people who read and value such things. But it causes me to wonder what might be gained in translation between literary and architectural arts.
So the idea of an architectural belle-lettrism might be useful in several ways. It opens the possibility of a “fine writing” in architecture that spans across exploratory or descriptive modes as well as architectural criticism. It also opens the question of subjectivity and affect in both reader and writer. The most influential mode of literary criticism to succeed belle-lettrism was the New Criticism of the early to mid-20th century, with its radically formalist analytical and objective approach that treated the text “scientifically,” as completely autonomous and isolated from the social and material world. The current rise of subjectivity and affect in all modes of criticism, including that of architecture, is perhaps a late reaction against the New Criticism and a return to the earlier pleasures of belle-lettrism, which included the narration of individual perception, embodiment, eroticism and subjective experience.
Part of the attraction of the belles-lettres lies in its association with actual letters, with the epistolary form, and hence with a particular idea of direct address between author and reader — the idea that a piece of writing travels, as an epistle or emissary between one and the other, with all the immediacy and imagistic and aphoristic appeal of a postcard. The idea of beautiful letters also suggests that such beauty might not only lie in the text, but in the image of the text — rather in what we might call the para-text, the design and typography. Furthermore, belles-lettres’ historic association with conversation, with the wit and critical cut-and-thrust of the salon, seems a fascinating parallel with writing in the new media. We could see much of the so-called blogosphere as a contemporary, globalized and dislocated version of the salon. Shields writes that:
Belles lettres flourished in England in conjunction with the rise of urban sociability in the 1670s. New communities based on shared taste, friendship, or common interest formed in post-fire London and in the burgeoning resorts. In the mixed-sex assemblies at the spas and in the male tavern clubs of the metropolis, aspirants to gentility embraced the court’s new sociable manner of wit. 5
Such new communities based on shared taste, friendship, common interest and wit seem to me exactly what we are now seeing online, including in writing on architecture. Not everyone is happy about this, mind you: in an issue of Communication Arts, Linda Cooper Bowen frets that “[w]ith the introduction of the Internet and its spontaneous, unregulated platforms, people with little or no credentials can invent themselves as critics and comment on design while infiltrating the creative community.” But contrary to Bowen’s concerns, it must be said that the Internet functions as something like a true meritocracy — someone passing themselves off as an architecture critic but saying silly or ill-informed things will not gather a committed readership, while a self-professed amateur who has an original voice and an engaging and fresh way of seeing designed things might create a following and hence advance the practice of criticism significantly. Others perhaps more attuned to the democratizing possibilities of web 2.0 technologies are more optimistic or philosophical; Nancy Levinson, writing several years ago in Architectural Record, notes that “fledgling new media are generating flabbergasting quantities of content, an ever-present online multiverse of image, information, text and hypertext; and in this illimitable process they are also generating a newer, narrower definition of ‘public’, or rather ‘publics’, as broadcast slivers into narrowcast, and as the old-style, top-down discourse makes way for the looser, more participatory dynamics of online exchange.” 6
Thus there exists a tension between two types of criticism, associated respectively with print and online media, although this is not a causal link. The traditional, disciplinary critique of the kind that has long appeared in professional architecture journals is written by sanctioned, expert critics and directed at practicing architects, with a view to providing firm judgements and advice on how architects might design better buildings. On the other hand, the cultural commentary of the kind that increasingly appears online tends to be written by enthusiasts, without necessarily any formal training but with a particular interest in and opinions on architecture, defined broadly. It seeks to make interpretations of and speculations around architecture, drawing associations with broader formations of both high and popular culture, and appealing to a generalist audience that includes architects among a much broader public.
Naturally, these two kinds of commentary have different motivations and objectives. Geoff Manaugh, whose phenomenally popular BLDGBLOG falls into the latter speculative and populist category, notes that “there’s an idea that people like myself are treating architectural criticism almost like a tag cloud or a cluster of topics that span related fields, and we’re losing sight of the fact that architects are creating buildings and someone needs to critique those architects so that they don’t create bad buildings in the future.” 7 “It’s a perfectly valid point that we need architecture critics,” Manaugh adds; but nevertheless argues that this should not come at the expense of the imaginative commentary that often occurs in the blogosphere, and that draws new audiences to architecture.
This polarization of attitudes toward the value of online and traditional forms of criticism is well exemplified in two recent events, one international and one national, which are unrelated but which have remarkably congruent titles. Both “Critical Futures” and “Critical Failure” chart the wild swings between panic and optimism that attend the new online belletristic writing.
In January 2011 the print journal Domus — one of the oldest and most respected of the international professional architecture journals, established in 1928 and published continuously since then in Italian and English — began a series of three public panel discussions on the future of criticism, collectively entitled “Critical Futures.” The first was held in London, the second in Milan, and the third in New York, with each panel made up of critics from both print and online media, as well as editors, publishers, bloggers and curators; the panels were filmed and streamed on the web. As introduced by Domus, the first event was framed as a somewhat polarized debate between online and print forms of commentary on architecture, whereby under the influence of the Internet and its “free and instantly ubiquitous” flow of images and information, magazines have been forced to “redefine their purpose and economic model in light of dwindling readerships,” whereas “blogs have given a global audience, potentially of millions, to anyone with an Internet connection.” The introduction closed with the proposition that “in all of this, architecture criticism in the traditional sense appears to have all but vanished — not only from the Internet but from magazines themselves.” The question that this immediately raises, of course, is how architectural criticism is defined here, and for whom it is imagined to be written.
As it transpired, the discussions themselves were more nuanced than this introduction would imply, suggesting that the relationship between print and online writing is one of mutual influence. Rather than a false dichotomy, whereby it would appear that we are at a moment of choice between blogs and magazines, the discussions instead positioned all public architectural discourse as in a state of transformation: searching for new models and modes of writing, seeking new ways of addressing new audiences, and renegotiating the ethical contract that the architectural critic makes with architects on the one hand and with the users of buildings on the other, and then with both groups as they are readers of the critique. Within this debate lies an array of contradictions, which are integral to architecture as a discipline, and which afflict both online and print criticism, but which nevertheless have long been misunderstood, poorly articulated, or simply ignored by architecture critics.
The Domus events had been partly inspired by, and framed in relation to, an editorial by Peter Kelly published in the print journal Blueprint, in which Kelly had condemned the rise of populist blogs such as Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, claiming they had little connection or commitment to actual buildings or building quality. 8 Manaugh retorted that he had never claimed to write “proper” architectural criticism because his interests lay elsewhere, and that there are other ways and means of talking about architecture. What became clear during the course of the “Critical Futures” discussions is that online vehicles have brought about a “mutation of the power structures around the formation of architectural cultures,” as the moderator and Domus editor Joseph Grima said in the first panel discussion. Online critique might be less sanctioned and legitimated, it might be more opinionated, amateur and passion-based, but it seems to be in the ascendancy. This is a source of concern for some, and this brings us to the second event.
In September 2010 Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas convened a series of public panel discussions under the collective title Critical Failure. Arguing that “Australian arts criticism is failing us all,” the four panels each addressed a different art form — theatre, film, books and the visual arts — and examined the relationship between artistic production and the critical environment in which it is received, concentrating on the value of criticism for arts producers and audiences alike. Posing questions — such as whether the web offers “a possibility for a new, more democratic environment for the arts in Australia,” and “what chance does local art have to flourish in an environment where it is too rarely judged on its own terms?” — the panels were well attended and widely discussed online. None of the four panels included any discussion on criticism in architecture, which might itself be taken as evidence of the currently marginal place of this practice in the Australian cultural scene. But the panels unanimously agreed upon the value of criticism to cultural production, on the integral relationship between critical culture and the liveliness, relevance, quality and significance of artistic production in any medium. They also reinforced both the challenges and the opportunities presented by the decline of traditional newspaper and print publishing, and the rise of online participatory media — including the blogger and the citizen critic.
There was broad disagreement about the significance of online platforms for criticism — about whether the new media are merely cheap and accessible instruments for the dissemination of the same old kinds of writing, or whether they are indeed radically new mediums demanding new ways of seeing, discussing and evaluating culture. In the former camp is literary critic Georgie Williamson who, in an essay entitled “Bugger the Bloggers: Old-World Critics Still Count,” is equivocal about the potentials of the internet for criticism. “It is ridiculously cheap, blisteringly fast and the online community it engenders is one that thrives on argument and constant to-and-fro,” he writes, and “[m]ost significantly, the web breaks the monopoly on criticism once held by analog-era organs and allows everyone to have their say.” He remains staunchly unconvinced: “However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.”
In contrast, many bloggers argue that the shift is far greater than “old-world critics” recognize; not only because the conventions and canons of online critical writing are still under active negotiation, but also because the tone of online criticism is markedly different — more lively, more irreverent, more steeped in popular culture, more relevant to a younger generation of readers. Rebecca Starford, a book publisher who was a panelist in the books session of Critical Failure, later argued that “[t]raditional forms of literary criticism are failing in this country not because critical authority is lacking, but because this critical authority is increasingly high-minded and ostentatious; it is criticism that does not reflect the diversity and richness of our national literature.” A similar position was set out by theater critic Alison Croggon, who, in discussing the theatre panel, celebrated the return of the “amateur critic,” identifying a “”golden age of criticism” on the Internet, a “surge of quality thinking [made possible] precisely because the Internet is volatile, democratic, unpredictable and lawless.” Even more pointedly, Croggon proposes that the Internet’s true challenge to print critics lies in the erosion of institutional authority: “[t]hat so many of these critics mistake institutional authority for critical authority says everything you need to know.”
This idea that criticism has ceased to be a distinct, authorized, expert activity in its own right, and that it is instead “dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism,” might equally be read as a protest at the demise of the specialist critic and the rise of the “chatter” of the online salon. 9 Furthermore, the retreat from judgment might be seen equally as a return to belletristic modes of criticism, in all their subjectivity, allusiveness and impressionism. What is clear is that architectural criticism finds itself in a state of transition, and the path towards a more pleasurable, “fine” and entertaining mode of writing about architecture stands open to it. In its breadth and range of association, its aspiration to literary art and pleasure in the text, the new belle-lettrism reveals exciting possibilities for architecture, both online and off.