Reyner Banham
Architecture Critics: Reyner Banham cycling across Silurian Dry Lake in 1981 by Tim Street-Porter

Architecture, as a reflection of society and its ever-evolving nature, has always been at the forefront of cultural discourse. Integral to this dialogue are the voices of architecture critics, whose insights and evaluations have profoundly shaped our understanding and appreciation of the built environment. From the early 20th century to the present day, these critics have not only interpreted the aesthetic and functional aspects of architecture but also contextualized it within broader social, cultural, and political landscapes.

The role of an architecture critic extends beyond the mere assessment of style and form; it involves a nuanced understanding of an architect’s vision, the impact of a structure on its surroundings, and the subtle interplay between tradition and innovation. These critics, with their diverse backgrounds and perspectives, have contributed significantly to architectural discourse, challenging norms, heralding new movements, and sometimes, controversially, steering public opinion.

In this article, we embark on a journey through the annals of architectural criticism to highlight ten individuals who have indelibly marked the field with their profound insights and articulate commentaries.

1. Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983)

Nikolaus Pevsner

Nikolaus Pevsner was more than just a critic; he was a scholar who brought academic rigor to the study of architectural history. Born in Germany and later becoming a British citizen, Pevsner’s vast knowledge and methodical approach were evident in his seminal work, An Outline of European Architecture. This book from 1942, among others, was pivotal in establishing architectural history as a respected academic discipline. Pevsner’s emphasis on the historical context of architectural styles provided a comprehensive framework for understanding the evolution of European architecture.

Other Important works from Pevsner include:
1. The Buildings of England, 1951 to 1974 series.
2. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius,1936

2. Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013)

As the first full-time architecture critic at a major American newspaper, Ada Louise Huxtable reshaped the landscape of architectural journalism. Her tenure at The New York Times was marked by a clear, incisive style that made architecture accessible to the public while never shying away from technicalities. Huxtable’s criticism, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, was notable for its emphasis on the social responsibilities of architecture and urban planning. She set a high standard for journalistic architectural criticism, blending astute observation with a deep understanding of architecture’s broader impact.

Other important works include:
1. Kicked A Building Lately?, 1976
2. The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, 1997
3. Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard?, 1970

Ada Louise Huxtable

3. Reyner Banham (1922-1988)

Reyner Banham

Reyner Banham, an English architectural critic and writer, was a unique voice in the field, known for his enthusiasm for modern architecture and technology. His writings, which often celebrated the machine aesthetic and the use of new materials and techniques, were a departure from the traditional architectural discourse of his time. Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) is a landmark publication that critically analyzed the birth and development of modern architecture. Another notable work, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1970), demonstrated his ability to read cities and architecture as cultural and ecological landscapes, offering an entirely new perspective on urbanism.

Other important work includes:
1. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 1969

4. Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist, brought a fresh perspective to architectural criticism, focusing on the urban landscape and community living. Her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), critiqued the 20th-century urban planning policies that favored large-scale renewal projects, arguing instead for the preservation of older buildings and community-centric urban planning. Jacobs’ advocacy for “eyes on the street” and mixed-use development reshaped how architects, planners, and the public perceive the urban environment, emphasizing the importance of organic, community-led development in city planning.

Other important works include:
1. The Economy of Cities, 1969
2. Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1984

Jane Jacobs

5. Charles Jencks (1939-2019)

charles jencks portrait getty images close up sq

Charles Jencks was a pivotal figure in the transition from modernism to postmodernism in architecture. An American architectural theorist, landscape architect, and designer, Jencks is best known for his criticism of the stark, impersonal nature of modernist architecture. His book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture popularized the term “Post-Modern” in architecture and became a seminal text in defining and understanding the postmodern movement. Jencks’ work emphasized the importance of symbolism and historical references in architecture, and he played a significant role in advocating for a more eclectic, communicative approach to architectural design.

Other important works include:
1. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Postmodernism, 2002

6. Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

Lewis Mumford, an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic was influential in shaping 20th-century thoughts on cities and architecture. His critiques extended beyond architecture, delving into the realms of urban planning, the history of technology, and societal development. Mumford’s notable works, including The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961) and Technics and Civilization (1934), offered comprehensive analyses of the impact of technological and architectural developments on human societies. His advocacy against urban sprawl and for more human-centered, organic urban developments has had a lasting influence on urban planning and architectural theory.

Other important works include:
1. The Culture of Cities, 1938
2. The Myth of the Machine, 1970

lewis mumford

7. Vincent Scully (1920-2017)

Vincent scully

Vincent Scully, an American art historian and esteemed professor at Yale University, was renowned for his passionate lectures that inspired generations of architects and critics. His approach to architectural criticism was deeply rooted in an understanding of history and culture, and he had an unparalleled ability to connect architectural developments with broader cultural and societal changes. Scully’s influence extended well beyond his published works, as he mentored several prominent architects and critics, instilling in them a deep appreciation for the cultural and historical context of architecture. His teachings and writings emphasized the human experience in architecture, advocating for buildings and spaces that resonated with their inhabitants and the environment.

Important works include:
1. American Architecture and Urbanism, 1969
2. Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy, 1961
3. Frank Lloyd Wright, 1960

8. Beatriz Colomina

Beatriz Colomina, a Spanish architect and architectural historian, stands out for her unique approach to architectural criticism, which intertwines architecture with media studies. Her research and writings have significantly contributed to the understanding of how media influences architectural perception and design. Colomina’s work, which often explores the intersection between architecture, technology, and media, has provided critical insights into how architecture is represented and perceived in the modern media landscape. This perspective has been particularly influential in contemporary architectural theory, emphasizing the role of media in shaping architectural trends and public opinion.

Important works include:
1. Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, 1994
2. Sexuality and Space, 1992
3. X-Ray Architecture, 2019

beatric colomina

9. Kenneth Frampton

Keneth Frampton

Kenneth Frampton, a British architect, critic, and historian, is renowned for his advocacy of “critical regionalism,” a philosophical approach that argues for the integration of local cultural, geographical, and historical elements into architecture. His influential book, “Modern Architecture: A Critical History” (1980), offers a comprehensive critique of modern architecture while advocating for architecture that responds to its specific context. Frampton’s work has been crucial in promoting architecture that is both modern and responsive to its local environment, encouraging architects to consider the cultural and environmental aspects of their designs.

Other important works include:
1. Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, 1995
2. Labour, Work and Architecture: Collected Essays on Architecture and Design, 2002

10. Juhani Pallasmaa

Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect and architectural theorist, is celebrated for his emphasis on the sensory and experiential aspects of architecture. His book “The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses” (1996) is a profound exploration of how architecture interacts with our senses. Pallasmaa argues for an architecture that is more than visually appealing; it should engage all the senses, creating a holistic and immersive experience. His approach has been instrumental in shifting the focus of architectural design towards creating more human-centered and experiential spaces.

Other important works include:
1. The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, 2009
2. The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema, 2001

Juhani Pallasmaa

Architecture Critics: Final Thoughts

The critics profiled in this article represent a diverse array of perspectives, each contributing uniquely to the discourse of architecture. Their critiques and theories have not only shaped the architectural landscape but also challenged architects, students, and enthusiasts to think deeply about the role of architecture in society. From the preservation of historical context to the embrace of technological advancements and the sensory experience of spaces, these critics have left an indelible mark on the field.

Their work transcends mere criticism; it serves as a guidepost for future generations, encouraging continuous dialogue and evolution in architectural thought and practice. As we reflect on their contributions, we are reminded of the dynamic and ever-changing nature of architecture—a field that is as much about building structures as it is about building ideas and communities.

For those interested in further exploring the realm of architectural thought and practice, our article The 20 Best Architecture Books Every Architect Must Read features some of the influential works of these architecture critics. This compilation can provide an even deeper understanding of the philosophies and insights that have shaped modern architecture.