Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

In fall 2020, the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab sponsored a six-episode series titled Whither Criticism? to question the state of architecture criticism today, and to ask how the field needs to adapt to address the major crises of our time.

Hosts David Rifkind (Architecture) and Dan Evans (Journalism + Media) welcomed some of the leading architecture critics of our time for a frank and illuminating discussion. Speakers included Lee Bey, Christopher Hawthorne, Inga Saffron, Kate Wagner, Alistair Gordon, and Mimi Zeiger.

Thank you, David and Dan, for inviting me to speak to you today about architecture and criticism, two subjects close to my heart. My lecture puts together some thoughts on the two topics drawing from my own experiences and influences as well as ongoing conversations with friends and collaborators.

I’d like to start with a sentence from Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

It’s one of the most famous, over quoted lines from Joan Didion’s The White Album—an anxiety-filled collection of essays, that captures in sharp, crystalline prose, a period of time, not unlike our, filled with uncertainty, violence, and social change.

Didion’s quote is often used a kind of balm, a reassurance that our stories will prevail. But the rest of Didion’s opening paragraph tends to be an afterthought.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she writes then continues with more complex and darker prose.

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

The fever dream of Didion’s actual experience—of the mid 1960s to early 1970s, a time of cultural upheaval—has unsettling parallels to our own moment. One that futurist artist and designer Olakean Jeyfious calls the “pandem-olution”—a portmanteau of pandemic and revolution.

Didion wrote about the Watts riots, a celebrity governor, anti-war protests, fights for civil rights, the Manson murders, and the death of Jim Morrison.

I read Didion’s quote alongside one from architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable taken from her 1969 review of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction published in the New York Times under the title “The Case for Chaos”.

Writes Huxtable:
“Today’s theory is tomorrow’s practice. With the speedup characteristic of our age, it has a way of becoming today’s practice. Any thinking feeling citizen involved with his environment in this latter part of the twentieth century (that’s right—latter—with all the “projections” to the one awesome remote year 2000 no more than comfortable middle age for the present generation) must know the wave of future or succumb to the undertow of the past.”

That word “speedup” intrigues me. Reminds me of our own accelerationist anxieties. Today, our news cycle conflates presidential bromides, Covid coverage, and Kanye meltdowns into digestible feeds. Architectural criticism exists within this flow, competing with and subject to the churn. It is aiming for the future while trying to kick free of the undertow, the pull of the past.

So, as we are convened here to think about the state of architectural criticism today and how criticism must change to respond to the major crises of our time, we need to consider just what are the “ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Because isn’t the framing of ideas, especially in complex times, at the very heart of criticism? Criticism is not a fast, hot take. It’s not a Pete Wells takedown. It’s not clickbait. It’s not a passing of judgement from on high. Or an exercise in arbitering taste. Architectural criticism, by which I mean the critique of buildings, master plans, landscapes, books, exhibitions, biennials, and design culture, identifies important narratives gives them context, questions received histories, and deepens and transmits meaning.

And yet critique is not limited to the space of the essay, a la Didion. I’ve written about and defended the ways that social media—Instagram, Twitter, meme culture—contribute to what I call “collective criticism”, one that is dependent on multiple authors and perspectives.

I am not an architecture critic because I hate architecture and want to take a swing at every star architect (as puffed up on their own self-worth as they might be at times). I’m a critic because, against all odds, I love architecture. I’m an architecture nerd. Criticism happens happen at the scale of a facade detail, in analysis of entrance circulation, or in how policy changes might impact the urban fabric.

I’m deeply invested in how architecture shapes and is shaped by culture. I’m interested in how the built environment is designed and where architecture provides aesthetic value, brings people together, and also where it fails to account for equity.

I am, however, suspicious of different forms of power within the field—entrenched hierarchies, gendered and racial biases, flows of capital and investment.

Architecture is a powerful imaginary. An act of speculation, it asks us to envision something before it happens.

Recently, I assigned an essay about the tension between freedom and utopia by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin to the students in my class at SCI-Arc.

She writes: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

In order to imagine what Afrofuturist writer, Samuel L. Delany calls “the necessity of tomorrow,” we as critics need check our own privileges. The most important question we should be asking right now as critics is: Whose narratives are being told? And whose voices have platforms?

There is a reckoning going on right now within architecture regarding the scarcity of Black, Brown, and Indigenous stories. A correction has been taking place over the last few months, with the celebration and publication of designers of color. This is great and necessary. But also, only partial. The issues within the field are structural.

Architecture—the field and the discipline—likes to see itself as a meritocracy. The rituals of architectural training celebrate peer-to-peer competition and hard work. The profession demands long hours and short deadlines. The 18th century, Ecole des Beaux Arts tradition of the charette gives historical license to a mode of working and creating that privileges the young, the able bodied, and the available.

Old fashioned as it may seem, there’s lingering belief that this crucible filters out the weak-kneed or weak-minded, letting only the strongest designs, designers rise to the top. But this method, upheld in experimental and corporate offices alike, (and sometimes built on questionable internship practices) fails to level the playing field for many at the intersection of race, gender, ability, and class. A career in architecture is most dynamic for those who can afford it—from top schools and unpaid internships to setting up one’s own practice and cultivating clients.

Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identify several characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, among them are perfectionism, sense of urgency, individuality, and paternalism. All of these are embedded in architecture culture. And while the field is undergoing a much-needed self-refection, these conditions are deep rooted.

As architecture critics, we have to recognize ourselves as complicit in upholding narratives of singular genius over plural authorship; and seeing design as a kind of “feel good” solutionism rather than architecture as a resulting artifact of capital investment.

Over the past few years, groups such as The Architecture Lobby and Who Builds Your Architecture? Have organized to shine light on labor practices within the profession and within the building construction industry. I’ve written about both groups and I annually invite Architecture Lobby representatives into my classes to speak about the need for organizing and the structural implications of disrupting the residual gatekeeping of a “gentleman’s profession”.

Newly formed projects such as Design as Protest, Office Hours, and the Dark University are using techniques modeled on collective action and mutual aid to not only raise awareness about structural racism, but also question the very tools and skillsets required to move through a very white profession… such groups resonate with Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted, very architectural dictum that you cannot use the master’s tools to tear down the masters house.

Increasingly, intersectional feminism provides an underpinning to my work. I’ve written extensively about gender inequity in architecture, and the ways that bias and abuse went unchecked and rarely reported until the #metoo movement forced it into the open. Importantly, I make it a point to write about artists, architects, and designers who are underrepresented. This means not only focusing on their work in a feature or profile, but also including a diversity of voices when looking for supporting quotes and examples across all my research and my reporting.

My way of working has also changed, influenced by the work of scholar and critic Jane Rendell, who in writing about feminist and critical spatial practices, argues for criticism that is “objective and subjective, distant and intimate”. In addition to the known critical act of observing (or what me might call reporting) she says that spaces can be dreamed, remembered, and imagined. And she wants to: “challenge criticism as a form of knowledge with a singular and static point of view located in the here and now.”

Architect and critic Michael Sorkin passed away due to coronavirus early in the pandemic. The loss of his fearless critical voice and his unrelenting defense of the public realm on behalf of its residents is still heartbreaking many months later. Streets, sidewalks, parks, infrastructure are just as, if not more important, than individual buildings.

I can imagine the piece he would have written about the taking down of Jim Crow-era monuments, the reclaiming of streetscapes with the words in giant capital letters: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

I’ve taught criticism workshops in many places—from Las Vegas to Hong Kong—and each time I assign Sorkin’s essay Advice to Critics, written in—a period marked by anti-Iraq war protests. The text is broken up into a dozen points, beginning with the evergreen command: “Always Visit the Building”, and true to form, it includes sections “Who Profits?” and “It’s the City, Stupid”.

His text is a field guide, crystal clear in its positionality and a lesson to those who might get caught up in design as philosophy or style.

Around the same time, he opens another essay ,“Architecture and the Avant Garde” with the sentence: “All architecture is political.”

You are with me so far, so I’m going to assume that this is a no-brainer statement. Obvious at this point. Important, necessary. But not everyone in the field abides by this statement.

Folks like architect Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, perhaps vis-à-vis Tafuri, argue that architecture is autonomous from the vicissitudes of the political sphere precisely because it is not an arena that Architecture (with a capital A) can have an impact.

How one sees architecture’s agency as entwined with politics depends on how one defines architecture and its extents or influence.

“All architecture is political” writes Sorkin, then continues: “By marshaling and distributing resources, organizing social space, and orchestrating encounters, architecture is the medium through which human relations are given dimension.”

Sorkin is telling us that architecture isn’t abstract, it isn’t something other. It is a way—maybe not the only way—that we relate to the world.

But if architecture is political, we have to consider the role of the architectural critic. I often think about possible ways we could view the critic’s role—as Activist, Advocate, or Ally.

Historically, the role of critic as Activist has been reserved for questions of preservation. Ada Louise Huxtable fought to save New York’s Penn Station by McKim, Mead & White. And Los Angeles-based critic Esther McCoy fiercely campaigned in the 1960s to save Irving Gill’s Dodge House and was one of the founders of the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Dodge House. Built in 1916, the residence, with its clean lines, undecorated arches, and reinforced concrete construction, was considered one of the first truly modern designs in the west.

I’m reminded of a quote by Ether McCoy about the Dodge House, which still resonates.

“We prize the distant past,” she said in a film made in the mid-1960s. “But if the immediate past is ripped away there will be no distant past for the future. Our heritage is diminished. And there is a hole in the fabric of history.”

Alas, both buildings became holes—Penn Station was demolished in 1963, Dodge House in 1970. But while two structures were lost, the actions on behalf of these two critics created very real changes in the perception of the built environment and established ongoing policy. Huxtable’s efforts led to New York City passing the Landmarks Law in 1965, which established the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and similarly, McCoy’s work highlighted the need for preservation efforts in Los Angeles, which would be formalized with the founding of the L.A. Conservancy in 1978.

This spring and summer, LACMA demolished what was left of the William Pereira campus to make way for the controversial design by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Many art and architecture critics, including Greg Goldin, Joseph Giovannini, Carolina Miranda, Christopher Knight, and myself have made cases to preserve the old buildings or critiqued the new design on everything from lack of master plan, reduced exhibition space, and questionable finances.

Right now, there’s a hole. It’s unclear how the museum and county will muster together the full $750 million needed for construction.

The ample writings around LACMA, for the most part, illustrate the role of critic as advocate, as the one illuminating the key issues and bringing them to a larger public. What is at stake here is often discourse, but not direct action. This is not a bad thing, in fact, I think it is a kind of sweet spot for criticism—a territory where I’ve gotten a lot of traction on topics from obsolescence and labor, to women in architecture and urbanism after police violence.

And yet it is allyship that has been on my mind since May and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the hands of police officers.

How can a critic be an ally?

I struggle with this question, even though I’ve been thinking about it since 2014 and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

At that time, I spoke with architect and current Princeton professor Mitch McEwen, with the intent of using my platform to amplify what she had to say.

In discussing what ways architects can contribute to the fight against the injustices against people of color, including police violence, I quoted her as saying:

Architects and urban designers can take the #BlackLivesMatter campaign as an opportunity to look deeply into the ways that the tools of the discipline have been defined through attempts to erase black people from American cities. I don’t mean ‘in conjunction with’, but actually the tools of the discipline emerging through the very acts of controlling, erasing, and displacing Black bodies.
In our back and forth, McEwan made a comparison to climate change. That designers need to give as much attention to race as to climate change. And while consciousness has been raised on both topics, we are really only just beginning to realize ways that these issues are interlocked, both stemming from anthropocentric and colonial entitlements.

Six years later, this is still the crux of an ongoing, nowhere near resolved conversation. Looking back on my notes, one of the things I see that I missed is the infrastructural capacity needed to raise awareness. That my voice, my platform, even when coupled together with hers, would not be heard unless the field, society-at-large, was ready to hear them.

This summer, as it seemed like there was finally critical mass of listening going on, I wrestled with how, what, and if I should write. One of the things I began to think about in regard to allyship, is the difference between being silent and ceding room so that others can speak. I thought carefully about my subjectivity as a middle-class, straight, cis, Jewish, white woman and wondered if it was my place to speak out at that moment. More importantly, I didn’t want to virtue signal by appropriating someone else’s voice or narrative. My current stance is that the work of anti-racism needs to be sustainable, it is a long-term practice that needs to be integrated into all my critical writing and curating, not siloed to a single essay.

Equally pressing is the need to open up platforms, to make more room for critics of a diversity of backgrounds and identity expressions.

Writer and trans activist Charlie Jane Anders has this to say about allyship:
“We talk a lot about ally-ship, but it’s not just posting memes on twitter. It’s noticing who’s left out and finding ways to bring them inside.”

I’m hopeful about a London-based initiative called New Architecture Writers, which is a free training program geared to Black and Minority ethnic emerging writers and other underrepresented groups in design journalism and curatorial practice. The program tackles skill building with workshops and one-on-one mentoring, but it also understands that networking and building connections within journalism circles are just as important.

Since we can all agree that so much of getting one’s foot in the door comes from these informal connections rather than a cold pitch via email.

And yet even while I’m excited about the potential of New Architecture Writers and I try to personally meet with an encourage emerging writers, I am also conflicted. Is it ethical to train writers to enter a field in which a career is not only competitive, but also precarious, even for us established critics?

I’ve written through a number of expansions and contractions within design publishing, so the closing or tightening belts of certain publications doesn’t seem to be the death knell for criticism. During the last recession, we saw a boom of new writers start blogs that would later turn into larger careers.

As an independent critic, I am concerned that the per article rates for freelance assignments have not budged in decades. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. $1 per word has been standard since the 70s. Many of the more prestigious places I’ve written for can’t even afford that. Is it sustainable to ask emerging and established writers to patch together a living on $200 assignments— and how is this necessary hustle an even heavier burden for practitioners from underrepresented groups?

I don’t have a million-dollar plan to rescue publishing. Perhaps we can take that on in the Q & A.

I’d like to close by saying that I’d like to see a deepening of critical thought, a slowing down of the churn in order to focus on cultural ideas, and a diversity of voices represented in stories and in bylines. And, ultimately, the practice of criticism is as much about labor as it is about love, but also shouldn’t be considered a hobby or a labor of love. Criticism must be nurtured and protected not only with training, but with networks, platforms, and funding that allow the “stories that we tell ourselves in order to live”, to find voice and thrive.

Thank you.