Originally published in GRAY Magazine. August 2019.
When Thomas Heatherwick’s stepwise structure The Vessel opened this spring in Hudson Yards, New York, the general response was fairly muted. People stood in line. They went up and down the structure’s 2,500 steps. They posted their pictures on Instagram, and then they went on with their lives.
Critics, on the other hand, exploded. “The depth of architectural thinking at work here,” Kate Wagner wrote in the Baffler, “makes a kiddie-pool seem oceanic.” Along with Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, Alexandra Lange in Curbed, Elissaveta Marinova in Icon, Matt Shaw in The Architect’s Newsletter, and myself in frieze (among others), Wagner denounced the project as the hood ornament of a real estate development lacking in public spirit, but built at public expense.
Given the vast resources passing through Heatherwick’s hands, it is unlikely that this wave of hostile coverage bothered him much. But it was an indication of a certain maturity in the field of criticism itself. Quite unexpectedly, we seem to have arrived at a golden age of writing about architecture and design. Not since the 1970s, when postmodernism was roiling the scene and theorists were lining up on all sides, have there been so many voices, or so many platforms for them to be heard.
As I say, this is somewhat surprising. Back in 2005, graphics specialist Rick Poynor wrote an article in Design Observer plaintively entitled, “Where are the Design Critics?” One might expect things to have only gotten worse. Newspapers struggle, while the sheer accumulation of capital in many fields – film and fine art – rolls right over bad reviews. But the peculiar formation of contemporary media is well suited to the design field. Spurred by competition, design websites and magazines have outgrown the promotional role that they once had. Though still image-hungry and quick-reflex, these outlets also know that sharp writing attracts readers.
Meanwhile, social media has provided a means for critics to establish themselves (Wagner, with her widely read feed “McMansion Hell,” is a great example), even as new courses in design writing – at the School of Visual Arts and the Design Academy Eindhoven, for example – generate talent. Most importantly, independent design practices are thriving. They are also positioning themselves more discursively, engaging in sophisticated ways with the theoretical and political implications of their own work.
The result is a wealth of intelligent design writing. Much of it consists of hot takes, particularly on news sites like Dezeen and Hyperallergic. But there are also magazines like Disegno which carry long-form pieces; and podcasts like 99% Invisible and Design Matters, which offer a deep dive in each episode. Design galleries, following the lead of their peers in fine art, have begun investing in publications programs; I’ve served as an in-house writer for New York’s Friedman Benda over the past two years, and the French gallery Carpenters Workshop has founded an ambitious new online journal called The Design Edit. And let’s not forget documentaries, museum catalogues, full-length books, and yes, newspapers too.
It’s probably too early to say what this burst of critical response will mean for design. Will empty prestige projects and derivative copycats be called out? Will we have more transparency regarding issues of sustainability? And will the current intellectual vibrancy of design practice itself continue? Without great work, great criticism is pointless. Right now, there is plenty of both around - more than you can probably take in. But keep reading this design criticism column anyway. For, if anything in 2019 can be said to be undergoing a golden age, it’s worth savoring every drop.