The Ballistics of Architectural Criticism, 2005

In 2005 when I was living in Baltimore, someone (never caught) was shooting bullets at the glass curtain walls of a few of the city’s modernist buildings. The shooter only “attacked” buildings at night — when they were lit — and when they were clearly empty. When the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) new Brown Center Building (2003) was attacked there was enormous outrage at the seemingly senseless act and the obvious destruction of property. The image of this building’s taut curtain wall glass punctured with the characteristic hole from a bullet was circulated online — symptomatic of our city’s particularly violent character.

While the various administrators of MICA described the crime of the shooter, I jokingly called this person the “architecture critic.” After all, this building (and it was designed by some good friends of mine) was a pretty strange statement about what an elite institution might be in a city of enormous strife. Plus, it did not appear that the architecture critic tried to shoot people, just those buildings that symbolized certain aspects of the city’s future margins. Rather than categorize the above act within the confines of “crime” and outside of the larger discourses we label “criticism,” we might consider this brazen act as a form of commentary on the push for development (at any cost) at that time in Baltimore.

My joke label — “the architecture critic” — also had a peculiar irony to it, because during this time our city’s ONE official architecture critic was under investigation by his employers at the Baltimore Sun; he was accused of using laudatory architectural criticism to advance those buildings in neighborhoods in which he owned property! The $15,000 it cost to replace the Brown Center’s windows was nothing compared to the increase in personal property values that this architectural critic achieved by writing about the loveliness of those buildings at the center of his real estate holdings.

But all of this raises larger issues than just whether the criminal is the guy doing the drive-by shooting of an empty building or the guy at the reporter’s desk. In considering all of this, we might recall the 1976 performance of Gordon Matta-Clark at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. The architect and theorist Andrew McNair had invited Matta-Clark to participate in an installation in the Institute’s Midtown Manhattan gallery. Instead of showing images of his work or, completing one of his more characteristic “cutting” projects, Matta-Clark decided to shoot out the windows of the gallery with an air rifle. The directors of the Institute were infuriated (as anyone responsible for the maintenance and budget of an institution was and should be) but Matta-Clark’s shooting has subsequently gained praise as a brilliant act of architectural criticism.

I think the example of the Baltimore shooter, the Baltimore architecture critic, and Matta Clark ultimately point toward the same issue: criticism demands more criticism — to move from crime to critique or the opposite direction. And this is especially the case in the extremes of experimental criticism that such a critique of the critique is especially needed. Then and only then can we understand such acts as commentary — and an often badly needed one at that.

Blowout, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1976 (Note this is not the performance at the IAUS)

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  1. I love it! Glad you finally put this idea down on paper (or the Web, anyway). I linked to it on my blog. And the Matta-Clark photo is amazing.

  2. dlgissen

    Thanks E.E.D.; and for those of you who want to read more from the above rising star of architecture, urban and design writing; check out the Urban Palimpsest Blog at http://urbanpalimpsest.blogspot.com/

  3. I’m a rising star! Thanks, D.G. On another note, author Jhumpa Lahiri once described the site of blown out windows in industrial factories as looking like they had been “ravaged by moths.” I’ve always liked that description and the photo above made me think of it…

  4. Andrew MacNair

    Hi,

    Strange, mukrly way you tell this story – but I am glad you are trying to spit it out, what is your source?

    Andrew MacNair
    9/27/09
    NY NY

  5. dlgissen

    Yes, this was one of my first blog posts, so any “murkiness” is illustrative of me jamming too much information (and references) into the blog post format. The source was “Object to Be Destroyed” by Pamela Lee. Good to meet, albeit virtually, David Gissen.

  6. Hi,

    How can I reach you? or can you email me please at andrewmacnair@hotmail.com ?

    Thanks,

    Andrew MacNair

  7. andrew macnair

    Hi David Gissen, 11/6/09

    Where are you and can we make contact someway asap? It is important to talk and maybe even meet.

    Andrew MacNair
    NY NY

    646-241-5986

  8. Anonymous

    you should hide Macnair’s contact info – but I’d love to hear more about this story.




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