Should we review architecture like restaurants?
Jay Rayner is a well-loved restaurant critic, not only because he knows a lot about food but because, when he hates a restaurant, he really lets you know, and does so by using language creatively. So, in his latest review, he tears apart a restaurant in London’s Chelsea called Farm Girl Cafe. Here is just one wonderful sentence: ‘The meat is overcooked and has the texture of something Timpson’s might one day think about using to re-sole my brogues.’
Architecture critics just don’t write like this. On the magazines at least there has to be a friendly relationship between publication and practice, since the magazines rely on the architects to provide them with photos (expensive) and drawings (complex). And while there is a lot of indifferent architecture, it is not usually worth skewering. Far better to look at something with ambition, even if that ambition is not entirely realised. Which means the worst review a practice is likely to get is a ‘yes but’.
Of course architecture and food are different. No architectural review will help you decide where to eat dinner on Saturday – unless because it is the latest fashionable design of restaurant. Architectural criticism is adult and responsible – but so in his way is Jay Rayner (as well as being a rather good jazz pianist). With a few exceptions, like BD’s Carbuncle Cup and some news stories about catastrophic failures, the reader of the architecture magazines could imagine that all architecture is ambitious at the least, and largely successful. Yet we know that this is not true – that we are largely surrounded by the mediocre.
Nobody wants to read about that, week after week. And the photos would not be a joy to examine – although the picture of a limp artichoke accompanying Rayner’s piece has a certain fascination. Perhaps architecture does need a little more of Jay Rayner, a pen that is occasionally dipped in venom?