Minimize Description Maximize Observation: Pulitzer-Winner Blair Kamin Schools Harvard Students in the Art of Architecture Criticism

By Kraft, Dina | Nieman Reports, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Minimize Description Maximize Observation: Pulitzer-Winner Blair Kamin Schools Harvard Students in the Art of Architecture Criticism


Kraft, Dina, Nieman Reports


BLAIR KAMIN, THE PULITZER Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune and a current Nieman Fellow, once described architecture--for better or worse--as the "inescapable art." One can avoid the play, film or restaurant a critic just trashed, he argued, but not our built surroundings.

And at Harvard nothing is as architecturally present as the iconic gates that surround the Yard. Kamin calls them "the architectural DNA" of the university. With "Rate the Gates," a one-week course that he co-taught at Harvard this past January, his aim was to instruct students how to think and write like a critic.

"In the Internet age, everybody, it would seem, is a critic because everyone has the capacity to express an opinion and post it on the Web, via a comment box or a blog. This shift presents a challenge to traditional critics from the pre-digital age. Why should their voice count more than other voices? Are they out-of-touch elitists? How should they assert authority?" said Kamin.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Criticism starts with close scrutiny. On the first day of class, Kamin took the students on a tour. "Just stop a second and look at the play of light on this floral medallion and imagine someone getting this piece of wrought iron and hammering that out," said Kamin, gazing up at the Class of 1886 Gate on the northwestern edge of the Yard.

A foundation of facts must be amassed before a strong critique can be built. "The story does not start with you,' Kamin told the students that first day in preparation for the two essays they were required to write for the course. Research begins with old-fashioned digging, he instructed them, not only for backstories that help breathe life into the writing, but also as a way to understand the design ideas behind architecture. "Don't just review the gate,' Kamin wrote in a message to the class. "Review the idea behind the gate. That's the substance of criticism."

Melissa Simonetti, a graduate student of design at Harvard, wrote in her essay on the Class of 1877 Gate, also known as the Morgan Gate, next to Widener Library, that it appears too grand for its location on a busy hub of Massachusetts Avenue. In her research she discovered why: Architects originally planned a boulevard leading from the Charles River to the Yard. She put that incongruity into perspective in her essay, comparing it to viewing Berlin's Brandenburg Gate without the Unter Den Linden, the graceful boulevard that leads to it. Simonetti's essay adhered to what Kamin told the class: "Your job is to minimize description and maximize observation."

In teaching about observation, Kamin noted that architecture critics don't just observe with their eyes. They use their ears to listen to the users of buildings and learn how they interact with the space, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Two fellow Niemans from the 2013 class co-taught with Kamin. Finbarr O'Reilly, a Reuters photographer, taught students about composing photos of the gates that accompanied their essays. These critiques were written with the help of Jeneen Interlandi, a magazine writer and the class writing coach.

Kamin engages in "activist criticism," a term coined by Allan Temko, the late Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Minimize Description Maximize Observation: Pulitzer-Winner Blair Kamin Schools Harvard Students in the Art of Architecture Criticism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?