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

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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.


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. …