A rose-tinted spectacle

A critic’s choice can be as telling as the subject matter. Hugh Pearman explains how this natural selection is the only way to give the reader something worth reading.

It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that critics are self-censoring. Not so much in what we write about, but in what we choose NOT to write about. Sometimes – as in a bad week for cinema releases and theatre openings, when newspapers still have to fill their allotted arts slots – readers or viewers get a glimpse behind the facade. Unless the critics can escape to other countries and report from there, they are forced to see (or pretend to have seen) trash films and no-hope plays, and they have to write about them, and you wonder why they bother.

But, more usually, they can choose, and they choose on the basis of a particular director, actor, producer, or writer. The plays and films thus selected may well receive universally bad notices, but they won’t be nearly so bad as some of the other schlock that washes around and never gets a mention at all.

The same applies to design and architecture criticism. Those of us ploughing this particular furrow gladly don blinkers, just to remain sane. We prefer to select good buildings and good designs, because there aren’t so very many of either, and they make better pictures. When we get our teeth into someone, the chances are it’s someone with a good name – someone of whom you might expect better. As with Woody Allen, so with Sir Norman Foster, Sir Michael Hopkins, Lord Rogers, or whoever. A new building by any one of these is likely to get a critical mauling – despite the undisputed fact that even their worst output is generally streets ahead of most of the stuff that gets built.

The same applies to the famous design groups with their often controversial corporate identity work. Makeovers for big organisations are news, particularly if they have the word British in their names. So their designers – always the pick of the crop – get the rough ride, while the purblind individuals responsible for thousands of indifferent logos and letterheads and jam pot labels escape scot-free because nobody wants to write or read about them.

But, of course, we’re always kind to youngsters. Everyone wants to find a hot new act. Magazines and newspapers are desperate to be first on the page with fresh talent. Life may be tough in many ways for young architects and designers – like not getting nearly enough work, for starters – but if they’re even slightly good, they’ll find the glossies fighting over their house extension or recycled-plastic wine rack. The big names may be millionaires these days, but they are jealous as hell of the penniless young upstarts being wooed by the media – upstarts who, through inexperience, often present flawed designs that show promise rather than brilliance.

But what would you have, you readers? Would you rather we wrote about the latest animal feed distribution warehouse outside Coventry, or the British Library? About a wonder new all-glass loft by a young architect, or a mass-market home on a suburban estate? About BA’s world-art tailfins, or Bodger PLC’s Christmas card with cartoon reindeer on it?

I know, I know. To review the truly bad stuff is to be devilishly post-modern and ironic in a mid-Nineties, Modern Review kind of way. I’ve even attempted it myself from time to time, when my various editors weren’t looking. The trouble is, there is almost as little genuinely dire design work around as there is genuinely good stuff. What does go unremarked and uncriticised amounts to The Curse of the Average: buildings by a small local practice or a giant international consultancy that are fairly bad, or even nearly OK, but in either case not worth writing about; supermarket brands that attempt radical design and get it just slightly wrong – but not quite wrong enough to get properly worked up about; interiors that amount to little more than a strategically placed bowl of lemons; and video recorders with puzzling controls, but which otherwise function adequately. This is just the normal run of things.

There’s no doubt, as Martin Pawley says in his new book Terminal Architecture, that the art-historical view of buildings, for instance, has very little to do with what actually happens on the ground. But look at it from another point of view. We critics are food-tasters. We selflessly try to make sure that you readers are not engulfed in the visual equivalent of sweaty processed cheese. We are guilty of showing the world to be a fractionally better place than it is. But we all know what reality is. We all travel, we all scan the shelves. You know, and I know, exactly what four million new homes in the countryside are going to look like. But we’d rather not dwell on it.

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