Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in
By Andrew Atwood
Oro Editions/Applied Research & Design, 2018
“Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture” is not a book so much as an object. Reading it is an experience, one through which the limits of architectural criticism are exposed and expanded while the reader witnesses the critical object emerging from the background to turn on itself. The limits under examination are both the boundary of what is considered criticism or worthy of criticism and the diminishing relevance of the established terms of criticism for emerging contemporary practice.
The author, Andrew Atwood, is an assistant professor in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California at Berkeley. He is co-founder of research-based practice First Office, which works toward “expanding the role of architecture in the public realm and bringing the community into a closer relationship with art and architecture.”
Upon first opening Not Interesting, this reader must admit to having exclaimed aloud, “What’s with all of these clunky, hard-to-read books?!?” It is typeset in the deliberately illegible way that is becoming more frequently employed by publishing architects to lend their work a kind of sophisticated naiveté or edgy elementalism. The black/white balance of the font weight, line spacing, and kerning conspire to make the pages buzz in one’s brain. Atwood expends very few words before explaining that the book is designed to induce in the reader a kind of literary attention deficit disorder. The noisy figure/ground created by the text is intentional, exposing the fact that paying attention is a willful and directed act, one that habitually goes toward things deemed “interesting,” though it would perhaps be better if it did not.
Atwood tests whether the reader is actually paying attention early in the book by surreptitiously repeating an entire block of text. (Wait, was that a mistake? Did I read that correctly? I better read carefully.) He immediately rewards careful attention by slyly slipping the specific terms of his argument in at the tail of the repeat. In doing so, Atwood exposes the structure of the work and tells the reader exactly what kind of participation the book requires. The trick is a demonstration. There are rewards to directing attention beyond things that are merely “interesting” — or discernibly different, as he positions the term. Attention should also be paid to those things that are the same or ambiguous: the boring, the confusing, and the comforting.
These eye-wink revelations occur frequently as the reader progresses. Atwood introduces each point self-consciously enough to engage the reader in immediate elaboration, or argument, or both. Just as the reader raises a critical flag, Atwood will explain exactly what he is doing. He exhaustively illustrates and explains through body text, notes, case studies, and drawings how he will, and then how he just did, use his point as a tool to demonstrate his point. He skillfully leads the reader into a participatory dialogue, albeit with an inanimate proxy.
Interesting, he says, is a term used to “start a conversation quickly and easily” and apply judgement about the disciplinary importance or cultural relevance of a specific work of architecture. Atwood intends to slow down this process of judgement and expand the conversation. The structure and design of the book accomplish that. The key terms — boring, confusing, comforting — are explored within the field of part-whole relationships as they relate to any given work of art or architecture. If work that is interesting has discernible part-whole relationships, some degree of novelty, and an apparent logic, then boring work is the opposite of interesting. Parts are monotonous and repetitive, and the only surprise is at the periphery where the parts want to go on forever. Boring work requires an audience to be complete, as the whole of the work is only discernible through experience. Comforting work has familiar parts loosely arranged in familiar ways to create familiar and casual wholes. Confusing work is the opposite of comforting. There is no discernible logic in the relationship of the parts to each other or to the whole, and the work is novel to a degree that “it cannot be explained based on established convention.”
Atwood does not select and label specific known works of architecture as illustrations of each term. He does, however, render selected architectural projects in a flat, pastel, and low-contrast way such that they reveal ambiguity and the power of the terms to slow down judgement about a given work.
As “a venue for producing knowledge and value in architecture,” critique within the discipline, in writing and academia, is an expression of judgment about what is worthy of attention. Atwood holds that architects “have long been subjected to the power of criticism to tell us what is important,” and as a result, the constituency and audience for architecture have been limited. Through careful textual structure, rigid graphic standards, and frequent self-critique that the author acknowledges is selective, Not Interesting attempts to lead the reader through an illustrated explanation of how traditional critical attention overlooks and excludes works that would reveal strong relevance if they were given careful attention. Careful attention paid to such work could facilitate valuable cultural conversation that integrates language from outside the “institutionalized power of architectural criticism” to “engage more directly with larger audiences.” Invoking at first quietly and then directly the populism introduced in Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” Atwood seeks to expand the work we talk about along with the audience invited to participate in the conversation.
Atwood attempts to extend the limits of criticism to create space wherein ambiguous works of architecture have more discursive value, and therefore cultural value, than a tightly packaged work that conveys a unique and discernible intent. An unclear argument, he posits, leads to a better discussion with space for more voices. Ultimately, the object with which Atwood demonstrates his point is so carefully and tightly designed, right down to its specifically deployed and explicitly explained strategies of obfuscation, that the success of Not Interesting may actually lie in how cleverly the object undermines its own argument.
Kristin A. Schuster, AIA, is founding principal of Inflection Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston College of Architecture and Design.