A while ago I mentioned a little bit of drama about my review of the Maggie’s Centres exhibit. I think the dust has settled on that and I wanted to fill y’all in on what went on there. This is going to be a more confessional post than what I usually do which should be fun for everyone. It’s also pretty long, so, fair warning.
I serve on the Communications Committee for AIA Pittsburgh, and sometimes they ask me to do things like review museum exhibits. When the opportunity came up to write the review of Maggie’s Centres, I thought I might be able to do double duty and get it featured on the AIA website as well as another site that features reviews of galleries and exhibits called Pittsburgh Articulate. So I went to the exhibit and attended the accompanying lecture, took some notes, went back to the exhibit a second time and finally wrote up a draft (you can read it in PDF form if you want). I submitted the draft to both websites and the editor at Pittsburgh Articulate sent it along to a guest editor for further review.
He was not a fan.
There were a lot of suggestions that I agreed with. He didn’t like any of my metaphors and they weren’t my best metaphors, that’s true. He didn’t like the musical analogues I picked for the Holl and Gough projects. I still actually like those comparisons, but I don’t have a strong defense for picking them other than that I thought they were cool. The reader would either get it or not and maybe that’s not putting my best foot forward. He also didn’t like the original conclusion and, honestly, I wasn’t really pleased with it either. Frankly, I’m just terrible at writing conclusions. I usually end my blog posts with a question, or I just kind of trail off or appeal for insight in the comments. I still think the question raised in the first draft (how much of architecture is a placebo?) was more interesting than where I ended up in the published piece, but I can see how that is an unsatisfying and inappropriate ending to a review.
All of that would be easy enough to address, but he also had structural complaints about my review that basically boiled down to: you don’t know enough about Charles Jencks or postmodernism to really be able to write about these projects. And this is true; I haven’t read any of Jencks’ books or taken any kind of postmodern theory class. However, the exhibit was about Maggie’s Centres, and while Jencks is involved in the vetting of the architects that create each care center, he isn’t ultimately responsible for the design. Also, something I bring up a lot on this site is how architects can communicate with “normal” people (my tagline is “architecture made accessible”). So I didn’t attempt to contextualize each cancer center and analyze how each one fits into the postmodern architectural landscape. Instead, I tried to frame my review around how each center was presented and how that affected how the general public felt about each one. I thought it was really interesting that the general public so dramatically judged the Nottingham project to be more successful than the St. Barts project despite accomplishing all the same things.
In other words, based on everything presented in the exhibition, both projects appeared to be equally successful in terms of fulfilling their function as a cancer center. So what was the public responding to? I think my review succeeds on this level which, as it turns out, is not a high enough level to be featured on Pittsburgh Articulate.
At this point I was pretty much stuck with three options. One, I could say “thanks for the comments but I don’t think I can write something that would meet your standards”. Two, I could revise the piece to the best of my ability knowing that it would still have unacceptable structural failures. Or Three, I could shoot the collective works of Charles Jencks directly into my brain and write something that was actually good.
Obviously three would be the best option. But to really research, absorb, and apply that knowledge would take considerable time, and I only had until midway through January before the exhibit closed. And I still felt that my thesis had merit, which is that each project meets the programmatic requirements for a successful cancer center, so it’s really in how the project is communicated that defines how it is received by the public. So I went with Option Two.
The result was predictable enough; he still hated it and, instead of asking to be copied on future revisions (as he did in the first email), asked that I not ask him for any more help ever again.
At the time, it felt like taking Option One would make me look bad for shrinking in the face of adversity. Pursuing Option Two, I thought, would show that I am open to reasonable comments. After all, the version that I ended up with is, by all accounts, much better, so I was glad that I took another pass at it. Now, though, I’m worried that taking Option Two makes it look like I’m not only an incompetent writer but also one that is inconsiderate of other people’s time. Or maybe I just didn’t have any good options.
So I’m not going to be on Pittsburgh Articulate any time soon and I probably don’t deserve to be. After re-reading some of the other reviews it’s clear that the kind of piece I’m capable of writing at this point is not the kind of piece they’re looking for. But I wouldn’t know for sure without submitting in the first place, and now I know the level I’d have to get to if I want to write for them.
I think that what stings the most about this is that he’s right, I’ve never really had the head for theory. I mentioned that I was reading a collection of critical essays by Ada Louise Huxtable. Today, I’m 80 pages in and I love it. It’s probably the best 80 pages I’ve ever read about architecture. But that’s the thing, I’ve had that book for 3 months and I’m 80 pages into it. For comparison, I finished all of Yellow Birds in like, four days last weekend. I just don’t have the same appetite for history and theory that I do for other things. I’ve always been insecure about that, I’ve alluded to it before. I’ve been carving out a niche for myself where I don’t really have to reference theory in a meaningful way, and it sucks to get called out when I try to see what else is out there. I think most creative people live in fear of being exposed as a fraud and that’s what this feels like in a way. So this is a speed bump for me, and I’m just going to have to get over it or find another way around.
And keep working on my metaphors.