Prizing the Critique

The Netherlands has two new prizes, the Geert Bekaert Prize for Architecture Criticism and the Simon Mari Pruys Prize for Design Criticism. They’re promoting ‘a vibrant design culture’ by stimulating writing and reflection and awarding the prize to one critique, not to a critic. Initiated by ArchiNed and Design Platform Rotterdam they were awarded for the first time in Amsterdam on March 20th 2014. For architecture the award went to ‘Plain Weirdness: The Architecture of Neutelings Riedijk’, a text in El Croquis by the former Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, now Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Aaron Betsky. The Simon Mari Pruys Prize went to Sander Manse for his essay on the use of models in designing design.

Although the subject had to be Dutch, the text didn’t. So the remarkable outcome of this first episode for architecture was that two of three nominations (from a long list of 97) were not only in English, but also by authors from outside the Netherlands. The two runners up for architecture were Thomas Daniell (currently based in Macau) with his review of OMA’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange, published in Mark, and Bart Verschaffel with a review of a museum in Mechelen by AWG architecten (published in the Belgium magazine A+). For this prize Dutch (at least for the projects as subject of reflection) is defined as designed by a Dutch firm. And this includes Flanders.

Aaron Betsky, winner of the 2014 Geert Bekaert Prize
Aaron Betsky, winner of the 2014 Geert Bekaert Prize in the architecture section

The whole operation started from a concern that classic, well written, well thought-out critique could be disappearing and that for a ‘vibrant design culture’ this is a sine qua non. If the feedback loop of criticism, situating production in a larger field of operation, comparing intension and outcome, discussing choices and options, and also formulating criteria for judgment and quality – thus inspiring designers in their production – starts fading away or cannot be heard in the noise of information, chats, tweets and likes, this will affect architecture in a negative way. You could say that the jury (in which I took part) shared this concern by awarding the prize to a classic review of an oeuvre, a lengthy text that was commissioned by the author of the work under scrutiny: Neutelings Riedijk. The jury accepted this submission and even selected it, because on the one hand no criticism is absolutely independent and on the other Betsky convincingly creates a subjective text that introduces interesting notions and concepts to appreciate this body of work. So yes, a contribution to architectural thinking.

Although the choice of the winner was unanimous, the slight uneasiness that no upcoming talent could be selected stayed. And although I’m convinced that within this pool of very diverse submissions another jury would have come to the same conclusion, it is a problem that a brilliant tweet cannot compete on this podium with the (more or less) patiently elaborated argumentations that were selected in the end.

But then we can think of the name of the prize, not called ‘Geert Bekaert’ for nothing. It would be weird, to borrow Betsky’s concept, to select an impulse, a first reaction most of the time broadcasted for political reasons or coming from very basic instincts. There are surely more ways than a 4,000 word text to add to a vibrant design culture, but that is not the point. The point is: do we also need the essay, the long read, the serious review and should we stimulate their production because it seems ever harder to produce them, because of time constraints, but also because most publications and media channels don’t pay any more for content. The GB/SMP prize initiators think we should, that the writer, the author matters and that the art of criticism has to be practiced and discussed.

To clarify one background, Geert Bekaert as figure and beacon in this field, we include a review of one of his volumes of collected writings. This also indicates Volume’s intension to revive the art of reviewing, with more book reviews soon to come.

Plain Weirdness: The Architecture of Neutelings Riedijk