The Arrogance of Criticism

By Joseph Giovannini

In October 2014, our architecture critic, Joseph Giovannini, wrote about what he called La Comédie Architecturale. He now sends this update. 

LAST JUNE, in his New York Review of Books article “The Insolence of Architecture,” the New York architecture critic Martin Filler wrote a scathing appraisal of the London architect Zaha Hadid — more about her character, really, than her work — making a serious factual error when he accused her of indifference to the deaths of nearly 1,000 workers on the construction site of her Al-Wakrah soccer stadium in Qatar. The accusation and consequent controversy went viral.

In fact, not one person had died on the site; construction hadn’t even started. She sued Filler and NYRB for defamation, even as sages of the profession opined the suit was a strategic error on her part, bringing more attention to the issue. Was she a petulant diva?

Filler’s charges triggered vitriolic condemnations of the architect by laptop critics who gleefully piled on the issue in the vast echo chamber of the internet — Filler’s error metastasized. His 150-word retraction, in a letter to the editors of NYRB in September, was both terse and tepid, ending in “I regret the error,” and although he corrected the mistake in his text, he left intact most of his long, highly personal attack, which built on the error for thousands of words and still stands accessible on the internet. This was not the apology Hadid’s writ demanded from the critic and the Review.

Through her New York lawyers, Baker Hostetler, she quietly pursued the suit. In her long, high-profile career, Hadid of course has encountered criticism, sometimes severe, to which she has rarely, if ever, responded publicly, and never in court. But for Hadid, whose prominent political family in Iraq had strong socialist leanings, the charges that she was indifferent to workers’ deaths went beyond architectural criticism, and beyond “fair comment,” the standard by which opinion journalism is held. She charged defamation: the article attacked her character, not her floor plans.

Defamation is extremely difficult to argue in court because plaintiffs must prove malice. Was the critic simply expressing an opinion or actually trying to damage her reputation and destroy her character? Filler’s piece was a review of a book by British critic Rowan Moore; the fact that he did not simply critique Moore’s evaluation of Hadid but went out of his way to state his own opinion about her gave her lawyers the basis for a case: there was malice, they could contend, because Filler’s article far exceeded the scope of what Moore wrote about Hadid in the book being reviewed.

On Tuesday morning, months of active negotiations finally concluded with a statement signed by the two principal parties. By signing, the NYRB acknowledged, “Zaha Hadid Architects remains deeply committed to promoting safe and fair working conditions.” Hadid would also receive a settlement, and she would donate the “undisclosed sum of money to a charitable organization that protects and champions labor rights.”

With her donation, Hadid has made clear that she was not seeking personal remuneration; she was instead seeking redress for the offense. That the actual sum and the name of the charity are undisclosed also implies she is not taking a boastful, heroic victory lap, and not turning her victory into a PR event. Her office has issued no comment; she has made no public comment. NYRB has been equally quiet.

For Hadid, the disturbing episode is now closed: she has been made whole. But the remaining question is whether architecture criticism as a field has been made whole. The clearly ad feminam article not only still stands, minus the corrections, but the entire episode has become a case study about the moral responsibility of critics to their subjects as much as an article about the moral responsibility of architects to construction workers. Filler’s article on the insolence of architects has now morphed into a cautionary tale about the arrogance of critics, who, until this suit, have enjoyed near immunity from prosecution in both the court of public opinion and in courts of law. Critics in all fields may no longer get a pass.

As a matter of practice, architects are loath to criticize critics, partly because of good manners from the old days when architects wore bow ties and avoided unseemly conflict. Besides, alienating critics was never smart, because the critics would probably still be writing when the next building came up for review.

But Hadid was not afraid of conflict. Had Filler done a closer reading of her buildings rather than launch into a take on her character, he might have understood that Hadid early on investigated confrontation as a generator of design: she famously made beautiful architecture out of the fallout when one form hit another form, the fragments scattered in a force field that replaced the old narrative of gravity.

The plans tell you, a bit like tea leaves, that she would not back off from a lawsuit. Filler was picking a fight with the wrong architect, and he put his reputation at risk by writing a piece that skimmed over the architecture itself in favor of taking the on-ramp to her character.

Nor was she wrong to engage the issue and defend her reputation. While some critics wrote that she was losing the PR war with the suit, the architect who always designed by principle was suing as a matter of principle. The critics were arguing form over content, image over substance. They were vacating a moral position. While none defended the article itself, most managed to find fault with Hadid’s reaction: they were criticizing a victim who refused to be victimized.

Had Filler thoroughly examined and explained the plans of Hadid’s buildings, like a conductor cutting through layers of received musical interpretations to get back to the original scores, he might also have understood not only her architecture but also her character more accurately. An architect’s concerns and temperament are inevitably inscribed throughout a building, and more than almost any other major architect now practicing, Hadid has made a career out of shaping public spaces outside and inside her structures. From her earliest projects in the 1980s, she has been a specialist in creating a dignified and even inspiring realm for the public, not the way the Romans did with their parades of columns, but with ramps and levels that sweep into and through her buildings, giving the public access and a sense of possession through promenades. Hospitable and giving, the spaces are characterized by an enormous generosity of spirit. Anyone who invents public space in the way that she does, according the public raw respect through the sheer beauty of the work — all implemented by the plan and section — cares deeply about the public good.

That concern would apply to the workers who build the buildings: they are the public for whom the daughter of a socialist builds. Filler would have done his often-astute criticism a service by looking more at the buildings than the personality. Criticism, not architecture, lost this battle.

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