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A Survey of Architecture Critics at General-Interest Publications in America

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MOST OF THE NATION'S NEWSPAPERS FAIL TO KEEP a critical eye on architecture, despite the boom in commercial and residential development taking place in many metropolitan areas, according to The Architecture Critic: A Survey of Newspaper Architecture Critics in America.

Fewer than 45 of the approximately 140 U.S. dailies with a daily circulation over 75,000 have architecture critics, and only a third of those journalists pursue architecture criticism full-time, the study found. The remaining critics are part-time freelancers or staff writers who must spend much of their time covering other subjects.

The result is that major buildings and developments routinely go up with no public discourse on their practical or aesthetic merits--the most public of art forms receives the least amount of arts coverage. This is particularly surprising in the case of several major cities that have experienced a major building boom in recent years, including Houston, Miami and Detroit, where the newspapers feature no regular voice writing about architecture.

The National Arts Journalism Program surveyed the critics to learn about their backgrounds, their job situations and their roles in the communities where they work. The survey was made available to respondents online during the spring of 2001 and included questions about the respondents' personal tastes and aesthetic influences.

The survey's key findings include:

More than half of all newspaper architecture critics write about the topic part-time. Part-time critics write far fewer stories than their full-time counterparts.

Despite their small numbers, architecture critics feel their work is respected at their papers and by readers, though more than half believe their newspapers would not replace them if they left their jobs.

More than three-fourths of critics feel their writing has had an impact on architecture in their region, but more than half say architects and developers do not take their opinions into consideration when planning projects.

While most critics feel positively about the current state of architecture as an art form, they are deeply concerned about the state of the built environment.

Architecture stories are rarely featured on the front page. One-fourth of the newspapers involved in the survey presented no architecture stories on the front page within the previous six months, another one-fourth published just one.

Critics have significant experience. Four out of five respondents said they have written about architecture for more than five years, two-thirds have covered the topic for more than 10 years.
Nearly all critics believe their readers care deeply about the built environment and most feel those readers have a basic understanding of architecture. Three-fourths of critics see themselves as educators.

Many architecture critics go beyond writing about the aesthetics of individual buildings and cover topics such as urban sprawl and downtown redevelopment. They express regret that the field pays too much attention to the work of popular architects.

The critics in the survey selected Frank Gehry as their favorite from a list of well-known, living architects. The architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim and other well-received projects was followed by Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava, Maya Lin and Norman Foster.

The critics' top choice from a list of famous buildings was the Brooklyn Bridge, followed by Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, Monticello and the University of Virginia.

"This survey isn't the last word on architecture criticism, but it's a good first step," said NAJP Deputy Director András Szántó, who directed the research and co-authored the study. "It gives us a glimpse into the backgrounds and thinking of an extremely small but enormously influential group of journalists who shape public opinion about architecture."

The 34-page report was conceived and executed by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. The study's co-authors and researchers are Ray Rinaldi, arts and entertainment editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Eric Fredericksen, culture editor of Architecture magazine. Rinaldi and Fredericksen were fellows of the National Arts Journalism Program in the 2000-2001 academic year. The report includes a postscript by The New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

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