Reviewing Reviewing

Typically, when the construction phase of a project is nearing completion and the building is ready to be handed over to its future inhabitants, starchitects and their clients invite the world’s architecture critics to one final show-off in order to review their achievement. Such events provide an opportune moment to hold up a mirror to the architecture press: How do they review buildings?

BLOX after the Opening – photo Dominik Hoehn

In late April 2018, barely a week before the public opening of OMA’s new building BLOX in Copenhagen, OMA invited the architecture press to attend a ‘celebratory dinner’ and a press preview of BLOX the following day. Located in a prime location on Copenhagen’s harbour front, BLOX is a mixed-use building that aims to condense the urban conditions surrounding it. BLOX houses the new exhibition spaces and offices of the Danish Architecture Centre, as well as a co-working space and innovation hub for the built environment, BLOXHUB, and several other functions including a restaurant, a café, a fitness centre, a design shop and rooftop apartments.

Not only is BLOX OMA’s first building in Copenhagen and in Denmark, it is also the flagship project of Realdania – the private, philanthropic organization worth multiple billion Danish kroner that probably has shaped the architecture landscape in Denmark like no other actor since its foundation in the year 2000. Realdania’s mission is to improve Danish quality of life through the built environment and, so far, it claims to have supported more than 3,300 projects in Denmark with almost € 2.5 billion – funding or co-funding projects ranging from research initiatives to architectural and urban projects including the Danish Architecture Centre, the Danish National Aquarium and even the Olafur Eliasson rainbow walkway for the art museum ARoS in Aarhus. Take any given recent project related to the built environment in Denmark, and there is a high chance that Realdania has been somehow involved.

Unsurprisingly then, the PR and marketing machines were at full steam, and for those lucky enough to make the cut, the who’s who of architecture journalism was invited to share a table with BLOX’s OMA architects.

There is no doubt that such events exist for two main reasons: first of all, to get the building reviewed at all, and secondly, to get it reviewed positively. But does it work? Are architecture critics swayed by fancy dinners and polished presentations? Let’s take BLOX as an example.

The night before the official press day, OMA partner Ellen van Loon, the main architect behind BLOX, and the Dutch ambassador to Denmark invited architecture critics and a few other guests to a private dinner at the ambassador’s residence. The location was a suitably modern apartment in Islands Brygge, a stone’s throw away from BLOX, located on the other, northern side of the harbour bank in central Copenhagen.

The View onto BLOX from Islands Brygge – photo Dominik Hoehn

Representing and promoting the Netherlands to the journalists, the ambassador gave a welcome toast shortly after everyone had arrived: ‘First of all, a word of welcome to you Ellen. When I heard that you were coming to Copenhagen, a week, a bit more than a week, ahead of the official opening of BLOX, I thought that, of course, we should meet and that you should bring all your friends . . .’

We were assembled in his private living room and the kind words conveyed the intimate setting, with 20 to 30 people in attendance. His innocent word choice – ‘friends’ – stuck with me for the rest of the evening as I gradually met more people, mostly journalists as expected but also OMA staff and other business partners. Many press representatives seemed to know each other, especially colleagues from their own countries.

The food – a buffet dinner with a selection of various main dishes, for instance, my personal favourite ‘flamed grilled salmon with hoisin sauce and radish’, and a variety of greens and cured meats as sides as well as coffee and chocolate truffles to finish – was exquisite and served on nothing less than crested porcelain with silver cutlery. I definitely wasn’t the only one impressed.

The Buffet Dinner Table – photo Dominik Hoehn

The atmosphere was, especially after the wining and dining, unexpectedly relaxed and journalists were given the opportunity to mingle as well as to ask informal questions. Post-dinner, some critics took quick snaps with their phones to add to their personal collection but I have to add that I felt uncomfortable about taking proper photos. Although the dinner was part of the press tour, it was not meant to be judged and included in our reviews.

Despite the impressive setting it was somewhat surprising that the dinner did not take place in BLOX. Would it not have been a good chance to experience the building at night? But this was rectified the next day at the press tour when lunch was served there, specifically in its new restaurant called ‘BLOX Eats’ that doubles up as the building’s canteen. We were told that we, the press, are the first people to ever eat there. The lunch (‘traditional Danish open sandwiches’ with smoked salmon – or, for vegetarians, baked celeriac – with smoked soft cheese, cucumber, pea shoots, radishes) was lovely, just like the dinner the night before. Nonetheless, by this point we had still not seen much of BLOX; the tours of the building took place after lunch, after a morning filled with presentations. But one could, if one really wanted, compare the pixelated architecture of BLOX, consisting of stacked green blocks, with the food that was served: both the self-assembled, potentially heaped, buffet food as well as the typical Danish smørrebrød with stacked toppings bore some incidental resemblance. But let’s not go there and draw such parallels. In any case, the point was, if not to make ‘friends’, then to make the press feel special.

Danish Open Sandwiches: Lunch in BLOX – photo Dominik Hoehn

Here I should also say that we were given a press kit the next day, which was a goodie bag containing both press photos and more information on BLOX as well as, as an unexpected gift, a round brass necklace with ‘BLOX’ cut out. The client representative told us that the necklaces were made from the brass that was left over from the brass used in BLOX’s Golden Room. The Golden Room is one of the Danish Architecture Centre’s new exhibition spaces, decked out in brass and designed by OMA as the building’s ‘treasure room’ where expensive art work can be displayed.

Does any of this influence the critics? Especially given that it is a basic anthropological insight that hospitality and sharing food produces social relations, and equally that receiving and giving gifts typically results in, or is meant to result in, reciprocity?

The Dutch word for being ‘biased’, vooringenomen (as well as the German equivalents befangen or voreingenommen and even the English word partial), hint at a certain relationship between objectivity and a position of independence or critical distance. You are said to be biased when you, etymologically speaking, have become captured by, or become a part of, other interests and concerns. Its opposite, being objective, here means being free from interests arising out of social relations. The underlying assumption of such a notion of objectivity is that one should not be caught in a web of relations that could cloud or influence one’s judgement.

Therefore, we could even go further: should architecture critics declare their previous interests? Anything that could impact their analysis, everything from friendships and previous encounters over drinks to dinner invitations and goodie bags?

I would say that rather than being worried about the undue bias that such special treatments might introduce, we should be concerned with the mechanisms of reviewing. Who is reviewing and on what basis? And crucially: when?

All of the journalists I spoke to insisted that these special events, dinners and gifts wouldn’t make a difference to their reviews. One of them added that, if they had done it for one critic personally, maybe then there might be more of an imperative to be lenient in one’s review, but this was a big group of journalists, and as such it didn’t feel particularly special or tailored. One member of the project team replied that these events are, after all, the culmination and result of more than ten years of work on the project, and considering that, all they did was book some flights and hotels and pay for some food. This might be true, but it did feel like a lot of effort.

A perceived tension seems to result from the characteristic that reviews are, unashamedly, opinion pieces. Other contemporary options to judge buildings based on measurable characteristics of buildings perhaps appear more objective, but that does not mean that they are free of opinion, interpretation or bias. To state the obvious: we all have implicit or explicit biases. Metrics – and also anxieties that invitations or relationships might be compromising one’s judgement – are mechanisms to deal with or hide such subjective factors. One might argue, however, that a bigger problem arises if a personal opinion is presented as a ‘public opinion’, that is if the reviewer’s subjectivity is erased. Yet it stands: architecture reviews are written from a certain point of view and have a phenomenological dimension; you need to have seen and experienced the building yourself. What matters most is that you have been there, but not necessarily how long.

This leads me to say that the tour of the building – the main reason the press was there – felt somewhat rushed although it lasted some hours. The tour offered only an opportunity to get a feel for BLOX – it is a vast building – but definitely did not offer enough time to understand what it is like to inhabit the different spaces. Additionally, locked doors and some confusion meant that some journalists skipped a floor.

Drinks in BLOX after the Press Tour – photo Dominik Hoehn

Yet something seemed to have happened. One journalist I talked to after they wrote their review told me that ‘all the champagne and sweet talk might have softened [their] hits’. They were half-joking but what they meant was that the hospitality established a familiarity with the architects and it made the project, in an important sense, more human. It made strangers – the press – familiar with the building, its history, its architects, and the people who commissioned it.

OMA Partner Ellen van Loon Explaining and Sketching the Main Concept behind BLOX – photo Dominik Hoehn

One side effect of this added human dimension seemed to be that some of the international reviews became more a character profile on Ellen van Loon and her design visions. However, there is also the undeniable aspect that the client Realdania had originally chosen OMA because of the Rem Koolhaas factor – until recently the client’s own websites stated ‘Rem Koolhaas/OMA’ as the architect of the building. Acknowledging that BLOX was built under the leadership of two female architects, Ellen van Loon and Adrianne Fisher, is a massive step forward and a step away from the cult of the (male) starchitect. However, the mechanisms of reviewing still seem to be focused on the architect. His/her genius is synonymous with, if not more important than, the building itself. What is being staged as well as reviewed are architectural personalities and ideas as much as the actual design and finished product. What is rarely really reviewed when a new building is opened, however, is how the spaces are used and inhabited, and whether it actually works as a functioning piece of architecture; mainly because it is not possible to get this insight in a day or even two.

Therefore, although the press day provided the opportunity to speak with all different kinds of actors involved in the project, somehow the focus was still on the architect. During the tour, due to the high number of press representatives, we were separated in two groups, the journalists from more well-known publications were asked to follow OMA partner Ellen van Loon. Everyone else was led around by Adrianne Fisher, the main OMA project architect, and Chris Carroll from Arup, BLOX’s main structural engineer, two of the handful of people who know the building and its architectural and technical challenges most intimately. Yet, the press put the spotlight definitely on Ellen van Loon. In her group, there was a sense of competition in the air. Journalists were tightly gathered around her, with their notebooks and pens, ready to soak up and write down the best, most illuminating or damning quotation. I felt this competition, later, when I foolishly attempted to make small-talk with a critic from a well-known newspaper and asked about their opinion on BLOX. Their only reply was ‘I guess you’ll find out’ and walked off.

Despite all efforts, the reviews of BLOX came back mixed. Especially the Danish reviewers (who had different press days) were particularly negative, but also some of the international ones. Many of the negative reviews focused on the aesthetics, especially the outside appearance, and size of BLOX. This did not necessarily come as a surprise to OMA and especially Ellen van Loon who had called BLOX a ‘provocation’ to Danish typologies in our interview with her on the press day. But for many tenants in BLOX as well as other stakeholders, the negative press was frustrating and a distraction from ‘what is going on inside BLOX’ as they wrote in their own opinion pieces for Danish newspapers. This was because most of the critiques did not take into account the activities, effects or ambitions of the building, especially of building a future architecture centre, the new Danish Architecture Centre, as well as all the work that went into and goes on in BLOXHUB, an innovation hub for the built environment.

BLOXHUB – photo Dominik Hoehn

After the press tour, I asked one member of the project team how they would react to bad press, or if someone wrote a particularly nasty review. They replied that everyone can obviously write what they want but added: ‘I guess the only thing is that you would want to be invited again.’ Although this statement was meant as a joke, it hints at that falling out of favour with the architects might come close to professional death; especially if ‘the architecture press’ only ever really comes together, physically, at events that include openings, biennales and similar occasions. Depending on your personal reputation as a journalist (or that of the publication you work for), this might not bother you, but as a freelancer and/or early or mid-career architecture critic, this might be a different matter.

So how can we review reviewing? Architects might throw splendid dinners and take precious time to chat personally with architecture critics. Critics might even receive gifts that are rare and remarkable (but not necessarily expensive). All of this might be interpreted as ‘trying to give gravitas to buildings’ as one journalist, who I talked to, put it. Some critics are unfazed by this. Some others intensify their critiques, seemingly in defence of their independence. For most reviewers, such events and opportunities offer, if anything, a rare chance to talk to architects about their ideas in person, which helps to add a human dimension to the project. Such opportunities help explain why, for instance, a building like BLOX ended up on the harbour front of Copenhagen.

Yet, despite contemporary concerns with building lifecycles or even the performance of buildings along with other theoretical concerns not to take static views of architecture, architectural reviewing mainly still happens before a building is opened. It seems that both the global press and starchitects engage in a race to set the tone for public and professional debates. Would reviewing buildings in action not mean to refrain from setting the tone too early? Perhaps paradoxically, one answer to this might be more opportunities and more invitations for the architecture press to come back and review again.