A reader sent me an article from "West," the San Jose Mercury News's Sunday magazine, with "OUCHitecture" splashed across the cover. Writer Michael S. Malone had picked "the 10 ugliest buildings in Silicon Valley."
Under the headline "Good Grief! What's That?," the article branded several office buildings, the San Jose Convention Center, an Embassy Suites Hotel, a 10-screen theater complex, a subdivision of luxury houses and the newspaper's own building.
The writer's witty, negative observations were primarily aesthetic, reflecting his tastes and the tastes of many who use or look at the buildings.
For example, he suggested that the Embassy Suites Hotel, a stucco and tile-roofed, multistory "mosqued manse," would fit "better in East Beirut than in East Bay."
"Did the architect eat curry a little too late before going to bed the night before the presentation?" he wrote.
His critical frenzy continued. The hotel "is a case of almost awe-inspiring inappropriateness, so offensive that it almost negates itself ... a visitation from another planet ... the mind simply pretends it isn't there ... a latter-day example of the same kind of romantic, ignorant view of California life that had book illustrators 200 years ago painting California landscapes complete with crocodiles and bare-breasted Amazons."
The California State Office Building received equally scathing remarks: "Dark, ominous, forgotten, ego-debilitating ... a perpetual reminder of the failure of Federalism ... saying to its residents: If you don't want to be treated like laboratory rats anymore, go get a job in Washington."
Malone didn't stop there: "Perhaps the architect was actually an evil genius, and this structure is his metaphor for the bureaucratization of American government. After all, it is democratic because everyone is equally unlocatable ... in a maze-like design offering the first-time visitor the chance to become lost and humiliated ... like dealing with any government agency."
These comments were crafted for journalistic shock value, but Malone's acid, metaphoric critiques often hit the mark -- at least implicitly -- in identifying generic, recurring lapses of design judgment: inappropriateness of building scale; gratuitous architectural styles and motifs unrelated to site context; poor site planning; landscapes dominated by parking; and unpleasant, confusing interior environments.
Unfortunately, much of the same scorn could be heaped upon similar buildings anywhere in the country. Indeed, some of the photos accompanying the article could have been depictions of edifices in Maryland, the District of Columbia or Virginia.
Of course, bare-fisted architectural criticism entails certain shortcomings of which the typical Sunday magazine reader may be unaware.
In reality, such pointed and amusing critiques frequently fail to go much beyond characterization and denigration. They describe and dramatize architectural "ugliness" but usually are unrigorous in explaining lucidly why the condemned architecture should be deemed "ugly."
Being rigorous -- and fair -- as a critic is tough. It requires the critic first to establish criteria and priorities for judgment. The critic then must illuminate those elements of the design which, in the critic's opinion, do not satisfy the stated criteria and compellingly argue why.
Design assessment criteria most relevant to the public fall into one of several overlapping categories.
Site planning. Critics must ask how well a project occupies its site. Placement of structures, open space and elements of landscape in relation to each other, to streets and to neighboring properties are the key ingredients.
Building massing. An inseparable part of site planning is the determination of volumetric geometry, size and proportion of structures on a site. How often have you seen a building whose bulk and height felt too great -- or too little -- for its site, or one that seemed too fragmented or not fragmented enough?
Building facades. The dominant impression of a building results from its exterior expression, the composition of wall surfaces, window and door openings, structural elements, materials, colors, details and ornamentation to impart some kind of visual order, an overall image and "style."
The critic must judge how sensitively and effectively the composition works, what it signifies, if anything, and how appropriate it seems for the building's purpose and site context.
Spatial organization. This refers to the composition horizontally and vertically of spaces around and within buildings -- their location, size and scale, shape and proportion and relation to each other, to enclosing facades and to the site.
Critics are particularly concerned with patterns of circulation and sequences of movement and view. Regrettably, some buildings feature spatial disorganization.
Spatial quality. Critics also examine how light enters interior spaces, how spaces are finished and decorated, or what can be seen from within spaces, such as views of landscape, sky, or other spaces and structures beyond.
Building function. Often more important to building occupants than to critics are nonaesthetic and technical considerations of utility, efficiency and comfort -- thermal, visual, acoustic -- related to a building's intended use.
Critics often encounter buildings that pass aesthetic muster but prove to be functional nightmares.
Building economics. Do the practical and aesthetic values achieved justify the resources expended to achieve them? Is there an economy of means evident? Has a gold-plated budget produced mostly gold-plated gestures of affectation and pretense?
Architectural invention. Critics always look for truly original design ideas in the form of inventive compositional tactics, innovative use of materials or reinterpretations of historic precedents.
But many critics are skeptical about invention for invention's sake alone, preferring to see substantive reasoning behind new ideas.
Competent critics systematically address all of these issues, and then some, in evaluating architecture.
Yet despite attempts at rigor and rationalization, architectural criticism inescapably relies on value judgments. Sound criticism is informed and reasoned opinion, but opinion nevertheless. Thus, the credibility of the critic, more than the provability of the criticism, may be what ultimately counts.
And the persuasiveness of criticism depends as much on how it's verbalized as on what it's based. Writer Malone realized this and decided that media wit would deliver his message more convincingly than logical exposition.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.