Seven Questions for Alexandra Lange, Who ‘Cannot Live by Architecture Alone’

It’s hard enough to craft intelligent design criticism, let alone guide others in doing so, but Alexandra Lange excels at both. The Brooklyn-based critic, journalist, and architectural historian pens pointed reviews and thought-provoking observations on the visual world for Design Observer (“Stop That: Minimalist Posters” is among our recent favorites) and on her own Tumblr (Hello Kitty spotted in Lisbon!), and teaches design criticism in SVA’s D-Crit program and at New York University. Having co-authored the 2010 must-read Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle), Lange is preparing for the release of her next book, a primer on writing and reading architectural criticism that will be published next spring by the Princeton Architectural Press. In the meantime, she’s branching out beyond the built environment with Let’s Get Critical, her new shortform blog that cherrypicks reviews and essays from the wider world of culture. What makes a piece of writing worthy of appearing on the site? “Everything on Let’s Get Critical should be well-written, its point of view clear, its language hooky,” says Lange. We reined in our verbosity and formulated seven semi-lucid questions for the veteran critic and pied piper of quality criticism.

1. What led you to create Let’s Get Critical?
I’ve been writing and teaching architecture and design criticism for about six years now, and while I love it, the topic started to feel a little confining. I love movies and TV, prefer to read novels, follow pop culture. A person cannot live by architecture alone. At the same time, I felt like most sites about culture, like most sites about design, were purely celebratory. So I wanted to create a place for intelligent writing about intelligent work, where culture was front and center rather than secondary to politics or business or sports.

2. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
Since I got my first iPhone in January, it is usually my email. But I still get the hard copy New York Times, so then I go downstairs to breakfast and try to read at least one section (I have two small children). I read it back to front, so I usually start with Arts, Dining, or Home. I feel that I get much more out of the paper than I do the Times online or on my phone. By the end of the day I have at least flipped through every section, so I see things in Business or Sports that I would never seek out.

I also think it is important for my kids to have an idea that reading the paper is something that you do every day. If all they see is me staring at my phone all the time, they don’t know what I am doing. Last spring, when the Times was writing about Turn Off the Dark every day, my son got very interested in the news about Spiderman, which I thought was great.

3. What’s the best thing you read over the summer and why?
Not the best, but one that I still think about, and one which relates to culture and criticism: Tina Fey‘s Bossypants. Why, I thought after I read it, do you have to be as fabulously successful as Tina Fey to be listened to when you speak about the way women, and particularly mothers, are treated at and treat work? There’s a terrible silence in architecture about how it really is for women, and I think we all need to be bolder and more straightforward about talking about our children, the trade-offs we make, what we can and can’t do. If no one listens until you have a cult hit, there’s a problem.

4. Last movie you saw?
Jane Eyre (2011), via Netflix. I am hopelessly devoted to 19th-century novels, so I watch every adaptation. I thought the art direction, structure, and casting of Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender were wonderful. I would have liked one more suggestive scene between Jane and Rochester to demonstrate the slow build of their attraction. I thought the pared-down dialogue was slightly too elliptical if you weren’t someone who has read the book 10 times.

5. Best or most memorable design/designer-related encounter?
It is always the unexpected discoveries that mean the most to me. So much of the architecture I see has been pre-digested, through criticism, or slide lectures in graduate school, or picture books. I went to Copenhagen for the first time last fall, and on our last day there we took a bus out to what felt like the edge of the city to Grundtvig‘s Church. I’d seen a photograph of the exterior, which looked like a cross between Gothic and Scandinavian Romantic and hobbit, but nothing more. You walk inside the church, and it is a vast, Gothic-scaled space that is just filled with golden light. Most of the light in Copenhagen in October is gray and cool, but here it felt like the architect had chosen the materials to bring the southern sun inside. There are no pews, just rows of blonde Scandinavian modern chairs. No stained glass. Straw-colored bricks. It was just plain beautiful.

6. Proudest design moment?
It would have to be my house. My husband Mark Dixon is an architect, and we spent about three years renovating a rowhouse in Brooklyn. I had always dreamed of designing my own house (I was planning to be an architect until I graduated from college and started working at New York magazine), and it was really important for me to work on designing my own space. I had a mental file of good ideas from years of research and writing about houses. He did most of the work and, as you might expect, I criticized, but we are both really happy with and comfortable in the result.

7. Your next book is coming out next year from Princeton Architectural Press. Can you give us a sneak preview?
The book is titled Writing About Architecture, and it is about reading and writing architecture criticism. It is based on the class I’ve been teaching at D-Crit and NYU, so each chapter begins with a piece of classic criticism by Huxtable, Mumford, Sorkin, Moore, Olmsted, or Jacobs, and then I write about how he or she does it and how other critics have brought those ideas up to date. The introduction discusses probably my favorite piece of architecture criticism, Ada Louise Huxtable‘s “Sometimes We Do It Right.” It is a very short, simple critique, ostensibly about SOM’s Marine Midland Building downtown. But really it is about taking the time to assess how architecture fits together in history, in the city.