The ethics of reviewing

My first real job, nearly 30 years ago, was as an architectural critic. It sounds grand and in some ways it was. I worked at the creaking but lovable Architectural Review (which, IMHO, was a far better looking magazine then than now). The offices of the then-family-owned Architectural Press were in the eccentric, wonderful 9 Queen Anne’s Gate. In its old-fashioned way, there were some rather archaic traditions at the AP. One that has stuck with me, however, was the belief that you shouldn’t review a building before you could see it in use.

Buildings, after all, aren’t just artworks. To be successful they have to work well. I would have thought that was obvious. But it seems as though the exalted Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker has lower standards. I was reading with interest his review of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in New York’s Bowery. And then I came upon this:  “Once the museum opens, next month, the effect may be more welcoming: the ground floor is sheathed entirely in glass, and a gallery and bookstore will be visible from the street. At the moment, the museum is enticing from afar but off-putting up close.”

Not good enough. What I don’t understand is the rush into print. The New Yorker isn’t about scoops in its art coverage (which was a fact of life for architecture magazines in my day, and I suspect still is – everyone wanted to be the first to review the latest Jim Stirling or Stormin’ Norman Foster). Big black mark against Goldberger in my book.

Of course, architecture critics aren’t the only guilty parties. Here’s a review someone pointed me to yesterday, about the new Kindle.  I’ll start my quote from the second paragraph, to prepare you for the third paragraph punchline:

I won’t rehash the basic features of Kindle, but I will try to compare it with the Sony Reader–now in its second generation and Kindle’s primary competition. I will also talk about what I see as the strong and weak points of the Kindle design.

Disclaimer: This is all based on what I’ve seen and read. I haven’t seen a Kindle in person. Yet.

I know the pressure on gadget reviewers is undoubtedly far more severe than that on the relatively esoteric world of architecture critics. But I have to say that reviewing an unopened building is a venial sin compared to reviewing a product you haven’t seen in person.

One thought on “The ethics of reviewing

  1. jaywalker

    An architecture review only affects the reputations of the reviewer, the builder and the architect – but not the readers who make neither decisions nor spend money (with the exception of museum visits). L’art pour l’art.

    In contrast, product (p)reviews prepare buying decisions. Amazon is not the place to go to, however, as it offers mostly unsystematic reviews. For most product categories, there are specialist sites on the web with thorough criteria.

    Re the Amazon Kindle, I do not have to hold on in my hands to have a negative view. Its ugly look is built around payable, closed content. Free and easy access to Project Gutenberg books? No, “Pride and Predjudice” at USD 2 in a closed format. I know, one can import the text via USB for free or via mail for a small fee, but it’s not the standard or intended process.


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