Jaak Tomberg: The Critical Utopianism of Architectural Journalism

FOR THE 100TH ISSUE OF THE ESTONIAN ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW “MAJA“

To establish, create and illuminate

Critical periodical texts that both conceptualise and expand upon architecture and spatial design are without doubt a part of cultural journalism. The main objective of cultural journalism is to reflect, map and interpret developments occurring in the cultural sphere. One might, therefore, get the initial impression that cultural journalism is consequent to cultural production and processes, thus somehow secondary in nature. This type of perceived subordinacy is a widely held misconception that we face at times when, for example, we hear people saying that a critic is someone who is incapable of creating something original. I regard the tendency towards this belief to be rather misleading because it misses the deeper essence that fuels the functioning of cultural journalism in the field of culture. The work of reflection, mapping and interpretation performed by cultural journalism is not an abstract standalone, cut off from the cultural field, but an integral part of the feedback loop it shares with the phenomena and processes from which it draws its substance. Perhaps it would be more informative to paraphrase: cultural phenomena and processes are never completely independent of the cultural journalism that represents them. Cultural journalism has a (symbolically) establishing effect without which the cultural field would not be distinguishable as meaningful or evolving. Viivi Luik once said about Mati Unt’s “Autumn Ball“ that prior to that work, the Mustamäe district did not exist in a sense because no-one had disclosed it in word until then. The same is true for the relationship between cultural journalism and cultural phenomena: by reflecting, mapping and informing something, cultural journalism is simultaneously establishing, creating and illuminating that something, thus ensuring temporal and historical consistency for the cultural sphere as a whole. It is by expressly appointing meaning that cultural journalism makes manifest cultural phenomena that were hitherto mere mute and default enablers of their own potential. The same is clearly true for architectural journalism.

In the following analysis I pose the question: What might be the specifics of an architectural text in the broader framework of cultural journalism? What sets architectural journalism apart from other genres of cultural journalism? What is to be found here that occurs nowhere else? I identify these issues as an outsider on the one hand, since I am not an architectural critic but a literary scholar, and as a participant on the other, since as collegiate member of MAJA and the cultural weekly Sirp I have had the opportunity of reading and commenting on a wide range of spatial design -related texts. My hope is that an occasional absence of familiarity will be compensated by a fresh opinion of an observer of the environment.

On the borderline between idealism and materialism 

So, what is it about architectural journalism that makes it distinguishable from other areas of cultural journalism? In my view, we should start seeking the answer in the nature of architecture itself. An extremely rich article on this has been written by Urmo Mets. He says that architectural practice oscillates between two seeming extremes: “Rationalists condemn and throw overboard creators with narratives of ideas and intuition, the latter, in turn, find anyone failing to reach beyond a pragmatic and technological organisation of space – formalist and restricted.“ 1 But the point of Mets’ account is that both polarities are in fact intertwined and inseparable from the process of spatial design: “This kind of balancing on a very fine line is an innate part of an architect’s daily work.“ 2

Deciphering this I find that lurching into one or the other direction would weaken the end result as an overall aesthetic-pragmatic entity. Urmo Mets’ reasoning is thus built upon a notion that architecture is fertilised at the crossroads of the measurable and the immeasurable, the acknowledged and the unacknowledged, the materialist and the idealist. The framework of his discussion extends mainly across the attitudes and tuning at the foundation of “an architect’s daily work“, yet in my opinion the idea of the inextricable contexture and mutual balance between idealism and materialism can be applied to understand the nature of architecture as a discipline and, more particularly, architecture as a form of art. No other discipline of art, if we are to discuss architecture as such, is able to conjoin in as forceful a manner seemingly such disparate tendencies at the basic core of its essence, in the so-called inevitable conditions of its own ambition. 3

What is the result of this combination? I suggest it is an implied pragmatic utopianism intrinsic to architecture (and by that, to architectural journalism), a trait which in no other cultural discipline (and, therefore, no other genre of cultural journalism) can be found in as clear and pure, or, perhaps more simply, as distilled a form.

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 spring edition (No 100). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.

JAAK TOMBERG a literary scholar who is interested in the philosophy of literature, science fiction, utopia and utopian thought. His next study, entitled “How to Fulfil a Wish”, is about the fate and status of utopian imagination in a modern culture whose technological saturation has brought about a decisive proximity between realism and science fiction.

HEADER photo by Paul Kuimet.

1 U. Mets, “Of the Measurable and the Unmeasurable in Architecture.” – MAJA no 94, 2018 (summer/autumn), pp 145.

2 ibid.

3 Isn’t it so that compared to the other arts, the idea of an architectural piece (in its possible ambivalence) and its material carrier (its actual use) are the least separable? Maybe not, but I am tempted to think that way because of all the arts it is architecture that people inevitably use the most.