Settler Colonial City Project's text installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial missed the mark, says Aaron Betsky

"We have to do better than ugliness and incoherence. We can be woke and good designers as well"

The current way architecture is critiqued and presented at biennials and exhibitions is ugly, but it doesn't need to be, argues Aaron Betsky.

Does critical architecture have to be ugly? Must it forego form and image altogether to be effective? That would certainly seem to be the message of many recent books, exhibitions and biennial events, most notably the third Chicago Architecture Biennial and the kinds of exhibitions the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum has been staging in the last few years.

Instead of models and drawings, we get diagrams and declarations. Instead of being able to explore experimentation by architects, we are told what to think through manifestoes printed on walls or people lecturing us via voice-overs or didactic wall texts. What models or installations we do see are often purposefully badly crafted or, according to most standards of aesthetics, just plain ugly.

That ugliness is, I think, exactly the point. Form is taboo to people who believe that architecture is a perpetuation of power in built form. Aesthetics, they seem to think, is the opiate the global elite uses to veil their intentions and seduce us into accepting their appropriation of space and resources. Standards, whether they are aesthetic or of presentation (like frames and pedestals) reflect the values and beliefs, not to mention the economic and political power, of western white males who developed and control them. I would have a hard time arguing against that position.

Form is taboo to people who believe that architecture is a perpetuation of power

Putting up pretty pictures or seductive objects, even if they are meant as critical counter proposals, obscures any message and diffuses the impact of the action. Even making something definitive for one purpose or function means giving in to functionalism, which is to say the economic allocation of space that straightjackets us into performing in a certain way. It is better to make – if you are going to build anything at all – open-ended spaces to gather, interact, express yourself or, otherwise, build community in a space not defined, but only indicated, by architecture.

It is difficult to disagree with any of this, as it is absolutely true that any resistance, not just in architecture, but in all forms of art and culture, is ultimately just fodder for an economic system that turns it into just more consumable bits. The best architecture aestheticises and fixes in place, quite literally, whom or whatever has the power to commission it. We get lost in the beauty of the model or the rendering, and we lose the point the architect is trying to make.

But is ugliness the answer? The issues with this approach are many, beyond the kind of denial of communications or any attempt to draw us in that makes it difficult for many, and certainly this almost-dead white male, to evaluate this kind of work or even discipline himself to take the time for its interpretation.

After all, pretty pictures and forms are effective means of persuasion. However dangerous the solace of good form might be, and however quickly it becomes just Instagram fodder, if a model or drawing is really good, it has a more immediate power than any number of slogans. Words can matter, but, unless they are put in a form that embodies and communicates what they are trying to do, they remain just dead bits of communication.

In addition, the attempt to present the complexity of a situation often leads to information overload. That is the beauty of beautiful images: they sum up and allude to many things at once. If you are going to spell it all out, you need at least to provide a clear organisation of this information (I would recommend Edward Tufte's books to many of these exhibitors as a good starting point).

By giving up on good form, critical architecture becomes complicit with the idea that the rich deserve beautiful things

Being able to convey the relationship between capitalism and place, different forms and times of occupation, and the economic logic of such contested spaces needs a certain amount of such graphic design talent. The many attempts to chart flows of money at the Chicago Biennial exhibition are more confusing than enlightening, and its use of words posed on the gallery's glass walls against the skyscrapers of the surrounding city only made the latter look more powerful.

By giving up on good form, this form or critical architecture also becomes complicit with the idea that the rich deserve beautiful things, while the poor deserve cheap and dirty stuff. The history of building facilities for the economically disadvantaged or disenfranchised is a horror story of structures built as cheaply and compactly as possible, with no "frills" or elements that would connect to the context or people's daily lives. Those structures are then often badly maintained, so that they quickly become squalid. That history is repeated by installations and graphics that are equally without any finesse or layering.

Finally, this form of critical architecture, by positioning itself outside of the "system" of aesthetics and construction, but also outside of any attempt to figure out how to make concrete alternatives to the prisons in which we work, live, and play, has perpetuated its role as being the production of outsiders who do not want to work through the difficulties of making and negotiating change. This, again, is logical, as working through the system means becoming part of it, but it also means that the slogans have very little effect.

We need to use the skills and knowledge proper to architecture to find ways to improve our world

Is it possible to make a critical and effective architecture? I believe it is. At various times over history, architects have devised ways to counter-coopt capitalism, whether through the mass production of ornament in the Arts and Crafts movement or by trying to show that minimalism could be not only beautiful, but liberating.

They have also developed counter-aesthetics that have ranged from expressionism to subtle use of "wrong" or "base" elements in beautiful ways. They have created convincing monuments to worker's heroes and beautiful social housing. Many of their experiments have failed or, in the case of Mies van der Rohe's monuments to the Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, have been destroyed. That does not mean we should not keep trying.

The issues we face today as citizens are serious; they threaten our immediate lives, and the survival or our species. Injustice, pain, and suffering all around us. Because of the seriousness of these issues, slogans, diagrams and ugly quasi-bandstands for public discussions that never happen will not do.

We need to use the skills and knowledge proper to architecture to find ways to improve our world, and a biennial or exhibition that pretends to want to address the fundamental problems with the way we practice architecture today must offer concrete, well-made, and viable alternatives, however experimental, open-ended and suggestive they might be.

I full well realise that I am arguing this position as somebody who has made over a 100 architecture exhibitions and thus has a stake in what I think is the right kind or mode of such installations. Yet that same experience makes me think that we have to do better than confining ourselves to ugliness and incoherence. We can be woke and good designers as well.

Photograph is by Cory Dewald.