Madame Critic: Alexandra Lange on Building a Foundation and Developing Her Voice
By Julia Gamolina, cover portrait by Mark Wickens
Alexandra Lange is the architecture critic for Curbed. Her essays, reviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous design publications including Architect, Design Observer, Dezeen, and Metropolis, as well as in New York Magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She has taught design criticism at the School of Visual Arts and New York University. She was a 2014 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Her latest book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids was published by Bloomsbury USA in June 2018. Research for the book was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. She is also the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka Press, 2012), and Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books, 2010), which she co-authored with Jane Thompson. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Alexandra speaks about building the foundation to develop her voice and convey her opinions, advising young architects to be as open as possible and explore the environment that they’re in.
JG: You studied architecture and literature in college. How did your interest in both develop?
AL: I always was and always have been a big reader. I loved novels; my dream is to understand how I could write a novel, because that’s what I really would like to do one day. I loved Jane Austen, I love Charles Dickens, I could talk about that all day, so I have this really classic literary side and I wanted to study that in college.
I had also gotten interested in architecture in high school; a professor who was a colleague of my mother’s taught a middle school and high school architecture class and I took that. My mother gave me a book with Ada Louise Huxtable’s collections of writings, so I knew that being an architecture critic was a thing. Yale is one of the few places where you can study architecture in undergrad but not have it be a separate major - it’s not a B.Arch - so I wanted to go to Yale, knowing I could take both studio and history architecture classes there, and also do literature and get that complete liberal arts education.
What did you take away from your time at Yale?
The piece I didn’t expect going to Yale was that my freshman year roommate was all gung ho about joining the Yale Daily News. I went over there with her, and we both joined the Yale Daily News and worked there for three years. So the journalism piece I learned about as an extra-curricular.
What did you do after?
I worked for New York Magazine for five years and that was an amazing experience. Everything I learned about writing features, writing for magazines, and being a New Yorker, I learned from being there.
After about five years though, I knew I really wanted to focus on architecture, but that I didn’t want to go back to school to be an architect - I wanted to be a critic. I was 25 though and still felt very green, so I thought that if I went back to school, to get a PhD in Architectural History, then I would know everything and nobody could fool me [laughs]. Kind of a ridiculous idea, but I did find that it was incredibly helpful to have that grounding, because I can see through architects’ references, I can see what they’re looking at, I’ve seen so many slides, I’ve read the books, and I get it.
What do you do as a critic?
I try mostly to write about public projects. I always feel a little bit strained when I’m writing about a building that’s not accessible to most people, and I only do it if I think it’s really important from a design point of view, or from a precedent-setting point of view. As a critic, what sets it apart is that when you write, you are giving your opinion, and people are coming there for your well-reasoned, supported, reported opinion. To be a critic, you do have to have this grounding in history and in knowledge of the city so that you feel like you can say that other people are wrong [laughs].
What do you feel your role and responsibility is in the built environment, as a critic?
I feel like I need to be a representative of the public. I try only to write about places that I’ve actually experienced - if possible, because sometimes you have to write about renderings [laughs] - and thinking about my own body moving through it as a small and vulnerable person in the city. How it feels, how it works for the regular person, what kind of barriers there are, and just being hyper aware of how design is shaping the experience at a lot of different scales. That’s another kind of training - you train your eye in school, and then your body living in the city and experiencing a lot of different places.
Take me through your career post-PhD.
I’ve been a freelancer for more than ten years now, and that’s because when I graduated, there were some job openings that came up for critics, and I applied to them, but I didn’t really have the clips to show that I could be one. Here’s where the distinction between a critic and a journalist comes in - I’d written plenty of features and a couple of cover stories for New York Magazine about architecture, but they weren’t me. They were the voice of the magazine, the voice of a reporter. So I realized that I would have to write for a different kind of outlet and write a different kind of piece so that people could see that I had a specific opinion and that people were interested in that opinion.
The Architect’s Newspaper was one of the first that gave me the opportunity to do that. The other important thing for finding my own voice was that I started a Tumblr [I no longer update it, but you can see it at www.abitlate.tumblr.com]. I read an article in the New York Times in 2009 that said blogging in the future and Tumblr has the nicest platform. I tried to write something three times a week, something short, and I think that really helped loosen me up. Eventually it led to me blogging for Design Observer once a week, which was a great opportunity on a terrific platform. Michael Bierut, Bill Drentell and Jessica Helfand basically said, “Write whatever you want.” That was the first time someone had conveyed to me that they trusted me and wanted to hear what I had to say. All of my other opportunities, at Dezeen I was an opinion columnist, now I’m the critic for Curbed, and they’ve all come because of that.
Tell me about your teaching.
I loved teaching the design criticism program at SVA that Alice Twemlow and Steven Heller started; she asked me to create a class in architecture criticism and in the creation of that class, and teaching that class for many years, I met a lot of people that are some of my best friends today. That also led me to write my first solo book, Writing About Architecture, which is based on the course.
How does one develop the skills to write about architecture?
Each chapter in the book is based on a different building type and I took one piece of criticism that exemplifies a way of writing about that building type. Probably the flashiest chapter is about museums, and I talk about Herbert Muschamp’s piece on the Guggenheim Bilbao, which was a cover story in New York Times Magazine, and is pretty wild - one of the wildest pieces of criticism, a quality Muschamp is known for [laughs].
He’s really the opposite of me in terms of the way he writes, so it was great to get inside that piece and an exercise I had done with my students. I asked them, “Why is he comparing the Guggenheim Bilbao to Marilyn Monroe? Is that nuts or is it genius?” For them, and for me, to write that out was a really great intellectual exercise. I hope it is helpful for other people to understand the way that something may seem like it’s veering off the road but is actually on the better road.
What else has been significant?
I got the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Design four years ago now, and that was great because honestly, I wrote so much over the years that came before, I needed a break and to restock my brain. I met really interesting people, I sat in on classes, and it was that year that I felt like I had the space and time to decide that I wanted to write a book about children. The summer after I finished my fellowship, I wrote a book proposal, and then after that I got an agent, I sold the book, and started to work on it.
Speaking of children, you have two of your own. How does motherhood play into all this?
I haven’t had an actual job in over fifteen years, because of graduate school and then being a freelancer. I really appreciate the flexibility of being a freelancer - I do have childcare, I thank my babysitter in my book [laughs], so it’s not like my husband and I are doing it all ourselves, but we are able to be there when they get home and check in with them or take them to some other activity. Recently, I’ve had my kids weigh in on some of the things I write about, because I think it’s great to get their opinion too on experiences in New York.
I should also say, and this isn’t true for everyone, but I feel like I really found my critical voice after I had children. I had a lot of fear in my twenties - I was afraid of messing up - and once I had my kids, I just felt like they’re always going to be more important than my work, so work mattered less, which let go of some pressure and allowed me to say what I needed to say in a clearer way. I found motherhood incredibly freeing.
Where are you in your career today?
I’ve been a mother now for eleven years, and I’m used to having a career and kids, and I feel like maybe now I need another thing - I do feel like there is a ten-year itch in careers, and my career has so far been broken into two ten-year segments, so I’m wondering what the next segment should be.
The first ten years were working at New York Magazine, and then grad school. And then I had my son, the recession hit, and creative media nose-dived - it was like the career ladder I had been working my way up for ten years evaporated, so I had to work my way in a different way, which was online media. Online media has been much better to me. I feel like the institutions never really got me and are still not always super supportive. Online media, social media, has given me all of these tools to communicate directly, and that has also been very freeing. Now I’m trying to explore how to talk about architecture in other media - on film and such.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Health insurance is a challenge when you’re a freelancer - I see more and more people talking about this online and how artists and creatives need to talk about things like health insurance and the practicalities of their lives and careers.
“The balance” is always another one - all of my greatest opportunities have come since I’ve had kids, so now when I have to travel, it’s so much more of a logistical challenge. We have a family calendar, and my kids will look at it and will see when I go away and get sad about it, so I have to live with that. The balance is really about which opportunities are worth it, what makes sense, and having time to think about the next opportunities while still taking care of the things that I know how to and want to do.
What have been the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?
My kids, definitely [laughs]. I love them and feel like they’re growing into really interesting people, and it’s so fun to do things with them and to hear them articulate their own opinions. I’ve taught undergrads, and I’ve taught grad students, and there are a lot of kids and young adults who are trained to write, but not to convey their opinions. So in my class, I say to them, “I know you know how to write a five-paragraph-essay, now write that essay about how you experience something and what you think about it.” My kids know how to do that now, and I hope that I can protect that in them.
What advice do you have for new moms?
I try to stay away from motherhood advice because my main piece of advice is that children are people too, and each person’s motherhood is so different. I am completely different from the type of parent I thought I’d be; my son came out really feisty, and he conditioned me! I’m not in charge at all [laughs]. You just have to develop a relationship with the child that you have.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I really go with my gut, and if I don’t know what to do, I try to not think about it for a few days, and let the decision rise to the surface. I ask if I want to do this or not, and I let my mind tell me.
What advice do you have for those in architecture, or studying architecture, who don’t see themselves becoming an Architect?
The world for those with architectural training is so much wider now than when I graduated in the 90s. I see people doing all sorts of things - you can write, you can work with data, you can work within an organization; the great thing about architecture is that it attracts the analytic mind, which you can then apply to anything.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Be as open as possible. Read things, go places, whatever your city offers you, explore it to the max and don’t get on a rat path and follow it endlessly. That way leads to boredom and dissatisfaction, and one of the gifts of living in a place is finding all the interesting architecture, old and new, visiting all of the parks. Make some sort of list for yourself and do one thing on it every weekend.