The Forensic Criticism of N. Ratsby in The Architectural Review

September 14, 2020


Objectively, narratives exist as texts, printed and made accessible; at the same time, they are subjectively produced by writer and reader . . . the discursive mode of narrative feeds on this paradox.
—Mieke Bal, “Telling Objects” in J. Elsner and R. Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting (London: Reaktion Books, 1994)

The conception of the critic as a character is one that, when first commissioned to write architectural criticism and still today, I am perhaps too aware of. There were several reasons for this—one being that the publication in question, The Architectural Review, has a long history of bizarre personas, pseudonyms, and mythical figures within its pages, another being that I felt incredibly ill-prepared—fresh out of a Part 1 in architecture—to voice my opinions to a reading public. Just as Naomi Stead argues that it is impossible to speak of architectural criticism without speaking of the persona of the critic as author, I would argue that it is impossible to write architectural criticism without considering this persona, who we decide to write as and why.

Take the most common form of architectural criticism—the “building study.” Criticism in this case is rarely instant; it is the culmination of press viewings, interviews, personal research, and tastes—experiences over what may be a number of days. Any final written form has filtered down through these different layers, through different characters, arranged by a something of a “final” character. As much as narrative feeds on the writer/reader paradox Mieke Bal posits, it feeds on the internal paradoxes within the writer and reader themselves.

This relationship is complex enough—but once the written work enters the “editorial frame” of the architectural journal it is, as Robin Wilson states, “never to be found again,”1 fed through an editorial frame with the work of photographers, a graphic designer, and so on. Old relationships in the text are broken and new ones are formed, both conceptual and visual via the layout of the page. In the same sense that photographs of a completed architectural work act as a reified and immutable final product, the publication of a text in a journal strives for an end point, to the extent that any critical self-reflection on its methods approaches taboo.

Yet if a critique of these processes is to be made, its most effective sites are within the pages of the journal itself, in which traces of the “politics and ideologies of architectural representation” can be uncovered.2 The emerging field of Journal Studies is one that taps into this, exploring the means by which certain works can be seen to display impulses—concealed or otherwise—at cross purposes to the methods of both their dissemination and a wider sense of an editorial mandate regarding architectural representation.

Published here is an updated extract from a thesis completed last year that attempted to articulate some of these ideas, through the creation of a character of its own. This study involved the fabrication of a series entitled Evidence—credited to the writer N. Ratsby—that was inserted into The Architectural Review’s archive as a series that ran intermittently from 1996 to 2006, the pseudonym of Ratsby being an homage to both Nikolaus Pevsner and J.M. Richards’s use of pseudonyms in the Review.

The work of Ratsby treated the journal page as a site of a personal and idiosyncratic mode of architectural recording, one deliberately aligned with a work of detection. The articles maintained the Review’s formal layouts but replaced traditional photographs with Ratsby’s more informal mode of photographic close-up, with forms indistinct or blurred and empty rooms paired with textual commentaries directly influenced by detective novels. This disruptive form of architectural detection was presented as Ratsby interrogating the assumptions made by the architectural media regarding the ability of the photographic image and its textual accompaniments to act as static evidence for architectural critique, but also allowed another level of detection.

This method sought to understand the interaction between the critical potential immanent in the work of architecture and the journal page itself with the external status of the critic or, more broadly, the interaction between the practices of historiographical “evidence-making” and the practice of written criticism. What resulted was an almost autobiographical experiment into the simultaneous production of a piece of criticism alongside a critique of that same work. The fabricated work was often aware of what the criticism of it would say, while the criticism itself generated new ideas as the fabricated work was produced. As such, both, similar to the theories they study, remain unfinished—both still “wait” for one another to reach a conclusion, feeding off a productive potential to continue generating one another.

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Mas issue character the forensic criticism of n ratsby in the architectural review 02
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N. Ratsby’s final piece, “Inverted World,” appears in the December 2006 issue of the Review, a study of 13 Haslemere Road by Níall McLaughlin Architects. While a previous study, “Blackbird Pie,” examined 49 Duncan Terrace, a restoration steeped in the traces of its past lives, 13 Haslemere presented Ratsby with a space that was far more contemporary in its materials and spatial arrangements, entirely replacing the dilapidated interior of a Victorian terrace of which there was “little worth salvaging.”3 Inhabited by a family of four—as well as their two dogs—the traces of material occupancy are all the more prominent and even discomforting against the clean-cut glass and metal lines of the interiors.

Whereas “Blackbird Pie” articulated notions of the “search,” be it on the surface or at great depth, “Inverted World” deals with what we can term the “wait.” The title is once again a literary reference to a narrative that brings a rich set of theoretical tropes. In Christopher Priest’s 1974 Inverted World, a city called “Earth” must constantly move on giant railroad tracks toward an ever changing “optimum” in order to remain ahead of a pursuing, destructive gravitational field. Keeping this pace involves constantly digging up the railway tracks behind and relaying them in front. Time in this city is measured by distance, and the chosen few who are granted the ability to return to the “past” experience bizarre distortions of space.4

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Mas issue character the forensic criticism of n ratsby in the architectural review 05

Elana Gomel has referred to Priest’s Inverted World as the “classic example of the ontological detective story,” an example of the detective story’s presumptions shifting from those of guilt to those of meaningfulness from which nothing is safe.5 She writes:

Mann (the protagonist) treats the world he lives in as a crime to be solved. He is engaged in those well-known routines of detection familiar from Poe, Doyle, and Christie: clue gathering interrogation of witnesses, clashes with a conspiracy of silence . . . the final blinding flash of understanding.6

Inverted World presents a deep link between space and time: a key, if often overlooked aspect of the detective story. Most importantly, the mystery in Inverted World, as in most ontological detective stories, never reaches a definite conclusion—through Ratsby we can consider what such a relationship implies for criticism.

On the second spread of Ratsby’s “Inverted World” we see a living room. Taken facing the windows, the room’s furniture is under-exposed, and most apparent is the view outside, with a window opposite visible in the distance. A program is on the television screen with a bright blue pause symbol in the bottom left hand corner. The bright light and sound of the television is one capable of disrupting this otherwise still space—the same feeling played upon in Raymond Carver’s “Blackbird Pie,” when the husband can hear the radio from the other room.7 Accompanied by a pause symbol, the television unleashes a “wait” within the image, one that creates both a mystery regarding what has taken place and an anticipation of what will take place.

Theodore Martin expands the nature of this “wait,” and returns us to the detective story. The sense of an omitted beginning in Ratsby’s images, a technique lifted from narratives of detection, is inescapably mysterious. In presenting scenes that appear as though a human figure has just departed—“a frying pan sits on the hob, a single mug on the table”—Ratsby not only establishes a sense of anticipation but also a curious relationship with past, present, and future and the discernment of which we are observing.8

Criticism, most particularly that of the contemporary, provides a view of what Fredric Jameson terms a “future history”—something likened to the work of science fiction.9 An equal emphasis on time appears in John Macarthur and Naomi Stead’s “The Judge is Not an Operator,” where the architectural critic’s position is presented as the “hinge between past and future,” assessing what architecture has been, defining what it is now and to some extent condoning what it should be.10 The critic is constantly rewriting architectural practice within the “unsettling potential” of the present, but often ignores this condition, instead focusing on the projection of a future.11

Science fiction’s future histories cannot know any final ending, yet their role as novels demands they present some form of closure. This ending, like that of the detective novel, often appears as an uncomfortable red herring, emerging out of nowhere to unexplainably solve a mystery.

Martin tells us how “mystery is not simply a projection of hidden depths; it is also an expectation, a promise, which takes time to be fulfilled” (his emphasis).12 Martin suggests that our awareness of durational time instigates a reinterpretation of the traditional view of the detective novel as reliant on its final act of exposure. What if, Martin asks, this wait is the real point of the detective story, which we gladly read well in the knowledge that its ending will be unsatisfactory? Could the same be said of criticism?

The architectural press often lacks this anticipation, in which both a photographic and textual norm is adhered to and only a moderately critical conclusion expected to be reached. The journal, in a sense, creates the “end” which Robin Wilson has stated acts as “a final act of signing-off the building as a perfectly realized product for global dissemination.”13 Regardless of its critical conclusions there is a pact by which it has entered a historical canon.

To draw a rough correlation, it is between the announcement of an architectural project (usually narrated by the architect via press release) and its final signing-off and entry into the canon (by a professional critic and photographer) that we experience this anticipatory wait, a wait for the reified image that constitutes one of the many possible futures the critic weaves. Often what we are waiting for is some form of “new” architecture, something that solves the puzzle of what architecture will be or is becoming.

Taken as such, the study of 13 Haslemere Road defers any utopic sense of closure or ending in that it simply presents what the building is rather than what the critic perceives it to be. We anticipate some form of critical fulfillment, but are presented with only what Martin refers to as “the anguish of unfolding time.”14 Crucially, we are forced to refocus on how we read the present, and how we construct the idea of the contemporary. This is not always a pleasant experience, as Martin states:

The secret of the present . . . is not just another clue to be deciphered. It is, rather, the constant reminder—if not the sneaking suspicion—that there is more to our world than can be detected within it.15

Here, the wait meets the search—our feeling of unease upon learning there is more to be seen leads to the exhaustive search seen in “Blackbird Pie,” the forensic methods bringing with them the promise of seeing more than we would usually be able. The journal would seem far more comfortable publishing images of a projected future than of an uncertain present.

This deferral of certainty becomes most apparent observing the “final” architectural plans and sections of Haslemere Road. These drawings, which commonly serve as another means of reifying a work, become themselves subjects of speculation when paired with Ratsby’s photographs. In the kitchen in particular the plans fail to show where the inhabitants have “deviated” from the original design.16 In depicting rooms in their preinhabited, unaltered state, the strive for a utopian state of absolute clarity, one by which they would usually enter the canon as though their current messiness were merely a temporal phase to be rectified.

This is not to say the wait is a negative exercise, and the value it can bring to criticism is not unrealized. In The Sight of Death, T.J. Clark comments on what he sees as a “fear” in art criticism of what may happen to the image were it “thrown back into the flow of time.”17 We trust judgements because there is a fear, were we to relook and reconsider, that nothing new will be seen—resulting in, I would argue, our exhaustion of spaces. Why does this fear exist? It is, perhaps, a fear of the very ending Martin has expanded upon. It is a fear that criticism would come to an end and the false promise of the future would be revealed to be so.

Written in the form of a diary, The Sight of Death is inherently anticipatory. Clark almost lives with the artworks he is studying, each day referring to them in a new present. Indeed, it was William Hayes who argued that if we wish to criticize architecture the best we could do is live with the building we wish to criticize—thus forever extending its present but also, perhaps, never completing our work of criticism.18

For Martin, it is by becoming aware of this “wait” that we can “return to the question of how it is possible to construct a sense of the contemporary in the first place,” which is, I argue, a question at the heart of architectural criticism.19 But how does Ratsby depict the present rather than a desired future?

Jameson can expand on many of these elements in a direct consideration of the architectural photograph appearing in “Spatial Equivalents in the World System.” Jameson’s object of study is Frank Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica, an example of a postmodern building that Jameson sees as displaying elements of revolutionary spatiality. Jameson describes the Santa Monica house’s corrugated metal frame as a brutal stamp of its modern production, but one that “had been interrupted and abandoned in mid-process,” reminiscent of the recently abandoned scenes shot by Ratsby.20 Importantly, this, along with the house’s form, blocks the clear choice of a photographic point of view—it “prevents the formation of an intellectual picture that might destroy the continual immediacy of perceptual shock,” just as Ratsby’s images prevent any formation of a consistent understanding of 13 Haslemere Road.21

For Jameson, the architectural photograph is an ineffective means of reification, often ignoring the very things that would help make it real such as lived traces and signs of occupancy. During an interview with between Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and Gehry on photographs of his house in Santa Monica, Diamonstein-Spielvogel states:

It seemed evident that [there] was a deliberate structuring of the photo to reflect an environment in which real people lived real lives.22

From this, Jameson concludes that there is an implied “displacement of architectural space such that the positioning of its contents—objects and human bodies alike—becomes problematic.23 For Jameson this “messiness,” a space in which things can no longer find their correct place—much like the photographer who cannot find his angle—is a condition of late capitalism’s fragmentations. I would argue that the emergence of a forensic aesthetic discussed earlier and displayed in evidence is another manifestation of this decentered uneasiness, a “bewilderment and loss of spatial orientation,” in which the viewer must situate themselves should they wish to achieve any understanding.24

Apposite to this are Jameson’s discussions of science fiction and the detective novel, specifically the works of Raymond Chandler. Jameson attributes such a restructuring of the present to science fiction, in which depictions of the future cause us to laterally reconsider the present in a state of distraction. Similarly, Jameson attributes this function to the detective story, the authors of which are often interested in the “here-and-now”—something their readers can tolerate little of. Chandler, Jameson posits, distracts us not from this reality, but from our own means of defence against this reality.25 The detective stories’ puzzles are in fact a means of keeping us focused while the intolerable present laterally enters our eye, the same intolerable present upon which Martin dwells:

To wait is to feel not only the disappointment of the deferred future but also the unsettling potential of the present, whose transformation—whether catastrophic or redemptive—is forever believed to lie right around the next corner.”26

Unfiltered experience of the present, for Jameson the “daily life of capitalism” finds something of an equivalent in the presentation of mess and trace in “Inverted World.”27 The anticipation and puzzles evoked by Ratsby’s textual references imply that the only way this present can be seen is not for what it is but as the key to some utopic epistemological clarification.

For Martin, the detective novel is a constant friction between form and content. The beginning is more often than not omitted, and the solutions often “gifts from fools.”28 The solution, we have come to expect, is disappointing—it is the in-between at which the detective is at his most impressive and enigmatic. Ratsby, like some postmodern crime novelists, in fact offers us no solution—nor any allusion to what occurred in the “omitted” beginning. Instead, the wait allows us to reflect on how—and on what authority—we construct our idea of the contemporary.

1 Robin Wilson, Image, Text, Architecture(Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).
2 Ibid.
3 N. Ratsby, “Evidence: Inverted World,” The Architectural Review 1318 (December 2006): 30–33; N. Ratsby, “Evidence: Blackbird Pie,” The Architectural Review 1311 (May 2006): 48–53.
4 Christopher Priest, Inverted World, SF Masterworks ed. (London: Orion, 2010).
5 Elana Gomel, “Mystery, Apocalypse and Utopia: The Case of the Ontological Detective Story,” Science Fiction Studies 22, no. 3 (1995): 343–356.
6 Ibid.
7 Raymond Carver, “Blackbird Pie,” New Yorker, July 7, 1987, 26.
8 Ratsby, “Evidence: Inverted World,” 30–33.
9 Fredric Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies 9, no. 2 (1982): 147–158.
10 John Macarthur and Naomi Stead, “The Judge is not an Operator: Historiography, Criticality and Architectural Criticism,” OASE 69 (2006): 116–139.
11 Theodore Martin, “The Long Wait: Timely Secrets of the Contemporary Detective Novel,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 45, no. 2 (2012): 165–183.
12 Ibid.
13 Robin Wilson, “Evidence of Doing Nothing: The Utopic Document of Lacaton & Vassal,” Architectural Theory Review 18, no. 1 (2013): 30–45.
14 Martin, “The Long Wait,” 165–183.
15 Ibid.
16 Ratsby, “Evidence: Inverted World,” 30–33.
17 T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008).
18 William Hayes, “Architectural Criticism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60, no. 4 (2002): 329.
19 Martin, “The Long Wait,” 165–183.
20 Fredric Jameson, “Spatial Equivalents in the World System,” in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).
21 Ibid.
22 Jameson, “Spatial Equivalents in the World System.”
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia,” 147–158.
26 Martin, “The Long Wait,” 165–183.
27 Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia,” 147–158.
28 Martin, “The Long Wait,” 165–183.