The Death and Life of Great Architectural Criticism

Author: Evan Sack

In Evan Sack’s “The Death and Life of Great Architectural Criticism” Jane Jacobs’ work is analyzed in a new light. While Sack agrees with Jacobs’ main ideas, her writing style and organization are looked at in a closer light. Sack’s critical analysis of Jacob’s writing style gives the reader a new outlook on a famous piece of architectural criticism. – Editor: Kristin Higgins

Personally, I find that the writing style of an author carries very little weight over my perception of their viewpoint. That is to say, flashy language or blatant, dry writing can be equally as effective and appropriate for conveying certain sentiments. However, in the case of Jane Jacobs, who has become somewhat of a household name for architectural critics, her long and anecdotal writing style casts her valuable observations in a childish light.

Jacobs is surely one of the pioneers of modern urban design, and her core message calling for the need of more organic cities is not ignored within the community. Yet somehow her writing manages to dumb down the power of her observations with the over-sharing of excessive detail and tangential stories. The meat of her writing is powerful, as seen in the opening of Chapter 2 in “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” where Jacobs lays the foundation for an argument that sidewalks increase city safety. This is a bold, powerful, and nuanced claim which she begins to delve into before seemingly interrupted by nearly two pages of in depth descriptions of daily activities and altercations that Jacobs has witnessed on the sidewalk that runs in front of her home. The passage was obviously intended to present evidence to support the initial claim, which it does quite eloquently with the summary of these interactions as an “intricate ballet”. However, the excessive details harm the impact of this notion of sidewalks increasing city safety by losing the topic of discussion. By the time the reader surfaces from Jacobs’ intense whirlwind of random snippets and descriptions, they will have to retrace back to the beginning of the chapter simply to remember what exactly was being presented.

Again, Jacobs cannot be sold as anything less than a visionary in the realm of urban design. The shame is that her powerful architectural theories feel lost in the personal ramblings that make her accessible to those outside of the profession. It is truly a double edge sword in the sense that focusing the purpose and message of the personal additions would strengthen the legibility of the argument but likely lose some of the public audience. In the end, Jacobs writing feels torn between these two resulting in long sections of philosophical discussion sandwiched by pages of excessively detailed description.


Lange, Alexandra. Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2012. Print. pp. 120-45.




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