Calling a building a masterpiece says a lot about who makes the call. In the old days, a carpenter, a silversmith, or shoemaker would set out to work on their masterpiece, as a requirement to gain full membership of a guild. Nowadays it works differently.  

Masterpieces are made by the person who proclaims it is a one. They must be like the American Supreme Court Justice who said of obscenity: ’I know it when I see it’. Ted Lasso quoted it in the eponymous show, when asked to explain soccer’s offside rule.

Just as the off-side rule can only be applied in a binary way, calling a building a masterpiece leaves no room for nuance. It is either a masterpiece or not. There are no good or bad masterpieces, neither better or worse, nor best or worst.  Only masterpieces tout court, period.

The declaration of a masterpiece glosses over the complexities of construction. Is it possible that the design is a masterpiece but the contractor messes up, or that a mediocre project becomes a masterpiece in the hands of a builder? Whose masterpiece is it anyway? Is it the architect who deserves the credit, or the client, the budget, the contractor, the mason, the brick manufacturer? Or all of the above? 

Pronouncing a building a masterpiece comes across as a bit self-absorbed, to put it mildly. Recently, at the launch of a book I had been involved in, someone quoted my words in his speech, saying – twice – that he could not have put it any better himself. I do not consider that particular quote of mine a stroke of genius but it struck me as a strangely backhanded praise. Because what I heard was the speaker’s implication that he usually was actually better than anyone else. Or, if not, that at least better to discern what’s good and what’s not.

There is something of that in claiming that a building is a masterpiece. It feels like mansplaining  – the masterpiece caller is usually a man – founded on the belief that he should explain to others that they have done an excellent job, because he knows an excellent job when he sees it. But in what kind of perfect universe do you have to live to believe you are able to judge that something is a masterpiece (or not). Based on what? If you only know two buildings, does that make the better one the masterpiece?

I do not want to deny anyone’s freedom to praise their favourite projects in absolute terms, but I am rather reluctant to do so. There is a lot of architecture I like, and designs and buildings that make deep impressions on me. But any claim that something is a masterpiece is for me a categorical conversation ender.

Hans Ibelings (Rotterdam, 1963) is an architectural historian and critic. He teaches at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design of the University of Toronto and is editor and publisher of the Architecture Observer. Before moving to Canada in 2012, he was editor and publisher of A10 new European architecture, an Amsterdam-based magazine he founded together with graphic designer, Arjan Groot. Ibelings has written a number of books, including Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization, and European Architecture since 1890.