Scabby the Rat is my favorite architecture critic. No, really, I’m serious. No one embodies the spirit of criticism in all its playfulness, its combativeness, its under-sung and decidedly on-the-ground quality. One often forgets that protest is also criticism, perhaps the purest form of criticism there is. When I’m holed up in my office typing up my salvos, Scabby the Rat is there on the street, doing the work of drawing attention to architecture’s basest and most insidious injustices, those that intersect with labor, with exploitation, with the fact that architecture doesn’t just happen on Instagram and in design schools but in the real world.
Scabby’s a pure Chicagoan (whereas I am an adoptive one), having been “invented” by Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers over three decades ago. His ebullient, revolting visage has graced sidewalks ever since, and will continue to do so, having recently survived yet another legal challenge culminating in a July decision by the National Labor Relations Board that determined that free speech equally applies to the deliciously vulgar inflatable and its protesting stewards. Scabby came to us during a time when organized labor had taken quite a beating under the bat of neoliberalism, wherein speaking out often seemed like the only recourse of action as labor law was gutted and right-to-work spread like wildfire. Now, in an era of resurgent militant labor action, as seen in the mobilizing efforts of the nation’s nurses, teachers, and yes, cookie bakers, it feels as though Scabby has finally managed to find an even more elevated place in the sun.
Scabby is effective because he is disgusting, covered in scabs, his menacing red eyes and fangs certainly not the stuff of conventional mascots. (He’s definitely grittier than Gritty.) He makes his purpose known and it is to shame those who exploit the labor of the unorganized, cut corners, and, in the construction industry, put lives at risk by doing so. Vulgarity, ugliness, irreverence—these elements, when they work, really work. They are underutilized weapons in the architectural discourse, which has been overwhelmingly taken over by glitzy images and savvy PR, and a cycle of essay production that keeps critics writing about the same firms with the same faces and their “big ideas” that ultimately don’t amount to more than a press release. A firm can say all they want in a press release that their new LEED-certified supertall in Manhattan cares about the earth, opens up the urban fabric to new possibilities, charts the way forward, but Scabby the Rat knows the truth, and all the sidewalk dwellers who pass him by do too. And trust me, that’s an enviable readership for any critic.
In a day when there are virtually no more architecture critics in local newspapers, when criticism is relegated to more and more niche glossy arts publications read only by those who write or wish to write for them, Scabby is there to remind us why the critical project in architecture is necessary, important, worth upholding. Scabby is there with the people of the world who may not know Danny Libeskind from Eric Owen Moss but understand architecture in the fundamentally real and visceral and valid way as that which changes the cities in which they live, as the fabric of the everyday.
Architecture needs more Scabby the Rats. It needs anger and shame as a weapon, to cut through the noise of never-ending bullshit. Architecture needs its debates to happen on the ground, at street level, as well as in workplaces and schools, wherein the struggles of graduate students, adjuncts, draftsmen, and CAD monkeys intersect inherently with that of those who live in cities, and those who construct the structures about which we dream, design, and write essays. There’s nothing any PR rep, college dean, boss, or starchitect can do to hide the truth Scabby reveals. For that we should thank him. For that, we should envy, and emulate, him too.
Kate Wagner is The Nation’s architectural correspondent.