How ‘The New York Times’ controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be

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Michael Kimmelman on Charlie Rose. ()
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Michael Kimmelman replaced Nicolai Ouroussoff as the architecture critic at The New York Times this past summer.

The topics of the last three pieces Ouroussoff wrote were Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building in Beijing; Steven Holl’s Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China; and Zaha Hadid’s Opera House in Guangzhou, China.

Among the topics of the first pieces Kimmelman wrote were Via Verde, a progressive subsidized housing complex in the South Bronx; the city’s attention to updating public architecture; and what is essentially an opinion piece on the future of Penn Station.

This was not an accident. Ouroussoff had long been criticized for what other New York architecture insiders these days call “object architecture”; for failing to look outside a small group of what came to be called “starchitects”; and for expending too much energy on projects in other countries (like China) and not enough time in the town where his newspaper was anchored.

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The people at the Times might not have cared; after all, it’s not as though either of the writer’s topics were off the map, or uninteresting. But to the insular community of New York architects, it appears a profound transformation is happening in their discipline that hasn’t been reflected in a lot of the standard criticism, whether its more social and public-oriented, like Kimmelman’s, or aesthetic and industrial, like Ouroussoff’s.

That was an important topic at an impressive forum held at the Center for Architecture earlier this week on the role of architectural criticism and how critics—and their publications—are adjusting to architects’ own greatly changed approach to their work.

Many of Kimmelman’s colleagues were there: Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker, Cathleen McGuigan of Architectural Record, Justin Davidson of New York magazine, and James Russell of Bloomberg; moderating was Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper.

Kimmelman himself was notably missing, which was probably for the best, given that the evening seemed at times an extensive criticism of the Times, and a lengthy, though mostly positive, review of his own performance these last six or so months.

All of these critics said that the idea that the entire architectural press had become caught up with the star architects, and object architecture, was not accurate; but that to the extent it was true, it was a monster the Times created over the last decade or more. The Times, the panelists seemed to agree, had the most influence over how the public perceived what was happening in architecture.

“I think most of us as critics, and I definitely include myself, but I think also everybody up here, were never exactly so completely in the thrall of the ‘object-building’ and the starchitect anyway,” Goldberger said. “I mean I—while we wrote about many of them because they were important moments in the culture, there is certainly a higher degree of broader urbanistic consciousness [now] and I think I, for example, would be much more interested today in writing about some of the stuff that Janette Sadik Khan is doing in the city as much as anything else, which we might not have done a few years ago.”

Part of that might be the audience, the readers, who, in addition to just star architect fatigue, have tired of the excesses of the last dozen or so years and are less interested in architecture if it isn’t doing something to improve lives or radically transform the landscape or infrastructure of the city; if it doesn’t have a social mission.

“I think the readership is a little bit less interested in the celebrity architect,” Russell said. “So what engages them?”

If the bold, expensive, iconic projects aren’t of interest to the public, he asked, “Where do we go next and what kind of other architecture matters?”

Ultimately, the seminar was exactly about what was several times referred to as the “sea change,” which most agreed was real, and how to write about it: how to write about change without dismissing the out-of-fashion as irrelevant, because it isn’t.

The sea change, in part, McGuigan said, is getting away from the “object building” and considering context; what it’s like, Davidson said, to live three blocks away from the building in the review.

The Times' choice of Kimmelman after Ouroussoff (whose name was never mentioned, despite obvious references to his tenure at the newspaper) was so extreme that it elicited from Goldberger the idea of a pendulum, which in popular opinion about architecture has swung away from star architects, towards something closer to home. And how The New York Times, in designating its critic, has a unique power to push the pendulum either way.

“I think it’s easy to make the mistake of reading The New York Times, or seeing what The New York Times is projecting to to the general public, and see that as a reflection of either of everything that’s going on, or what people think is going on,” Davidson said.

What the Times is projecting was never quite what the actual profession of architectural criticism was doing; but it could influence how the profession was received and how much currency it had, and therefore could move it, effectively, by moving so many of the attitudes about it.

And in the meantime, there’s the risk that the pendulum will swing too far, that Frank Gehry will be dismissed as nothing but an ego and a large number of funny looking buildings without any social purpose—in short that what is aesthetically and artistically important about architecture becomes a joke or a bit of esotericism, like poetry has to so many.

The New York Times—that’s just the way it is,” Davidson said. “But I think to the extent that these pendulums swing, it is almost always an over-correction for the excesses of the previous decade, and it doesn’t mean that we should go with it. I almost find myself now, when all of a sudden we’re talking about one-room schoolhouses in Africa—” he paused, here. “We should have been talking about them, but you know I almost find myself saying, ‘yes, but let’s not pretend that the people who were getting a disproportional amount of attention 10 years ago were not doing something important, because they were, and they are, and they’re not all gone. Object architecture and celebrities—some of the celebrities who are celebrities are really extraordinary, talented people.

“I don’t think we should be saying ‘Zaha Hadid is so over, you know she can’t possibly be doing anything worthwhile.’”

“In this whole issue of the pendulum,” Russell said, “I’m glad Justin brought up the elephant in the room, which is a certain daily newspaper.”

The audience laughed.

“We went from critics who did indeed seem to have, let’s say, a disproportionate interest in the object building, to a new critic who seems to have no interest whatsoever in an object building, to the point of not even wishing to acknowledge them.”

Whether or not that’s true—Kimmelman has held the position only a few months, as Davidson pointed out—The New York Times’ choice of critic as well as actually being the New York Times critic means making a statement about contemporary architecture, and Kimmelman has earned respect from these other critics for his attention to context and his reporting.

“My understanding is that the current Times critic is interested in ... so-called re-politicizing the job,” Iovine, the moderator, said. “And I’m wondering, I’m not sure, if it ever was a political job?”

Goldberger raised the legacy of Ada Louise Huxtable, the Times’ first architecture critic, who wrote about planning and zoning and similarly dry topics as if—and he thought they were—inseparable from the objects architects were building. And she did, actually, make an impact as a critic, most specifically in preservation; she won the first Pulitzer awarded for criticism, in a field of criticism largely new to newspapers in 1969.

Goldberger was her replacement at the Times, when Huxtable moved to The Wall Street Journal.

“I tried, when I followed her, to keep the sense of engagement with the city going as much as possible, and to write a fair amount about issues again of planning and zoning and so forth,” Goldberger said. “That faded from the Times for a while, and it’s a good sign that the current critic is eager to bring that back.”

And here, another unspoken name was summoned up for the crowd: The controversial late Herbert Muschamp, Goldberger’s successor, who was alternately hailed as America’s great newspaper critic and derided as a practitioner of “iconoclasm and obscurantism … dilettantism and ... unabashed socializing within the highest social circles of the creative world he judges in print.”