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

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.”

“I think the choice of the word politicization is an unfortunate one,” Goldberger said. “I’m not sure I’d want to use that word, but certainly in terms of engaging in the dialogue about what kind of city we want and what the city is going to be—the thing that Justin was describing about doing in New York magazine, it’s very important that the leading newspaper be a part of that dialogue and choose proactively to play a role in it.”

Part of engagement is reporting. Treating a piece of architecture as a piece of art, best viewed in isolation from environment, history, or the mode and circumstances of its production would seem to exclude reporting.

But in the new way of thinking, architecture is not architecture unless there are people interacting with it, and therefore the experience of interacting with it matters, and the context, and the process. Viewed in that light, it almost seems as though reporting is demanded of an architecture critic today.

“One thing I think is important,” McGuigan said, “is that, as critics, we don’t just give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down or three stars or five stars. A lot of it is about reporting. And one of the things that is startling about Michael Kimmelman’s pieces is that he talks to people. He talks to the users of the building. He quotes people!”

“Now he’s also,” she said, “in addition, to some people—like his piece on Penn Station—he’s going way, way over and saying this is what we should do, this is where you should put it—that was an interesting piece because it was so prescriptive. But basically what he’s really doing is reporting. And I think that’s an important part of what we all do, whether it’s as explicit as that.”

“I’m a little uncomfortable talking about him with him not being here,” Davidson finally said, which seemed reasonable as the topic of the lecture was not supposed to be Michael Kimmelman, but, “as a reader what I see is somebody who believes in architecture, and [that it] has a role to play in the place it is, whether it’s in New York City or elsewhere, and that architecture can affect the conversation about the city, that people can affect the conversation about the architecture and that a critic, as embodied in that piece of writing, can kind of rouse people to be interested in what’s going on in all the various issues. And whether you agree with his conclusions, as a reader I like to see that level of energy and engagement.”

“I agree with that,” Goldberger said. “And I think advocacy is fine, but information is the key part. That being said, when I look at some of the stuff Ada Louise did many years ago, what was extraordinary about it was not just the positions she took but just the fact that she was getting something out there that would not have otherwise gotten either any attention or significant attention.

Goldberger praised Huxtable for making major new urban development plans, new zoning initiatives and the like, relatable to people, who then could engage in dialogue about it; for a long time, he said, critics were not contributing to that discourse, to the public discourse about the built environment.

“And the problem was that planning was almost not being covered at all,” he continued. “Many of the initiative of the Lindsay years were covered in far more detail and with far more reportorial attention than most of what’s been done in the Bloomberg years, actually. And that’s unfortunate. So it’s good that there’s again beginning to be interest in getting that in. “

One thing that looked like it might change that was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

From 9/11 emerged an unprecedented, at least in recent memory, interest in architecture and public works from their readers.

But 9/11 had a twin effect: The beauty contest among young architects that was held to determine who would design the site was the sexy story, and made lots of otherwise obscure “paper architects” known to critics’ circles into household names; that, and an interest in what makes planning work, how to balance public and private interests, were both legacies of 9/11. And so object architecture and “starchitecture” gained interest along with planning issues, context, and public concerns.

“I actually think people are more sophisticated about the urban realm than we might give them credit for, including the broad public and the thing that really changed it for my editors,” McGuigan said, “is the response in New York to after 9/11 and the outpouring of interest.”

Goldberger agreed.

“It took 9/11 to bring that to the fore, and as with many other things we’ve seen that fade a certain amount,” he said. “In the aftermath of 9/11 and for two years after, that was my only time at The New Yorker that I could have as much space as I wanted, and write as much as I wanted. Before, and since, it’s been a matter of ... fighting for adequate space.”

“It’s competitive,” Davidson said, referring to getting space for his pieces in New York. “But it’s competitive for ideas. In other words, there’s no quota for architecture. I don’t have to fill a certain amount of real estate; I don’t have a certain number of columns that I’m going to do. In fact, there’s no really clear divide between what is and what isn’t architecture in the magazine. Which I think is a good thing. I mean I find that liberating to some extent. And so if I can say, you know, the fact of the city has awarded and contract for new benches, it’s something that I can write about from a design point of view, an urbanist point of view, or whatever. I have to sell that, but it’s not that hard to sell a good idea.”

Russell recently wrote a book on climate change, which naturally influences his interests, not always to delight of his editors.

“When I pitch these stories, my editor often gets nervous. It’s like the dance critic trying to say: ‘I’m going to run for president,’ is a little bit how they feel,” he said. “I think the readership is more with me on this than some editors.”

Of editors, Iovine asked what comes first: “Does the new trump what matters?

“What’s new is an objective fact,” Goldberg said. “What matters is always subjective, so we can’t really compare them precisely.

“I know The New Yorker under David Remnick is particularly interested in the new,” Goldberger said. “And over the years I’ve been under pressure from time to time to write about some things before The New York Times had it. David’s level of interest rose in proportion to—in inverse proportion to the presence of something in The New York Times. If The New York Times had not covered it yet, and did not appear to be likely to cover it soon, he became more interested and more engaged.

“I like to be first; it feels good, but at the end of the day I think it’s more important to have confidence in your ability to say things better, or differently, or in your own way, than to be first—I don’t think readers keep score about that the way editors can keep score about that. Editors keep score about that, but I don’t think readers do.”

“It’s a terrible problem,” McGuigan said, referring to her tenure at Newsweek, “because I was under so much pressure to not be beaten by Time, or The New York Times, that I really felt I had sometimes covered things that really weren’t cooked yet.”

The role of the architectural critic in recent years has been like that of an art critic; in fact architectural criticism is generally printed in the art sections of newspapers. That idea is part of what the “sea change” is.

Architectural firms rising in the profession tend to have a mission beyond building, whether it be social or environmental. It’s reflected in the names of their firms: MOS, WORKac, SHoP, just to name three, that suggest the mission is more important than the egos. For a long time, architectural firms were a name or a group of last names.

Architecture critics have to contend with that idea, that their pieces might have to be written for readers in a Metro section instead of the arts section.

These four (as well as Iovine, the moderator) seem to have been waiting for the moment.

“Almost any proposal has a moral component,” Davidson said, sounding like an idealistic young architect. “There are concentric circles of responsibility in a tight-knit urban environment,” and “by and large you’re having an effect beyond your jurisdiction, and that makes it a moral question. So who’s paying for it? Where the money’s coming from? How it’s being spent? Whether it’s sustainable? What sustainability means? Whether it’s connected to public transit or not? All these things become, hopefully, more than just technical questions, they become moral questions. And we know there’s nothing to be gained by being sanctimonious about this in a piece of architectural criticism, but somehow if you keep that in mind, it can inform your writing.”

“I agree very much,” Goldberger, who is currently probably the most established and respected architecture critic in the city. “I think if you don’t engage all of these social issues, let’s call them, to some extent, then you’re just kind of just comparing shapes. And architecture criticism has got to be about more than that.”

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