The Architect Critic Is Dead (just not for the reason you think)

Arlington National Cemetery. Courtesy of Flickr user CC Stuck in Customs

As you may have heard,The New Yorker’s Architect Critic, Paul Goldberger, is leaving for Vanity Fair.

If this registers no reaction from you, let me explain why it should. Paul Goldberger is the crowned prince of criticism. He began his career at in 1972, where he worked under Ada Louise Huxtable, our reigning critical queen, and where he won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1997, he switched media empires:

“I thought it was as perfect a life as you could have,” Goldberger told The Observer, “to spend half your career at , half at The New Yorker.”

But, after years of “fighting for adequate space” in an increasingly shrinking column, Goldberger won’t be finishing his writing days as Architect Critic of The New Yorker, but as Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair.

Many will conclude that this is a death knell for architecture; that if architecture cannot justify its own column at The New Yorker, one of the most influential publications in the world, then it must no longer be deemed relevant. This is what happened when Michael Kimmelman, an Arts reporter with no architectural training was appointed to cover architecture at The Times. Critics tweeted: “NYT to Architecture of NYC: Drop Dead” and “Architecture: you’ve been demoted.”

I too will add a cry to the din: “The Architecture Critic is Dead!” But you know what? Good riddance. Because criticism hasn’t died the way you think. It’s just been changed beyond recognition. And frankly, for the better.

Read more on the transformation of architecture & its criticism after the break…

SHoP took over plans from Frank Gehry for Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards, due in part to backlash to Gehry's design and The Times Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's out-of-touch critique, which initially lauded the plans. ©SHoP Architects

Riding the Sea Change

Fifty years ago, Architecture firms had names like – “Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill” or “McKim, Mead & White” – which emphasized the partners themselves. They designed skyscrapers and other great structures, and courted wealthy clients to do so.

Nowadays, cutting-edge firms have names like MOS, WORK Ac, SHoP, suggesting “the mission is more important than the egos.” Yes, these firms do their share of high-rises, but they also tackle housing projects, public spaces, farms and schoolyards.

The difference reflects a “sea change” in the conception of architecture that is hard to ignore. We have always known that Architecture is not like all those other Arts. As Alison Arieff says in her 2012 Editorial piece, quoting Alexandra Lange: ”Architecture [...] ‘is the art you cannot avoid’ and it carries a burden that the other arts don’t — it must reconcile aesthetics and ideas with user functionality.”

A building after all, beyond an aesthetic marvel, is a shelter, a home, a school, that directly affects the lives of the people who inhabit it. But we seem to have taken that concept one step further. Today, architecture is not just an Art that considers the user, it’s an Art that betters the life of the user. It serves a higher moral purpose:

“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.”

So what does this mean for the critic? It means that he or she must transform too. It means moving beyond the description of the building as “object” and delving into its context; it means talking to the people who live down the block; discovering how the average man perceives it; determining the extent to which it serves humanity.

It means the critic must be a reporter. And an activist one at that.

Enter: Michael Kimmelman.

Grand Central Station, according to Michael Kimmelman "an ennobling experience, a gift." Courtesy of Flickr user CC gmacfadyen

The Times, They Are A-Changing

When Michael Kimmelman took over in September 2011 as Architect Critic at The Times, the response was … pessimistic.

While his predecessor, Nicolai Ouroussoff, had experienced much backlash for his apolitical, apersonal approach and “slippery” writing style (“object architecture” at its best, according to Lange), there wasn’t much hope that Kimmelman would be a better alternative. In Lange’s words:

“[Kimmelman’s] profiles of architects have been very good, but they aren’t criticism. But his hiring is insulting for the sense one has that The Times doesn’t think it is worth spending a whole salary on an architecture critic.”

However, Kimmelman has created a socially-oriented oeuvre that not only recognizes Architecture’s lofty goals, but harks back to old-school Huxtable: it defends the rights of the city-goer.  Just look at his seminal piece on Penn Station, “Restore A Gateway to Dignity,” in which he begins from the perspective of the New Yorker:

“To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”

Kimmelman sets us up beautifully. From the beginning we viscerally understand the problem : the human beings in Penn Station aren’t passers-by reveling in their environment, but humiliated commuters crawling through a dank, urban underbelly.

Michael Kimmelman's Plan for Penn Station © The New York Times

More than making the experience understandable, more than explaining how the architecture has completely failed its purpose and degraded the human spirit, Kimmelman does something much more important here – he offers a practical solution.

He suggests moving Madison Square Garden to where the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center currently sits, giving the Garden a coveted riverfront location and New York’s commuters the space for the lighter, ennobling Penn Station they need.

In his piece on the NYU: 2031 Expansion plans, he suggests letting NYU build their large multi-purpose tower, the Zipper, but also suggests where you could create a park to provide the green, public spaces that the inhabitants of Grenwich Village lack.

This is what makes a great Kimmelman article great – not just his ability to connect to us, but to suggest the compromises that will instigate debate and conversation, to offer solutions that inspire us to improve our cities for all.

The Critic as Activist.

Front Page. Courtesy of Flickr user CC Stuck in Customs.

From the Arts, to the Front Page

While the archetype Architect Critic, as we knew him, was stodgy, “starchitect”-obsessed, and content to let his prose be as impenetrable as possible, he was at least a filter. He determined what was worthy of discussion, what we should be talking about.

And while the boom of design blogs and architectural web sites (this one included) lets us know that Architecture has not ceased to be relevant – on the contrary, it has become far more central to our daily lives – the lack of a critical voice means that we have compromised discernment for speed, quality for quantity.

In Goldberger’s experience: “The New Yorker under David Remnick is particularly interested in the new, and over the years I’ve been under pressure [...] to write about some things before The New York Times had it.”

Since Architecture is alive, well, and thriving, I believe this is the key to Goldberger’s declining influence (almost perfectly timed with Kimmelman’s rise) and eventual deposition. As sensitive as he was to the sea changes in architecture (he sees the critic as social advocate), for many, he still represents the old. His reputation has been set as the Architecture Critic par excellence – which in today’s world is a bad bad thing.

I would hazard a guess that Remnick will follow in The Time’s footsteps and hire a Kimmelman-eque Reporter, ears alert to the newest ideas/issues, ready to relate them to architectural solutions. And, while he may not have a column to call his own, it will be to his advantage. Because he won’t be restricted to the Arts section. He will be anywhere at all – perhaps News, Culture, even the Front Page- because his topic is expansive and never-ending: how design can better our world.

The “critic” may be dead, but the conversation is only just beginning.

 

References

Arieff, Allison. “Why Don’t We Read About Architecture?” The New York Times Opinion Pages. March 2, 2012. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/why-dont-we-read-about-architecture/>

Brake, Alan G. “BREAKING: GOLDBERGER DEPARTING NEW YORKER, BOUND FOR VANITY FAIR” The Architects’ Newspaper Blog. <http://blog.archpaper.com/wordpress/archives/35931>

Chaban, Matt. “T-Squared Off: With Paul Goldberger Leaving for Vanity Fair, Is This the End of Architecture Criticism at The New Yorker?” The New York Observer. April 2, 2012. <http://www.observer.com/2012/04/t-squared-off-with-paul-goldberger-leaving-for-vanity-fair-is-this-the-end-of-architecture-criticism-at-the-new-yorker/?show=all>

Goldberger, Paul. “Writing About Architectue.” Lecture to Yale School of Architecture. October 8, 2007. <http://www.paulgoldberger.com/lectures/39>

Jose, Katherine. “How ‘The New York Times’ controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be.” Capital New York. March 1, 2012. <http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2012/03/5376996/how-new-york-times-controls-architecture-criticism-america-whoever-i?page=all>

Kimmelman, Michael. “Restore A Gateway to Dignity.” The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/arts/design/a-proposal-for-penn-station-and-madison-square-garden.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all>

Lange, Alexandra. “How to be an Architecture Critic.” The Design Observer Group. March 1, 2012. <http://places.designobserver.com/feature/how-to-be-an-architecture-critic/32278/>.

Lange, Alexandra. “Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough.” The Design Observer Group. February 18, 2010. <http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=12708>.

Liu, Jonathan. “Times Art Critic Michael Kimmelman to Take Over as Paper’s Architecture Critic.” The New York Observer. August 9, 2011. <http://www.observer.com/2011/08/times-art-critic-michael-kimmelman-to-take-over-as-papers-architecture-critic/2/>.

Rao, Mallika. Paul Goldberger Moves To Vanity Fair, Eulogies For Architecture Criticism Not Far Behind”The Huffington Post. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/02/paul-goldberger-vanity-fair_n_1397665.html?ref=new-york&ir=New%20York>

Rybczynski, Witold. “The Death of Criticism.” Witold Rybczynski.com.  <http://www.witoldrybczynski.com/architecture/the-demise-of-criticism/>

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "The Architect Critic Is Dead (just not for the reason you think)" 06 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=223714>
  • Sanford Bond AIA

    Well said and something I have long believed. Many of us old practitioners who attended architecture schools, MIT, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Berkley, etc., in the social upheaval of the 60′s and early 70′s have always believed in the primacy of the individual and the life that inhabits the places we design. Rather than the stylistic straitjacket imposed by the “starchitects” and promoted by the critics you so justifiably chastise, we endeavored to design spaces that enabled people’s activities without restricting them to act only as the designer pre-ordained.

    • DChaseMartin

      I agree with Mr. Bond; Vanessa Quirk’s piece is an important and concisely expressed analysis of where we are, how we got here, and where we (with hope) might be going. Would that her sentiments represent the beginnings of another “social upheaval” of the sort to which Bond refers.
      Many thanks to Vanessa Quirk.

      • http://www.archdaily.com Vanessa Quirk

        Thank you both for your thoughtful and positive feedback – I do believe we are seeing a veritable sea change towards a more socially-oriented architecture. Perhaps only time will tell if architecture can further inspire activism, but I believe the criticism of Michael Kimmelman and the writings of Alexandra Lange are reflective that this change is not only inevitable, but has already begun.

  • Michael

    Blair Kamin over at the Chicago Tribune is a pretty decent critic–considers enough of the social issues and context as well as the object at hand.

  • Richard Peck

    Let’s just hope that the aesthetics don’t get lost in the social consciousness

    • Judith Davidsen

      Aesthetics is part of social consciousness. As noted above, architecture “is the art you cannot avoid.” It can insult the user/passerby (think Detroit’s Renaissance Center). It can mislead (think bank design over the ages). Those are just the two examples that come to mind at the moment.

  • http://improved.ro/blog dimitrie

    I agree with the fact that the architectural critic that criticizes building-objects is dead. In this sense, I strongly believe buildings as objects underlines a dated way of thinking.

    This piece reminds me of Bruno Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern”, where he discusses the impossibility of tackling an object (like a building, par example) from just one point of view (architectural, to continue our example). To articulate a truthful description, you need to describe it from the points of view of all disciplines it touches (politic, social, economical, aesthetic, functional, etc). In short, opening up architecture towards its influences is a step forward.

    Nevertheless, I do believe that much of the in-house “conversations” that take place in architecture are subject to a liberal politeness which do little to advance the practice sometimes – often elevating rhetoric to the status of philosophical truths. In this sense, I strongly feel that the critic should not be dead – or at least, the conversation should be wary of degrading to an exchange of pleasantries or to a dispute between uninformed parties…

    Anyway, nice read – thanks. It’s good to have some clear and sharp food for thought.

    grotjes aus rotterdam, d.

  • Chris Macdonald

    Architectural criticism begins to wither when it is no longer undertaken by architects. Social commentary on the consequences of architecture is of course always telling and important – what the past generation of ‘critics’ exposes is the inherent problem of sitting between these two clear and meaningful points of view.