Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman on His Socially Conscious Work as a Writer-Activist

On the latest episode of Time Sensitive podcast, produced by the New York-based “conscious entertainment” media company The Slowdown, co-host Spencer Bailey speaks with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. The two discuss Kimmelman’s lesser-known talents as a pianist; his 30-plus years writing at The New York Times(he started working at the paper as its chief art critic in 1990, a post he held until 2007, when he relocated to Berlin as the “Abroad” columnist for four years); and his goal as architecture critic to build a greater discourse around designing cities that are better, healthier, and simply fairer for all.

Highlights from the episode include: 

On the importance of history: “My original interest in history was because I didn’t really feel I could understand the world now, social and political affairs, without understanding that context, without having not just historical knowledge, but some tools to interpret history and to understand how to extract from history the bits of information that would be useful to understanding today.”

On piano playing: “I think another reason I returned to playing the piano and to performing was because I thought—and I don’t mean this in some weird, altruistic way—if I’m going to write as a critic, it's a very useful thing to put myself out there in a situation where I am subject to other people’s judgements.”

On creative acts: “Anybody involved in creative endeavor, if they’re good at it and if they’re really doing it seriously, is putting their heart and soul on the line. And, as a writer, one needs to bear that in mind. Especially if you’re wielding a giant stick, like I am by virtue of the publication I work for.

On the value of openness: “We need to see the world with open eyes. And that means we need to think openly about received ideas. We need to see each other openly. And we need to just see what’s around us. There is, in fact, an enormous amount of beauty and invention and novelty, and just fascination, in things that are constantly around us.”

On art: “I think one of the things art does—and one of the most profound aspects of modern art, which is to say the art of the last fifty, seventy years or more—is to open our eyes to the way in which seemingly everyday, normal things have about them a beauty, a grace, a meaning that we might ignore if we were not really attentive.”

On being a critic: “The essential role of a critic, in a way, is to develop a voice so that people want to read you and so that they know where you are coming from. It’s an art to write as a critic well. That’s the art that I’ve devoted myself to.”

On Berlin: “[Berlin] has this reputation as a place twentysomethings would love to go and party and pretend to be artists, but the truth is, it’s an incredibly humane, comfortable, decent place to live.”

On designing for the future: “Architects can anticipate a certain amount of change, and try to see the way architects, planners, urban designers, and so forth see the way cities, communities, are evolving, but in the end you’re building something that you hope continues to have some value, even if the circumstances have changed.”

On activism and writing: “I see it as much more as an activist’s role, and I’ve treated it that way, for better or worse. And what that means is that I myself have goals, which is: How can we build more equitable, more beautiful, better cities and societies?”


I. Classical Studies (2:18-12:30)

Bailey recounts the first piece Kimmelman ever wrote for The New York Times, in 1987, and the two go on to contrast Kimmelman’s talents as a classically trained pianist with his work as a writer, journalist, and critic.

II. It Takes a Village (12:31-21:50)

Kimmelman reflects on growing up to radical leftist parents in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. He talks about how his doctor father and sculptor mother were both civil-rights activists, and helped shape his worldview—within reason.

III. Art History (21:51-41:01)

Kimmelman opens up about what it was like to become chief art critic of The New York Times in 1990, at age 31, replacing the then-71-year-old John Russell. He also recalls his work in that post over the following 17 years.

IV. Berlin Calling (41:02-48:46)

In 2007, Kimmelman left his post as the chief art critic and moved from New York to Berlin, where until mid-2011 he covered cultural, social, and political issues throughout Europe and the Middle East. He remembers this time and discusses how he chose Berlin as his base.

V. Building Material (48:47-1:08:07)

Kimmelman discusses his transition to the New York Times architecture critic position in 2011 and how he has reshaped the role to a more globally and socially minded perspective—one that’s both more in line with The Times today and the times in general.

Other episodes in the first season include Bjarke Ingels, Elizabeth Diller, and Google VP of design Ivy Ross. To stay up to date, subscribe to their weekly newsletter or follow them on Instagram at

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Cite: Time Sensitive. "Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman on His Socially Conscious Work as a Writer-Activist" 07 Aug 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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