A measure of the article’s effectiveness is how impossible it is to read Mr. Ouroussoff’s valedictory Times review of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Building—with its Beijing dateline, celebrity architect and insouciance to politics—and not see the talons of Ms. Lange’s dissent (“He’s slippery”; “He doesn’t care”).
Indeed, the dissent has become more like conventional wisdom, which puts additional pressure on Mr. Kimmelman: to fix a staggering brand. “Reading Herbert,” Ms. Iovine said, “was like riding a roller-coaster with a hot-house orchid,” while Ada Louise Huxtable “combined gold standard aesthetics … with a no-stone-unturned journalistic integrity and a deep-six knowledge of how things got done in NYC.”
Mr. Ouroussoff, by contrast, “was never a must-read and in that way lowered the bar.”
Or as Mark Lamster, an Architectural Review editor (and co-blogger of Ms. Lange), told The Observer in an email: “[Kimmelman] will need to stake out some critical territory for himself, a voice on the subject. …
“Ada Louise has a voice (acerbic defender of the city); Goldberger has a voice (the artful company man); Muschamp had a voice (champion of glamour). Nicolai, alas, has no voice.”
The most easily misinterpreted of Ms. Lange’s gripes is finally the most fatal: Nicolai Ouroussoff doesn’t sound like he’s writing from anywhere, besides the centripetal solar systems of starchitecture.
“A lot of people,” she explained, “thought it was retrograde of me to want the Times critic to write more about New York, and maybe it is. But I see [Chicago’s Blair] Kamin, [San Francisco’s John] King, [Boston’s Robert] Campbell, L.A.’s [Christopher] Hawthorne doing that, so it is not like a lost art.
“I want to feel the Times critic has been to Brooklyn,” she said. “Lots of times.”
There is, of course, a certain irony to the voices of the web demanding that a dead-tree journalist return to earth—or indeed, the five boroughs. Ironic, but historically sensible.
For Alexandra Lange and Julie Iovine, the deterritorialization of the Times architecture critic began immediately after the departure of Ms. Huxtable, with her indomitable knowledge of zoning laws, block-level history and City Council minutiae.
Naturally, Mr. Goldberger sets it later: “I think in Ada Louise’s time, and I hope in my time, the person in that job was a critical force—a very central presence in the dialogue about the future of New York. That’s less true today. … Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff were both somewhat less interested in that and somewhat more interested in architecture as an object and artifact. … Whatever the reason, it is a very real loss.”
His successors, Ms. Goldberger noted, may have simply followed the general trend at The Times—that to survive, it would have to be a national, or international, paper. It’s perhaps a sign both of the success of that effort and of the prestige Ms. Huxtable’s original creation still commands that people in Beijing and Bilbao and Dubai and Detroit care what a critic in New York thinks about their built environment. Yet, at a time when scores of qualified Twitterers can publicly weigh in, in real-time, on the Times’s hiring decisions, what the world needs from its papers of record may be coming full (if imperfect) circle.
In other words, Ada Louise Huxtable brought worldly architectural literacy to a provincial readership; can the next Times critic bring the dense, on-the-ground realities of its province to a global audience—that is, the global audience?
After all, however cosmopolitan their makers, buildings ultimately have to live somewhere.
“There’s a worry now,” Ms. Iovine noted, “that someone who is known as an art critic—an appraiser of the object—will be tempted to also treat architecture as an object. It ain’t so! Especially right now—the idea of the starchitect is entirely passé. No one practices that way anymore. It’s over, done, good riddance.”
Wanted: intellectually brilliant, stylistically inimitable critic; must be sensitive to history, get along with the neighbors and come in under budget. If Michael Kimmelman doesn’t appreciate the pressures and passions of architecture now, he may soon enough.