“The Times stands at the nexus of a whole bunch of forces,” says architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who left the paper (for The New Yorker) in 1997. “And in this job they’re all sort of acting upon you. The most difficult part of the job is this sense of obligation to do everything. To cover every exhibition. Every program. Every building, obviously. Every significant city-planning move … You realize every story you choose to write is also five important stories that go unwritten.
“People were reasonable when negative things were said,” Mr. Goldberger recalled. “What they didn’t want was to be ignored.”
Since 1963, there have been seven mayors of New York City, eight governors of New York State, nine U.S. presidents and four architecture critics at The New York Times. The longevity of its incumbents hints at the singularity of the office: they’ve shaped what counts as architecture to the masses—housewives and students, investment bankers and construction workers—who don’t consciously think about architecture until it shows up on their block. Like a Japanese emperor or the most imperial of those aforementioned pols—think Rockefeller Era, Giuliani Time, Reaganomics—the name of the reigning Times critic is easy shorthand for the fashions and passions of the epoch, and not just in buildings.
It’s a mystique that holds up, even in broadband, high-resolution, comments-enabled retrospect. Ada Louise Huxtable is credited with inventing architecture criticism at The Times—and thus the daily newspaper—and, as important, with introducing an adolescent city to historic preservation. “People know she’s an angry woman with a big mouth,” said a Madison Square Garden exec on Mad Men, in one of that program’s glibly ironic historical glosses. And indeed, Ms. Huxtable’s early pieces on the dismemberment of old Penn Station cut with righteous fury and no small amount of what we’d later call snark.
Yet what’s most striking about vintage Huxtable (at 90, she still writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal) is the absence of the atavism that, in guises sentimental and cynical, nowadays mars landmarking and “contextual” sensitivity. (See the “Ground Zero Mosque” imbroglio.) Ms. Huxtable liked distinguished old buildings not because they were old, but because they were distinguished. When writing about new buildings, she was a thoroughgoing functionalist, and her reviews are surprisingly exacting about loads, floor plates and dollars per square foot. The Huxtable Age was, we might say, invested in imparting “esthetic” rigor (as The Times used to spell it, without the “a”) to the aspirational citizens and corporations of midcentury New York—in explaining the purity of structure and concept that made, say, Mies van der Rohe and McKim, Mead, and White more like each other than their respective knockoffs.
By the time Mr. Goldberger inherited the mantle in 1982—they’d overlapped for several years before then, he working the week and she on Sundays—historical preservation of the old had extended, and transmogrified, into a historicism of the new. Where Ms. Huxtable had reliably dismissed embellishment as frivolity, the Goldberger Years sustained a serious conversation with the “post-modern” moment (as The Times used to render it, with a hyphen) of “Gothic” spires, “Romanesque” arches and “Chippendale” pediments.
The late Herbert Muschamp (he passed away in 2007) took over in the early 1990s, when both modernism and its discontents were fading from relevance. Wild, computer-aided form became its own economic function, and Muschamp celebrated favorites like the Bilbao Guggenheim with the florid prose and omnivorous interests that might best be called fin de siècle.
Nicolai Ouroussoff, a Muschamp protégé, has held the post since 2004. He announced his resignation June 6. A month later, The Times named his replacement, Michael Kimmelman, the paper’s chief art critic, who will be returning to New York from four years in Europe. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Kimmelman, who takes the reins at the end of this month, doesn’t have formal training in architecture, or much of a track record as an architectural critic. He will continue to cover art.
Instant reaction soon appeared on the real estate website Curbed, via Twitter. “NYT to Architecture of NYC: Drop Dead,” opined Greg Allen, artist and widely read blogger at greg.org.
Added Amanda Kolson Hurley, the executive editor of Architect magazine: “So Kimmelman will be an all-purpose culture critic à la [Philip] Kennicott of WaPo. Architecture: you’ve been demoted.”
The designer Sawad Brooks wrote, “Might as well have named Judy Miller.”
“I’m keeping an open mind,” the critic and historian Alexandra Lange told The Observer.
“[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, and for the very old-fashioned idea that any educated person can do it. I’m not going to argue that you have to be an architect, but there is a body of knowledge, history, travel, reading that helps. Maybe Kimmelman has that, but it obviously hasn’t been a ruling passion.”
According to Julie Iovine, executive editor of the Architect’s Newspaper, “An effective arch critic is not a messenger from the occult, sometimes cultish, world of parametric modeling, interstitial planning, void filling, and impenetrable whatevers. But the critic does need to understand that stuff in order to better explain how architecture not only shapes the city but manifests our values, identity and legacy as a culture.”
But does the public still need the New York Times critic, in particular, to do all that?
For Ms. Lange, “the power of the Times critic job is in the fact that their reviews may be the only architecture criticism many people read. This is still true.” Yet when future generations consider the Ouroussoff Era, the defining text—assuming they still use Google—may be Alexandra Lange’s.
“Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough,” Ms. Lange’s February 2010 article for the Design Observer website, is a devastating takedown of the “slipperiness” of Mr. Ouroussoff’s arguments, the “lack of artistic ambition” of his prose and the cocoonlike isolation he maintains in “the floating world of the international architectural profession.”
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.
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