This morning, The Observer awakened to something many in the architecture community have been waiting months, if not years for. By the time you read this, the moment may have already passed online. But even if readers missed that frisson of joy in finding Michael Kimmelman’s first proper architecture review on the The New York Times‘ homepage, as much, or even more excitement can be had with an actual hard copy of the paper, where the review managed to sneak its way onto the front page.
Sure, it’s below the fold, but still, the last time The Times ran an architecture review on the front page of the paper was the last correspondence of Mr. Kimmelman’s oft-maligned predecessor, Niccolai Ouroussoff, and even then it was simply a teaser in that little box at the bottom of the page. This is an honest-to-god story, picture and all, on some of the most sacred journalistic territory on the planet. Does this mean The Times is actually putting more emphasis on its architecture reviewing, not less, as some had complained when Mr. Kimmelman, an erudite consumer of culture, but still one with no official architectural training? Is this an honor paid to all first-time critics, which Mr. Kimmelman isn’t, really, since he’s been reviewing this-and-that for decades? Was it simply a slow news day?
Which is not to suggest that this is not a remarkable piece of writing deserving of its top billing, nor to take anything away from the talented Mr. Kimmelman, who has had his fair share of front pages over the years. Consider what he, and The Times, have done here, though. This is a review of a public housing complex designed by notable but far from famous architects—in the South Bronx, no less. It is not the latest bauble from from some boldfaced jetsetter. Indeed, Mr. Kimmelman attacks this very type of design in the third paragraph of his piece, in what seems to be, one might hope, a declaration of principles for the future of his work:
The rebirth of the South Bronx isn’t news. But Via Verde is. And it makes as good an argument as any new building in the city for the cultural and civic value of architecture. The profession, or in any case much talk about it, has been fixated for too long on brand-name luxury objects and buildings as sculptures instead of attending to the richer, broader, more urgent vein of public policy and community engagement, in which aesthetics play a part.
Are you listening, Frank Gehry?
And yet the piece serves also as a critique not only of the architectural media but also of architecture, its social and political realities, and how they might be fixed, or even if they can be.
Thousands of homeless families and others waiting for decent homes need those apartments. Higher costs for green construction have, over recent years, come to be accepted as investments in long-term savings. But spending extra for anything as intangible as elegance or architectural distinction? In Via Verde’s case maybe 5 percent more, by Mr. Rose’s estimate, went into the project’s roof and its fine, multipanel, multicolor facade, with big windows, sunshades and balconies. What is the value of architectural distinction? How, morally speaking, can it be weighed against the need for homes?
In the end, Mr. Kimmelman determines, quite rightly, that “Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”
Perhaps this is why the story made it to the front page, because it is not a Metro story or an Arts story—which so rarely get to the cover of the national edition of The New York Times—but it is instead something bigger. Mr. Kimmelman could have made his first review of Jean Nouvel’s new carousel shed in Dumbo, or Mr. Gehry’s soon-to-open Signature Theater (he’ll get to it closer to the opening curtain, we’re sure) or even one of those European wonders he has come to know so well during his time Abroad.
Instead we get an utterly New York story that is utterly international in scope and ambition, a call to arms of the sort that has been missing for to long in the pages of The Times and even architectural criticism at large. (We’re not counting you, Justin Davidson.)
According to Times culture editor Jonathan Landman, it is exactly this statement of purpose that got Mr. Kimmelman onto the front of the paper. He emails:
In general, it’s certainly unusual for any review to run on Page 1. It does happen, but not often, and when it does it’s usually because the thing reviewed is momentous in some way. For example: Michael’s review of “The Gates” in Central Park, a huge public event.
So then it is saying something that a South Bronx housing project is now a “huge public event.” Like we said, this is good news. Here is how Mr. Landman sees it:
In this case, Michael had some things to say about the approach he will take to this beat that I and my bosses thought were worth amplifying. The old-writer-new-mantle thing played a part, but there’s certainly no guarantee that a writer gets a Page 1 story when he or she switches beats.
He also notes that Mr. Ouroussoff had a run of four front page stories last fall, when he did a series on the Middle East. Important, but not exactly New York. As for the former critic and his replacement, Mr. Landman had this to say about Mr. Kimmelman’s qualifications, something that had been openly discussed but never answered by anyone at The Times, as far as we know:
As to Michael’s experience, it is of course true that he is not a career architecture critic but he has written about architecture. More important, he is a brilliant critic with a longstanding interest in the field. He is also a spectacular reporter who can learn anything and a man with more than enough intellectual humility to know what he doesn’t know. There’s value in his non-insider perspective, I believe.
Nor is this about Nicolai. He was a fine and serious critic with his own interests, sensibility and preoccupations. Critics are entitled to have those. Michael looks at things differently, and said so. Page 1 helps readers get that message.
We got the message. Let’s just hope he keeps it up.