Finally, Michael Kimmelman Reviews Not One Starchitect But Two

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A dream on a hill. (Domus)

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Mr. Piano with his clients. (Arch Record)

Since the beginning, there was a certain amount of awe at Michael Kimmelman’s rejection of the boldface designers and celebrity architects that make up the world of starchitecture. There was little sign of the flash and panache that had defined architecture criticism in the pages of The Times for many moons. In fact things were quite gritty, even grim, if uplifting in their earnest and realism. By and large, the city(s) and profession has been better off for Mr. Kimmelman’s critical eye.

Still, there has been a clamoring in many quarters for more. At times it felt like Mr. Kimmelman was ignoring certain notable projects worthy of, even demanding notice. There have been but a dozen newsworthy developments in New York alone, from the Signature Theater to Brooklyn Bridge Park. What did Mr. Kimmelman—really, what did The Times, what did the paper of record, the voice of god–think of these important projects? With the exception of the divisive NYU expansion, to which Mr. Kimmelman had an ingenious (and thus far ignored) solution, we still do not know.

But now, at least, he has graced us, after seven months on the job, with his thoughts on one of the world’s most renowned architects. Well, two of them actually, Renzo Piano’s thoughtful-if-controversial addition to LeCorbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. The result is a religious experience.

A few minor acoustic problems with the nuns’ concrete quarters aside, Mr. Piano and his team (Paul Vincent was the partner in charge at Renzo Piano Building Workshop) have created remarkably light and peaceful spaces that are virtually invisible from the chapel and gracefully connected to nature. Competing with Le Corbusier’s masterwork would have been a fool’s game and an affront, Mr. Piano clearly realized; spoiling it, a cinch. Doing neither, the additions insert new life onto the hill, and in the process remove a despised 1960s gatehouse that had obscured sight of the chapel from the town below.

Humility is a virtue. That’s the obvious lesson, but doing anything, even constructing a few self-effacing buildings at Ronchamp, is a big deal. Mr. Piano solved the riddle of adding to a site without appearing conspicuously to do so by burrowing into the brow of the hill, below the chapel, and inserting the convent and visitors’ center into the cuts, half buried, with zinc-and-glass facades to let in light. He placed the visitors’ center beside the old pilgrims’ path, which winds through woods from the valley all the way up the hill, and adjacent to a parking lot, which has been usefully trimmed.

A fire was crackling in the fireplace at the center when I stopped by to browse through the bookshop. A ramp led from there onto the dirt path rising to the chapel. Behind the opposite end of the visitors’ center, set apart by a tiny gate, the convent wrapped several hundred feet farther around the slope.

A fire was crackling in the fireplace!

Perhaps this is what is so compelling about Mr. Kimmelman. Even when he is considering famous objet d’architecture, it is still in terms of their humanity. He cares about the little things and little people, how a building is lived and experience, not What It Means (unless we’re talking about what it means for humanity, and particularly for the city in which said building is found).

Notice that he talks to all the nuns, shares their experiences, as he recently did in a Parisian affordable housing complex. He is as much a reporter and an anthropologist as an architecture critic. He even goes so far as to name-check the partner in charge of the project and the landscape architect, a sharing of the spotlight that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Compare this to Mr. Kimmelman’s predecessor and, say, his review of the CCTV Building, “the greatest building of this century” in Nicolai Ouroussoff’s estimation:

Yet for all that, the CCTV headquarters may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century. Mr. Koolhaas, of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, has always been interested in making buildings that expose the conflicting energies at work in society, and the CCTV building is the ultimate expression of that aim, beginning with the slippery symbolism of its exterior. At moments monumental and combative, at others strangely elusive, almost retiring, it is one of the most beguiling and powerful works I’ve seen in a lifetime of looking at architecture.

What grabs the imagination as much as anything is the vision the building offers of this particular period in history. Mr. Koolhaas has created an eloquent architectural statement about China’s headlong race into the future and, more generally, life in the developed world at the beginning of the 21st century. It captures our era much as the great works of the early Modernists did theirs.

These are Big Ideas for Big Buildings. But you cannot inhabit an idea or a movement or a gesture. This is something Mr. Kimmelman seems to grasp that few others do.