In Colombia, the Kimmelman Thesis Laid Bare—and a War on Starchitecture?

Medellin, hotbed of architecture. (ArchDaily)

It’s been more than a month, so that must mean time for another Michael Kimmelman column.

But the latest from The Times’ architecture critic is also his biggest yet—literally and figuratively. We learned back in March, via Twitter, that Mr. Kimmelman was headed to Colombia, to investigate the much-talked about transformation of the once-and-still-somewhat-drug-addled South American country and the critical role good design had played in the changes of the past two decades. On March 31, after five days in Colombia, Mr. Kimmelman declared, “Winding up eye opening trip to Bogota + Medellin—compels total rethink of familiar stories about both. Great architecture to write about.”

Indeed. On Sunday, atop the Arts section, a 2,500-word opus appeared on the state of design in Medellin and the health of a city as synonymous with Pablo Escobar as public architecture. The result is the most clear declaration of what could best be considered Michael Kimmelman’s Grand Unifying Theory of Architecture, or The Shortcomings of Popular Design Today. One passage in particular seems to sum it all up rather succinctly:

I arrived in Medellín to see the ambitious and photogenic buildings that have gone up, but also to find what remains undone. The murder rate, while hardly low, is now under 60 per 100,000. Architecture alone obviously doesn’t account for the drop in homicides, but the two aren’t unrelated, either. Around the world, followers of architecture with a capital A have focused so much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social activism, twin Modernist concerns, were mutually exclusive. But Medellín is proof that they’re not, and shouldn’t be. Architecture, here and elsewhere, acts as part of a larger social and economic ecology, or else it elects to be a luxury, meaningless except to itself. Strong words.

You see, us navel-gazing, pay-check-chasing first worlders have long ago forgotten the real purpose of good design.

Still, Mr. Kimmelman tells a compelling story of how social architecture and the public good have combined forces to fight everything from poverty to the drug trade, and the success and shortcomings thereof. Just as often design falls short as it does good.

But of course ownership can’t just be bestowed on poor neighborhoods; it must also be declared, in small, critical ways. In the troubled Comuna 13, two members of Revolución Sin Muertos (Revolution Without Deaths) — started not long ago by a group of neighborhood hip-hoppers rejecting the gang culture — took me on a graffiti tour. At a crowded street corner, Daniel Felipe Quiceno, known as Dog, and Luis Fernando Álvarez, who is called AKA, pointed to a mural of four of their own, murdered by local gangs. Revolución Sin Muertos paints murals around Comuna 13; sometimes residents put their own tags on them, as if to signal support. Murals, Mr. Álvarez said, have helped people here vent frustration and proclaim ownership of the neighborhood.

Progress is hard. Venture a few yards from the heralded new squares, library and cable car stations in the Santo Domingo barrio, across town in the hills of the Northeast district, and it’s clear just how dramatic but also tenuous change is here.

But herein we see the problems with Mr. Kimmelman’s tenure as critic underscored, as well. This is a great column, it is broad, expansive and thought provoking, but also kind of light on the architecture. It is about political economics and social mobility as it is about design. In the accompanying slideshow, we see clear evidence of this bias, with a picture of men walking up a long stairway in one of the slums—a counterpoint to the previous picture of a new escalator, perhaps, but still, not what one comes to expect from an architecture review. It feels like this is the work of a foreign correspondent more than an architecture critic.

(These global ambitions might also explain the dearth columns from Mr. Kimmelman. To his credit, he is doing some serious traveling, some serious reporting, some serious thinking, not the kind of work that lends itself to spinning out a review once every week or two. Still, for those looking for that kind of output, it can be frustrating.)

Mr. Kimmelman is right that architects have too often ignored this important part of their work, particularly as they chase the fame and fortune that comes with object making. But it also feels no longer like he is simply ignoring high-design and starchitecture. It now feels like he is openly at war with it.

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC