If You’re Looking for an Architecture Critic, Try Justin Davidson

Our colleague Jonathan Liu has a nice appraisal in this week’s culture pages of what it means to be the

Davidson and Goliath. (SVA)

Our colleague Jonathan Liu has a nice appraisal in this week’s culture pages of what it means to be the architecture critic at The Times and whether Michael Kimmelman is up to the task. Mr. Kimmelman replaces the oft-maligned Nicolai Ourousoff, who stepped down last month, and over here at the real estate desk we have been hearing much the same thing: It is borderline offensive that The Times promoted an arts writer to cover architecture, but let’s hold out hope because he can’t be much worse than his predecessor.It’s true, in the age of Twitter and blogs and what have you, who really needs any critic, let alone one writing about architecture? Still, Mr. Liu does a fine job explaining why:

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.


His successors, [former critic Paul] 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.

The problem remains that we New Yorkers wind up neglected.

Even if Mr. Kimmelman can surpass Mr. Ouroussoff, well, it seems hard to believe he will. Not only is he not trained in architecture, but his last posting was as a roving European art critic. His column was called “Abroad.” If you’re looking for a critic who “has been to Brooklyn,” as architecture writer Alexandra Lange puts it to Mr. Liu, this does not seem like a promising start.

If you want to find that critic, one who cares about “indomitable knowledge of zoning laws, block-level history and City Council minutiae,” as Mr. Liu puts the qualifications of the Times‘ first critic Ada Louis Huxtable, turn not to the paper of record but New York magazine. That is where Justin Davidson has been opining in Ms. Huxtable’s persnickety tradition for four years now.

Just the other day, he wrote about something as banal as a single city block on Broadway and the tragedy of its impending loss.

Lately, a new wound has opened on the east side of Broadway, between 77th and 78th Streets. One of the last full hodgepodge blocks of low-rise buildings and small shops has that familiar ghost-town look that precedes obliteration. Once, the restaurant Ruby Foo’s, the Manhattan Diner, a Così sandwich bar, a Tae Kwon Do school, the Curl Up & Dye hair salon, a watch-repair service, a travel agency, a jewelry­making school, a pizza joint, a Subway, the World of Nuts & Ice Cream, and a jewelry shop were all crammed into 200 feet of frontage. A dozen businesses, catering to vanity, hunger, creativity, and the pursuit of health, have vanished. It’s a common tale, and the ending is almost always the same: a teeming commercial ecosystem gives way to a pair of vast establishments, stretching from corner to mid-block.The new building is planned “as of right,” meaning that it requires no special permission, and will almost certainly be approved. If the developer, Friedland Properties, had to apply for a variance, a tax break, a change in zoning, or approval to build in a historic district, it would have to negotiate and compromise, but there’s no need for that here. Friedland hasn’t released plans and doesn’t return calls, and the Department of Buildings application is sketchy, so preparations for dismemberment will likely be under the radar, at least until the jackhammers start.

There are two compelling reasons to mourn this block’s destruction. The first is that Broadway’s small businesses are being choked out not by inexorable Darwinism but because landlords and developers almost always prefer to sign a long-term lease with a clean, quiet, stable, and heavily capitalized corporation rather than risk renting to an amateurishly run boutique or a potentially odoriferous diner.

Now that‘s architecture, and without even a boldface name or a fanciful design (guilty as charged) to carry the day. Sure, he dips into this territory, too, but always with care and conscience. If you haven’t already, go read him now.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC If You’re Looking for an Architecture Critic, Try Justin Davidson