“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.”