Michael Kimmelman Will Not Play Your Architecture Games

Michael Kimmelman is not a very good architecture critic, at least that is what some of his critics would have

Still calling the shots.

Michael Kimmelman is not a very good architecture critic, at least that is what some of his critics would have you believe. As invigorating as his first few columns championing urbanism and public design were, the whole thrust has devolved into a sort of schtick, whereby every article is about the greatness of cities, and barely about architecture.

Michael Kimmelman knows this.

At a talk at Columbia earlier this week, The Times’ architectural annointer said he would be getting to buildings soon enough, according to The Architect’s Newspaper, though he also refused to talk about them in the same old way. He is used to hearing the complaint “When is he going to write about…” project X or Y.

Kimmelman addressed growing criticism of his focus on the city as a whole as opposed to addressing architecture as buildings, by reminding the audience that he’s only been at the gig for four months and still had plenty to address. He said he had hoped to create a more porous and fluid forum for debate about the city and architecture, through blogs and reader commentary—but that the resources to edit and filter comments at the newspaper are thin, and there was a concern that the blog could be “taken over by crazy people.”

He added that Ada Louise Huxtable remains the model for dealing with citywide and policy issues alongside architecture. “A false dichotomy has been set up; there’s this idea that writing about urban affairs and architecture are separate,” he said. “They’re part of the same world.”

And it is true, he has written a great deal about specific projects, so the critics must be wrong. Via Verde becomes an exploration of affordable housing, Discovery Center library the nature of public architecture, the Madrid Río the nature of financing public architecture. The more amorphous, anarchitectural essays remain, those on bike lanes and trees and protest space, but for it all there are gems like his brilliant proposal for moving Madison Square Garden to the site of the Javits Center, thereby delivering a proper Penn Station along the way.

Mr. Kimmelman made clear at the Columbia panel that this is the path he intends to continue on. Were he to write about Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, he told the audience that it would be about whether or not it transformed the derelict neighborhood in which it was built, the ostensible reason for the museum, not whether it was a successful museum in-and-of itself. Though presumably that would be addressed as well.

It is a new and bracing way to write about architecture. In the past, the museum would likely have been compared to others of its ilk, alongside MoMA, the Guggenheim Bilbao, maybe Daniel Libeskind’s severe Denver Art Museum. It is peg versus peg.

Kimmelman seems to care very little for these games and would rather focus on whether or not that peg fits into the hole into which it has been placed, something that really does not happen enough. The only problem is it can lead to articles that read quite a lot alike. At least that is the superficial reading.

Nevermind the fact that there are myriad projects waiting to be weighed in on—the new apartments at Atlantic Yards, or the ones at Brooklyn Bridge Park, or Frank Gehry’s new Signature Theater all come to mind. Far be it from us to give marching orders to Mr. Kimmelman, but the people are dying to know what he thinks, and these are all still projects that could be considered in the lens of cities, too.

The reason is, for better or worse, The Times sets the standard.

That was the repeated lament of a panel held at the Center for Architecture last week. Simply consider this exchange between Paul Goldberger, ex-Timesman (where he won the Pullitzer) and current New Yorker critic, and Cathleen McGuigan, lead scribe for Architectural Record.

“I know The New Yorker under David Remnick is particularly interested in the new,” Goldberger said. “And over the years I’ve been under pressure from time to time to write about some things before The New York Times had it. David’s level of interest rose in proportion to—in inverse proportion to the presence of something in The New York Times. If The New York Times had not covered it yet, and did not appear to be likely to cover it soon, he became more interested and more engaged.

“I like to be first; it feels good, but at the end of the day I think it’s more important to have confidence in your ability to say things better, or differently, or in your own way, than to be first—I don’t think readers keep score about that the way editors can keep score about that. Editors keep score about that, but I don’t think readers do.”

“It’s a terrible problem,” McGuigan said, referring to her tenure at Newsweek, “because I was under so much pressure to not be beaten by Time, or The New York Times, that I really felt I had sometimes covered things that really weren’t cooked yet.”

The irony is that Mr. Kimmelman’s trend away from the new should open his colleagues up to fertile territory—Bloomberg has been the only major outlet to write about the Signature, an unthinkable reality a few years ago. And yet somehow, they cannot gravitate away from The Times.

None of us can.

The fact remains, a building has not been judged unless, until The Times has leveled its judgment.

Come Monday, it will have been a month since Mr. Kimmelman’s last column, the one about the trees in Central Park. What’s next, and when? The anticipation is killing us.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

Michael Kimmelman Will Not Play Your Architecture Games