Two years ago, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, writing in Architectural Record, lamented the “shrinking fraternity” of fellow newspaper critics focusing on the built environment. “At American dailies,” he wrote, “there are fewer than a dozen writers covering architecture with any regularity, and perhaps just four or five full-time critics.” The Dallas Morning News, however, is bucking the trend. In April, Mark Lamster, an editor at Architectural Review and contributing editor for Design Observer, will become the newspaper’s architecture critic. Lamster’s position is a partnership with the University of Texas at Arlington; he’ll teach a graduate seminar at the university and work on long-term research projects. He succeeds the late David Dillon, who served as architecture critic at the News for 25 years. He died in 2010. A native New Yorker, Lamster, 43, has written two books: Master of Shadows (Nan A. Talese, 2009), a political biography of the artist Peter Paul Rubens, and Spalding’s World Tour (PublicAffairs, 2006), about a group of all-star baseball players who toured the globe in the late 19th century. He is currently working on a biography of architect Philip Johnson.
Photo © Andrew Bernheimer
Architecture critics at daily newspapers are a dying breed these days. Why is the Dallas Morning News going against the grain?
It’s really a testament to several things. I think it shows how much interest there is in Dallas in the built environment. It’s a city that is tremendously ambitious about making itself a more progressive, more livable place and bringing itself into the 21st century urbanistically. The News had a fine critic, David Dillon, and they lost him, and I think there’s been a sense of absence and a feeling that a city of the front rank needs to have that kind of criticism again. And to their tremendous credit, the editor and publisher of the newspaper figured out a way that they could make this happen through this joint appointment with the University of Texas at Arlington. So it’s really a win for everybody. The paper gets to have its critic. The architecture school gets to have somebody come in and work with students on writing. And it’s great for me, because I get to have a voice in the press and also work in an academic environment. It’s the best of all possible worlds for everybody.
Is this a potential model for other daily newspapers that want to hire more arts critics?
Yes. I think this kind of creativity will become more and more necessary as newspapers try to reinvent themselves. If it’s a choice between having no critic and following this model, then it seems like a no-brainer to me. And it doesn’t have to be used for just an arts critic. But there are dangers to it as well. A university is sort of a corporation, and it’s run by the state. So obviously it’s not something that one should adopt for all disciplines without a lot of thought.
You’re working on a biography of Philip Johnson, who did several major projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Did that influence your decision to take the job?
Not really. But it’s a good place to write about Johnson. Texas has some of his best work and some of his worst.
You’re a born-and-bred New Yorker. How much time have you spent in Dallas?
I’ve been back and forth a lot for the last six to eight months. I can’t say I’m an expert on the city, but I’m learning.
What are your impressions so far?
I really love it. It’s got this tremendous ambition and energy, and it’s a city that wants to be doing everything right. Like covering a highway with a park, trying to make its streets more walkable, and rewriting its urban code to do that. It has a plan to introduce parks into the downtown area. So there are all of these initiatives that are aimed at transforming the city, but it’s still a very divided city, physically and metaphorically. It’s trying to literally bridge some of these differences. There are parts of Dallas that are separated from each other, by economic, social, and racial boundaries. I think a big part of my job will be looking at all of those areas and seeing how the city can better serve its entire population.
What do you intend to focus on in your writing?
Everything. When David Dillon, my predecessor, took this job, his first column was about how there was no signature architecture in Dallas. And since then, Dallas has built a ton of “genius” architecture projects. Now, the question is figuring out to build the bureaucratic city around it. Dallas is trying to figure out how to balance these two types of architecture. So that’s one theme that I’m interested in. There’s also health and healthcare, public transportation, housing. These will be major areas of focus for me.
There’s one place where every citizen ends up, and that’s a hospital. What kind of care are people getting, and how are the spaces of care being responsive to people’s needs? How can they be better? And beyond that, how does the way communities are designed affect the health of people living there? It’s an important issue, especially in a city that has such a strong car culture.
Will you write about topics and projects beyond Texas?
Absolutely. From the outset, this has been conceived as a position with a Dallas—and Texas—focus, but also one with a national and international purview.
You recently wrote an appreciation of the late Ada Louis Huxtable, the legendary architecture critic for the New York Times. You quoted her: “A critic writing for the daily press does not deal in immortality. Today’s words are for wrapping tomorrow’s fish.” Sobering words?
Yes, but I think more and more, we don’t forget what people write. And I think the daily conversation is tremendously important. I think the reason to become a critic at a major metropolitan daily is not to worry about posterity but to think about how you can bring light to the community you live in. It’s about changing communities for the better, in a very real way that affects people on a daily basis. And that has long-term consequences. So whether or not people remember the specific words you write—and if you’re talented, you’ll be remembered—is kind of beside the point.