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Newsmaker: Michael Kimmelman

May 2012

RECORD sits down with the new architecture critic of the New York Times to discuss his plans for covering the designs of buildings, New York, and the wider world.

Michael Kimmelman
Michael Kimmelman
Photo: © Marco Tambara

Last fall, Michael Kimmelman, the longtime chief art critic of the New York Times, became the architecture critic at the paper and immediately set a new agenda. Rather than write about the latest starchitect building, he began with a piece on a mixed-income housing project in the Bronx by Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects called Via Verde, and followed up with articles that focused largely on social architecture and the public realm. Trained as a pianist, he grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village and studied for a doctorate in art history at Harvard before pursuing journalism. Previously he’d written occasionally about architecture for the New York Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books. He talked to Record’s editor in chief Cathleen McGuigan about his ideas from what is the most visible perch in architectural criticism.

Cathleen McGuigan: Before you came back to New York to write about architecture, you spent several years writing from Europe.

Michael Kimmelman: I went abroad for the Times because I thought there really was a way to reconnect culture—and here I mean culture with a big C —to the way we live, to social, political and economic affairs, to use culture as a prism through which to see different social issues, to see how the world worked. At heart, that is what this job I do now is about.

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CM: So you see your job as not so much writing about individual works of architecture?

MK: I am always struck that there should be any question about a focus on urbanism, equity, social justice, or infrastructural affairs or whatever that is not specifically about a building in isolation. It seems the great defining virtue of this field is that it’s inextricable from the world around it. And the thing that architects and urban planners and everyone related to these fields do, fundamentally, is to try to figure out how to make the world a better place for people to live in.

CM: Still, will you write about a major new building when it opens? Will you write about what’s in the air?

MK: Will I pay attention to what’s newsworthy? Sure. But you asked when I would write about a building, and this is an interesting question. I went to Paris to look at a retrofitting of a housing project from the ’60s, by a French firm called Vassal and Lacaton, working with Frédéric Druot. The building had been in the show at MoMA, “Small Scale/Big Change,” and it reopened last fall. So now was a good time to see if it actually works, what it actually cost, what the tenants think of these changes.

Part of the beauty of architecture and urban planning is that there is an unpredictability, a way that things take on a life of their own. So looking into a building after it’s been open, to see if the promises are related to the reality, is a natural part of my job.

It’s not so much whether I’m writing about a building, it’s a question of how—whether it’s embedded within other issues or whether it’s about the craft, the formal qualities, how it fits in relation to other buildings being made now, and within the career of the architect or architects who designed it. I believe all of those are extremely important issues. I spent 20 years as an art critic writing about sculpture and artists—I get it. And to talk about a building as if it were a sculpture is a legitimate way of seeing it but is also an impoverishment of the various things that have gone into thinking about that building and to the life of the building and the people who use it. I think it is a disservice to readers. Talking about buildings is a multifaceted thing, and I know it is for the architects who design them.

CM: Our contemporary culture is showing a far greater interest in the issues you happen to be addressing. Your timing is perfect.

MK: I would have written about the same things 10 years ago. I don’t think I’m pointing out anything new. I think I’m probably talking about things in a forum that reaches a lot of people—the impact of the New York Times. The reception, such as I can judge it, has been overwhelmingly welcoming because there are so many people who want to be included in this conversation beyond just the people who seem to have been at the center of the conversation for so many years. And the whole point about going into this field is to act in the real world and try to bring about some things which change people’s lives.

CM: You’ve written a lot about New York City, about Piano’s project at Ronchamp, and a park in Madrid; you also recently visited Bogotá and Medellín. Are you going to go out in the U.S.?

MK: Yes, but I need some time. First of all, it was a pleasure to rediscover New York and to have an excuse to see all five boroughs, to embrace the city in its true amazing complexity and during an administration that has been focused on urban affairs. And to establish a base of operations, to use New York as a constant ground note for exploring other issues. That said, I have no limit on what I can cover. So of course I look forward to traveling around the country.

CM: There’s a long shadow cast on your job by Ada Louise Huxtable, the Times’s first full-time architecture critic. That’s a very high bar. How does that affect you?

MK: Thank you for asking this question. Look, my conception of this job was created by Ada Louise. When I was young, she was the critic, and she established this not as an extension of the art world but as a position of buildings in the context of public policy and urban affairs. That was, for me, the touchstone. It’s exactly how I would like to see this job. I think Ada Louise also chose her subjects very carefully and didn’t write about buildings as detached from the world.

It’s very interesting to me that you have two women—I mean, I was a little boy, but still—who were such powerful figures in shaping what remains, half a century later, this conversation: Jane Jacobs in the neighborhood where I grew up, and Ada Louise, who is still writing so wonderfully [in the Wall Street Journal]. You know, without thinking this consciously, they both have had such a profound effect on my idea of what it means to be really engaged in these issues.

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