Michael Kimmelman, the longtime chief art critic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, became the newspaper’s architecture critic in late September 2011. He has written on a range of topics, including public housing, ballparks, landscape urbanism, campus expansion, transportation, public space, and the reinvention of iconic buildings. Kimmelman thinks that architecture is a public expression and should be discussed as such. “We’ve allowed the conversation to drift from social agency,” he says.
Not exclusively but to a large extent, the public conversation about architecture has been dominated by people who shared particular interests in formal and material innovation. These are central issues and fundamental to my job. But there have always been vast numbers of people interested in buildings, landscape, and urban affairs, infrastructure and planning, in the interaction of formal and social inventions—people who have profound interests in cities and transportation and the way we live—who have felt left out of the conversation. So in part, taking over as the Times’s critic, I felt that my job should be to broaden the conversation.
Architecture, after all, involves much more than just making sculpture. Architects have to contend with a complex range of economic, social, and practical challenges, and their buildings exist in the real world. I write for a broad public that includes architects and, like all writers, I expect that people ultimately read what I write based on the quality of my voice.
Good criticism is in the end about good writing. Any good critic’s first and last job is to be a compelling writer. Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs were wonderful writers. Michael Sorkin is a fantastic writer and his positions are invigorated by the vividness of his prose. And architecture gives a writer an immense range of subjects to cover. One of the many beauties of architecture is how it intersects with so many aspects of life and the news.
I’m looking into the design of healthcare facilities now, and that overlaps with issues such as health and social services, Washington politics, science, and technology. My role is of course to be a responsible reporter, to investigate and talk to a wide range of people.
But also, I’d like to believe that my role is to act as an advocate, not simply to respond to what’s proposed or built—which often means going beyond the role of a reviewer, as criticism is so often defined. Architecture is far too important to lose itself in questions about the state of criticism, which is not interesting.
I look back to Ada Louise Huxtable, who created the position I hold at the Times and who treated it as a public-policy job. There’s as strong an aesthetic component to her writing as there inevitably is and will be to mine.
The role of the architecture critic is ultimately to situate buildings in the larger world and in the larger conversation, which comes down to how society works, what our values are, where we choose to spend our money, and how our blocks and cities define who we are for each other and posterity. -As told to William Richards