Criticism on Criticism: Reflecting on a Year of Michael Kimmelman

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman.

“The dichotomy of writing about social issues and architectural objects as art is one I find bizarre. They should be discussed together. Their intersection is that which makes architecture so unique.” – Michael Kimmelman

Last summer, when Michael Kimmelman took up his post as the New York Times’ new architecture critic, a vaguely audible outcry was heard from architectural circles affronted by the replacement of Nicolai Ouroussoff with an “outsider.” To the larger circle of Times readers, Kimmelman was either a similarly confusing choice or a refreshing alternative, as the critic boldly chose to dedicate articles to the city’s urban issues, such as bike lanes and parking lots, over patently “architectural” topics, such as the new Frank Gehry in Manhattan. As Yale School of Architecture student Amrita Raja wrote in Metropolis after a recent lecture by the critic, Kimmelman “seems to have entered his new post as architectural critic…with the same wonderment-flecked eyes you can spot on first-year students climbing Rudolph Hall’s steps each fall.”

Yes, like architecture students entering Yale’s SOA, Kimmelman made a choice—a hard earned and a privileged choice—to attempt to penetrate the seemingly hermetic architecture world. And what is perhaps his most salient contribution to discourse is exactly his “outsider” perspective. It is Kimmelman’s admitted distance from the practice that has allowed him to observe and discuss architecture from a more inclusive angle. And with his tenure at the Times approaching one year and the novelty of his approach still strong, critics of his criticism are speculating why.

“The non-architect architectural critic, while under pressure to defend the discipline, is not obliged to do so,” writes Raja in Metropolis. “When no longer writing to laud the glory of the architect, the critic is free to study the relationship between architecture and context (site, economics, politics, culture) on its own terms.” Not too long ago, the Observer noted half-jokingly that the critic’s recent remark that “a fire was crackling in the fireplace” at Renzo Piano’s new addition to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel site details his desire to frame buildings “in terms of their humanity.”

It is easy to see how Kimmelman’s resistance to conventional criticism can open the discussion of architecture to those outside of the field. But perhaps more importantly, it prompts critics, readers and architects who look to the Times to consider architecture as both a large-scale work of art, deserving of lofty theoretical contemplation, and an equally large-scale social intervention, deserving of anyone’s comments.

- Kelly Chan