Last Critic Standing

March 25, 2010

In my last post I lamented the fact that the New York Times cannot seem to find an architectural critic who can measure up to Ada Louise Huxtable and other formidable architectural writers of the first half of the 20th century. It is clear that the newspapers are giving up on all kinds of essential cultural criticism in the current horrible media market. There seems little hope that anyone will step up and fill the void. We may be looking at the demise of the public architectural critic. If so, our cities and buildings will suffer.

But before you lose hope, note that there is one perceptive, literate and often brilliant architectural critic in New York who has a paid gig. No, it’s not Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker. PG continues to write his neutral, lukewarm pieces about contemporary buildings and cities. Occasionally he says something worth noting, but not often. No, it’s not Michael Sorkin. The bad boy of New York criticism has long since lost his sting. He is mainly an academic these days, and stays in the ivory tower where it’s safe and dry.

The writer who has begun to produce real critical pieces on contemporary buildings, architects, design, and urbanism is Martin Filler. Many will recognize him as a former editor at House & Garden, now alas defunct. The New York Review of Books signed him as a regular contributor a couple of years ago. It is a pity that more people don’t read this excellent publication, because so many are missing out on some superb work by a major writer. New York does have a truly sophisticated, urbane, fair-minded architectural critic who covers the city and the international beat. One has to dig a bit to find his writing, such as at the NYRB website.

It is unlikely that Filler will move to the Times, as he has written for the paper in the past and does not have the ear of the current editors. What he writes in NYRB is too long to fit in a standard newspaper, though his blog is pithy and entertaining. A recent piece on Denise Scott Brown is a case in point, as Filler reminds us of her standing among women in architecture during a time when Zaha Hadid is getting adulatory press that is largely undeserved. Scott Brown did more significant work during her two years as urban design chair at UCLA than Hadid is likely to do in a lifetime.

Better than the Scott Brown blog is Filler’s masterful critique of the new American Consulate building planned for London (in the latest issue of NYRB.) I have seldom read a more thorough, wide ranging, and witty essay on contemporary architecture. Writing about the up-and-coming Philadelphia firm, KieranTimberlake, he can only manage a few polite acknowledgments of competence before taking out the scalpel. I particularly like the reference to the bits of parsley in the sky that appear in an upper level balcony of the new embassy. If America is getting the architecture it deserves with this competition winner, the future looks bleak indeed.

Take a look at Mr. Filler’s recent essays in NYRB. Better yet, read his recent book of older essays. He is the man who should be watching over our built environment as Lewis Mumford did in the 1930s, not Ouroussoff.

Alexandra Lange, a Brooklyn based writer and professor of architectural history at the School for the Visual Arts, has given me a reason for hope. I’ve been writing critically about the Times critic for months in my blog, with some of the same points made in Lange’s incisive essay. Her piece in Design Observer on Nicolai Ouroussoff, of the New York Times, nails it. Mr. Ourroussoff is just not good enough for the people of New York. He should go.

Lange courageously takes on the most powerful architectural critic in America (by virtue of his seat at the Times) and considers both the nature of criticism and the content of his many pieces in the newspaper. She correctly asks about his point of view, his personal values, and his responsibility to both New York city and the architectural community. In all the areas architects and citizens of New York should care about, Ourousoff’s criticism is found wanting: he doesn’t seem to care about people who use buildings, he doesn’t walk the beat in New York City, his point of view is simplistic: new is better, he promotes only starchitects, and he writes one-note essays on complex topics that deserve multi-faceted analysis. Most important, as Lange correctly points out, he is writing during a time when all cultural criticism is waning, and may become the last “critical” voice on architecture in newsprint before long.

When your’re in the hotseat, you’d better be hot, not cool, not tepid. Hot. Watch for my next blog on the critic who deserves the Times job.