Kimmelman to the Rescue

October 23, 2011

I have followed Michael Kimmelman’s writing for years–as an art and music critic, and as a European correspondent at large for the New York Times. He is a superb writer. His critical eye is sharp and balanced. Most important, he brings a lively intelligence and wide experience to everything he writes. You can  feel his interest in people, art, culture, places, and events. When you read his work you cannot but feel connected to the subject at hand.

Many architects were no doubt surprised when this “outsider” was appointed to replace Nicolai Ourroussoff as the Times architecture critic. According to an AIA poll he was not among the top contenders for the job. I found the choice logical and refreshing, a necessary correction for a newspaper that had strayed from its leading position as an observer of the built environment.

Last Sunday, in one of  his first major pieces under the new byline, Kimmelman made it very clear that he would not follow the elitist, high design snobbery of his predecessor. In fact, he wrote a stirring article about the farthest thing from most avant garde architects’ minds–slums, barrios, ghettos that are home to the world’s poorest people. In a review of what must be a remarkable exhibition by the Cooper Hewitt, shown at the United Nations, this supposed aesthete was moved by the efforts of unsung designers in Bankok, Medellin, Brazil and Bangladesh to change their environment with “design.” Not with a capital D. Design as traditional, hands-on problem solving using the materials at hand.

Nothing shown in the article will thrill critical theorists in the academy. Nor will the inspiring images of an urban park, a canal boat, colorful facades on makeshift housing, and a school bus classroom find their way into Architectural Record. Kimmelman has alerted the intelligentsia to a new kind of environmental art–local building solutions that are sustainable, inexpensive, and beautiful, and that have not been touched by an Architect, with a capital A.

I am delighted to find an article about the built environment that covers the 99% rather than the 1%. Michael Kimmelman may rescue architectural criticism from the quicksand of smug, arrogant tributes to Starchitects who designed for the super-rich and cultural elites. Let us hope he succeeds.