The Real Rio

December 3, 2013

Michael Kimmelman has proven again that he will not bend to current fashion when writing about architecture and urbanism. Instead of heaping praise on Brazil’s efforts to outspend Athens and out-hype London as it prepares for the next Olympics, he visited Rio to look beneath the thin skein of high design that now seems de rigeur for international sporting events. His trenchant critique of a new cultural center, The City of Music, designed by French starchitect Christian de Pozzamparc in the suburb of Barra, puts things into perspective:

A concrete complex of theaters, raised sky high on giant piers, the center may be the most absurd new building in years. It can bring to mind that famous Stonehenge gag from the film “This Is Spinal Tap,” in which a design for a rock concert stage-set mislabeled feet as inches — except the proportions here are reversed. People in charge complained to me about whole sections of unusable seats without views, ineptly designed stages, halls without dressing rooms, windswept plazas and staircases going nowhere.

Had any “professional” journal published this pathetic building, nothing negative would appear in print, yet Kimmelman merely tours the building and listens to its users in order to assess its real worth–a net zero in every meaningful category. Meanwhile, favelas continue to be cultural incubators desipite their poverty and deplorable living conditions. Could there be a sharper dividing line between the cultural and economic elites who control international development and the struggling residents of a major world capital? Why can’t the architectural establishment, and its media, address this social divide instead of touting its expensive mega-projects for the rich? If I see another Zaha Hadid opera house or museum I am going to vomit.

Kimmelman Skewers Foster

January 30, 2013

Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.

Michael Kimmelman has written one of the most perceptive reviews of a recent architectural exhibition I have read–see this Sunday’s New York Times. His negative assessment of the current Venice Biennale for architecture is exactly on target. To wit, anyone who really cares about the quality and beauty of our built environment will find very little of interest in this, the most prestigious and venerable of all world architecture forums. Why should this be the case?

Architecture is about the public realm. Public architecture is always a reflection of current political forces. We live in a world in which political change is desperately needed, but such change is nowhere to be seen. Entrenched financial elites control the economy and governments around the globe. Nothing is done or built without their assent or support.

The architectural profession, long associated with revolutionary, avant garde movements, is beholden as never before to these power elites, especially as cultural capital is purchased by the highest bidders in the form of Starchitect designs, academic studies, urban development schemes, and public art. The leaders in our profession have bought into this cultural consumption pattern and little is being done to change the situation, even as the profession withers under a punishing recession.

As Kimmelman points out in his essay, architecture without “Architects” is where real innovation and promise lies. He talks about exhibits that were assembled to feature vernacular design, outlier architects, designers without professional credentials, even squatters in Venezuela. The powerful leaders in the “design professions,” such as the Biennale’s director, David Chipperfield of London, make token gestures toward the coming upheaval in his profession, but are afraid to let the cat out of the bag.

And so the public, looking for signs of creativity and change at the Venice exhibition, sees only tired, hypocritical repackaging of old designs (a Herzog and de Meuron building not yet built) and weak-minded media collages that make obvious statements about our chaotic world, but offer nothing substantive as a remedy. It is sad that architects, who once promised to save society through visionary designs for cities and institutions, can’t even engage the realm of pubic architecture, let alone influence the politics of development around the globe.

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.