Monday, August 27, 2012

Welcome Back Kimmelman

NYTimes architecture critic Michael Kimmelman gave a talk at Portland's MECA (Maine College of Art) in the ICA's Osher Room June 21st to a good size audience of students and area cultural enthusiasts. Kimmelman started this position at the Times last fall after returning from his previous post at the Times writing from Berlin and elsewhere on a variety of subjects in his, "Abroad" column. Prior to going abroad he was the paper's long time art critic taking a different route from the typical art critics who were acting out emperor fantasy's by giving a thumbs up or down to individual artists.

Although not an architect, Kimmelman did briefly cover the subject between studying at Yale and Harvard as an editor at ID magazine and architecture critic and New England Monthly Magazine.

Yes, I said Yale and Harvard. He grew up in the West Village of NYC, son of a doctor and an activist. He went to Yale for undergrad and Harvard for grad where he studied art history. Oh, yeah, also he is a concert pianist of the highest caliber. Let's see, Yale....Harvard.....concert pianist...... award winning writer for the NYTimes......that pretty much makes him perfect. What about physical subjects you ask? That level of piano play is actually incredibly physical but I'm guessing he is also a triathlete and maybe a fencing champ or some other semi-obscure sport associated with the bourgeoisie (I had to look that word up- I guess that gives me away). I'll take another guess and say he can tell a good wine from bad and eats really, really healthy meals, his wife is slim and highly educated but put her career on hold to care for the kids who are all testing 3 grades above. Yes, I'd like to come back as Michael Kimmelman in my next life, I'll just say it now and get it over with.

Shoot, maybe I'm thinking of Adam Gopnik....

In any case in the old days a journalist, a writer, would get an assignment wherever the need arose. Whether it's covering the night beat or the latest show at the Met, you wrote a story with a compelling narrative for an audience not necessarily schooled in your topic. Better to have a well written story by an amateur bird watcher than a poorly written one by an expert. Thus, better to have a well written story on architecture by an art critic than an okay one by an architect. Especially a really good writer with a curious and probing mind.

And so Kimmelman began his reign as architecture critic at the Times a year ago and supposedly did an about face from the previous critic's attention to individual architects and their individual buildings as art objects to public space and housing. No more museums and lots of everyman places and physical experiences. He had made the morally uplifting decision to focus on the "us" rather than the "I". Much was said regarding the possibility there would no longer be interviews with Gehry and Piano but instead public comments on a place or built situation.

First up: bicycle paths. Next; housing, parks, urban design exhibits, trees in the city, multi-building urban development, sports venues, and...... a project by Piano- but one in the shadow of an architectural masterpiece and so, demure by default.

But then, a focus on Columbia and how new buildings are targeting the poor conditions like crime in Medellin and education in Bogota. These articles suspend the cultural reality that architecture in the first world is primarily a reward for acquiring wealth for a moment and let us enter the fantasy world of a poor third world culture where architecture has a higher calling out of necessity. Could architecture help? Would we have to wait until we were truly slum ridden and desperate here and perhaps all willing to believe in an unverifiable greater good in order to perceive a common goal? Could the impending implosion of the US lead to a classless society? Could liberal ivy league youngsters guide us to a higher place using non-profits and third world experience and kickstarters?

Anyway, back in NYC he gives a big thumbs up to Cohen's steel and glass canopy bridging two Goldman buildings over a slice of financial area "public" space. Cohen is head of architecture at Harvard and likes to play with a parametric modeling program that assistants turn into reality. The glass is sleek and the steel is sleek and the geometry is sleek. It does fit well with the surroundings and greatly enhances the area while performing it's function. Rolex should shoot an ad there. And that's how architecture works, a good solution has a budget and a client and solves a problem. Whether the king requests a private marble chapel or the collective needs a bamboo library, the process is fairly similar as architects know.

Here is a quote from the article:
Sculpture is always closer than architecture to pure form, being mostly liberated from all the obvious constraints (environmental, economic, technological and political) that shape any building’s design. Architecture is a contaminated art in this sense, but that is also a virtue. It’s a social art. It creates social spaces. The best architecture embraces and pushes beyond this, formally.

There’s a metaphor at play. A free society consensually accepts its governing burdens and principles. Constraint and freedom: the essence of good architecture and a healthy culture.

Now this strikes me as an attempt at an erudite poetic aphorism or something. I like the, "contaminated art.", phrase and that the contamination is what makes it social. But the, "pushes beyond this, formally." is a bit redundant. The last big picture type statement is more ad copy for a big firm. The dilemma for us architects is we love good copy but we know too much to ignore the perhaps amateur statements.  

And as the recession thaws a tiny bit, the MIT and Harvard architecture grads can come back from Africa having designed award winning straw and mud hospitals and libraries to take what was learned to design mom and dad's vacation home to LEED platinum standards.

As noted in his essay on Pruitt-Igoe and Penn South housing projects, architecture has less influence than politics as it should. I'm reminded of a comment by Mark Cousins (an Architectural Association lecturer) pointing out how classical architecture has been tagged as democratic, elitist, ideal, fascist, human, anachronistic, etc. One minute Jefferson is mistakenly using it as a symbol of democracy (Athenian "citizens" not such a democratic group), next Speers is adding steroids and then Stirling is under fire for post modern masterpiece.

Fortunately in countries on the edge of socialism for purely practical reasons like parts of Latin America, Spain, Italy, etc., functionalism, or, original modernism, is still the only choice and so the new work is all "okay" by architectural culture tastemakers. This style covers slum libraries as well as ocean villas. Like the French, the idea is that we are all voting the same way even if only a few are invited to the soiree and only those at the soiree are invited to apply for a job working at the UN.

Kimmelman read a prepared text with projected images on a screen behind him. He ran through some of the topics covered by his articles. Columbia (country) was featured as well as a housing project in the Bronx full of sustainable features by British high tech architect Nick Grimshaw. Grimshaw's office has focused more lately on large infrastructure commissions not necessarily full of structural gymnastics of the Waterloo kind. Kimmelman gave his version of the, "Yeah, but do the toilets work?", report.

Here's an architect magazine report:

So, what if anything is lost when a non-architect writes about architecture? Well, I think these articles are more reporting than a complete analysis. A reporter visits a place; talks to people, takes pictures; gets some background; writes best story. If you want the buildings or urban spaces or urban movements put into historical context and broken down from the macro scale of the arc of settlements to the contemporary obsessions by region and the technology of making, etc. then buy an architecture magazine. I find the Kimmelman articles great reading and informative.

If you would like to pour yourself a mimosa on Sunday and catch up on what has crossed over from merely existing to topical by Times standards (and I always find that interesting enough) and you want interesting reading, then read the latest Times article. Or, serendipitously put on your Oscar Niemeyer Museum t-shirt as I did and go to a Kimmelman lecture at your local cultural institution. You can still wear black but the thin horizontal librarian glass frames are out- large frames are in.

Kimmelman's parent's were a doctor and an "activist". I'm guessing his mom was the activist and had an influence on him the incredible successes did not obscure. The current real or feigned concern for "us" as opposed to "me" in today's kids is a trickle down from the 70's when tv shows like, "Welcome Back, Kotter", had a liberal school teacher dispensing wisdom to the public school kids while perfectly happy with his teacher salary. This moment between the 60's revolt and the 80's yuppiedom created an atmosphere where it was normal to think of the group over oneself. Kimmelman, like me, would most likely carry some of this in his cultural DNA. Thus, returning from his Berlin "Shprockets" atmosphere, he may find a need to let this attitude resurface. Or it's just the trend.

Welcome back, Kimmelman.

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