This Man Cares About Buildings (and Music and Art and Public Spaces)

Michael Kimmelman Places Design in Context
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
By Deborah Blagg

“Picture a giant with one foot raised, poised to squash a poodle.” If the image that comes to mind is a storybook ogre looming over a small, fluffy creature, you need to recalibrate. The description is from a December 2013 column by New York Times chief architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. The giant in question is a proposed 1,424-foot Manhattan skyscraper with a cantilever feature at 290 feet that would obscure a sizable chunk of sky above the poodle,” a landmark French Renaissance–style building that has been in the neighborhood since the 1890s.

During a recent Radcliffe visit, Kimmelman talked with Radcliffe Magazine about his distinctive writing style, saying, “Operating in the space between reporting and abstract criticism is the only way to do my job.” An award-winning journalist, the Franke Visiting Fellow at the Whitney Center for the Humanities at Yale University, and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he places equal weight on describing the aesthetics of the built environment, analyzing the decisions that create and govern it, and illuminating its impact on the way we live.

In the column referenced above, for example, Kimmelman’s opinion of the cantilever design isn’t the main point. The issue at the heart of the piece—whether existing zoning and tax laws in Manhattan adequately address the challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of sky-piercing luxury residences—is, typically, much broader. “What do these projects add at street level, where the other 99 percent live?” Kimmelman writes. “What’s their return for claiming the skyline that is our collective identity?”

Aesthetics are important to Kimmelman, but he places design in a context that includes not just architects and their clients, but also the developers, public officials, engineers, transit specialists, landscape designers, academics, artists, environmentalists, and citizens from all walks of life who influence and are influenced by the outcomes of design. He deeply believes that “architects have the ability and a responsibility to reshape our built environment in ways that serve the common good.” He is an admirer of the late writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs, whose influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities argued against the then-conventional thinking that urban renewal was a design challenge best addressed without much neighborhood-level input.

“Jacobs’s book came at a time when a certain line of top-down policy thinking was running aground,” Kimmelman notes. “That moment in the early ’60s was crucial for shifting the conversation.” He thinks architecture has now arrived at another inflection point. “Partly for economic reasons, the conversation about architecture and design has drifted toward a focus on material and formal convention and a certain kind of celebrity culture,” he states. “This emphasis has isolated architecture and made it an extension of sculpture, at least in the public’s mind. It’s time to recover some of architecture’s traditions and to see it as what it is: part of the built world and how we live.”

Why Architecture Matters

The son of a physician and a civil rights activist, Kimmelman grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in Greenwich Village, a place he refers to as his “psychological home.” He describes his parents as “extremely left-wing,” quipping that his father read the New York Times “as if it were the official CIA organ.” Home was a place where journalism was taken seriously, he says, “and there was always a sense of lively conversation.”

Kimmelman’s first assignments at the New York Times drew not on his undergraduate degree in history summa cum laude at Yale or his master’s in art history at Harvard but on his talents as a musician. A gifted pianist with performance credits in New York and Europe, Kimmelman started out as a freelance music critic at the Times in the late 1980s. He was rapidly promoted to chief art critic in 1990.

During his many years in that post, he wrote at length about artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Serra, and Lucian Freud and was named a 2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “his gracefully written observations on art and artists.” Among his several books, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (Penguin Press, 2005), which deals with the power of art to transform lives, became a national best seller.

In 2007 Kimmelman moved to Berlin and began writing the paper’s Abroad column, using culture “as a way to examine social and political affairs.” He covered an expansive array of topics in Europe and the Middle East, including life in Gaza under Hamas, the impact of Vladimir Putin on Russian culture, and the coexistence of rich cultural treasures and extreme xenophobia in Dresden. During this period, Kimmelman says, he was “always searching for new ways to write about why art matters in real life.”

That real-life connection has been much easier to make since his 2011 transfer to the Times’s architecture beat. “When you write about architecture, the ways it matters are self-evident,” says Kimmelman, whose columns on topics such as branch libraries in Queens, low-income housing in the Bronx, urban planning lessons from Hurricane Sandy, and Zuccotti Park’s essential role in the Occupy Wall Street movement inspired New York Magazine to dub him “The People’s Critic.”

His objection to a Museum of Modern Art expansion fell on deaf ears, but his analysis of the plan unblinkingly exposed conflicts. “Complexity is crucial to progress,” he says. “One needs to examine how things work in order to know how to move forward.”

Unruly Commons

From Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square, argues Kimmelman, the fabric of the city is a stage for social action and an object of civic debate. Photo by Victoria Pickering, Creative CommonsFrom Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square, argues Kimmelman, the fabric of the city is a stage for social action and an object of civic debate. Photo by Victoria Pickering, Creative CommonsA childhood spent playing in parks and on sidewalks and streets in Greenwich Village inspired in Kimmelman a lifelong appreciation of public spaces. He capped off his recent visit to the Radcliffe Institute with a lecture titled “The Politics of Public Space.”

“Disenfranchised masses often seek change through the physical occupation of public space,” Kimmelman observed. “As early as 1872, New York State passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering of 20 people or more in public.” Over a century later, he said, that restriction influenced the decision by Occupy Wall Street organizers to stage their protest in the privately owned Zucotti Park and not in Washington Square or Central Park. It’s also why, Kimmelman emphasized, “post-Occupy, various authorities have passed regulations curtailing the use of privately owned spaces.”

Photo by Hossam El-Hamalawy, Creative CommonsPhoto by Hossam El-Hamalawy, Creative CommonsLast year’s massive protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square followed news that Turkey’s government planned to develop Gezi Park, one of the city’s few spaces for large public gatherings. “The conflict over public space in that case openly pitted control versus freedom, segregation versus diversity, and order versus messiness,” said Kimmelman, who reported that one Turk he interviewed described Gezi as “the unruly commons in the middle of the city.” “To a large extent,” he said, “the most effective public spaces are indeterminate, ambiguous, and messy.”

Kimmelman left open-ended the question of the effectiveness of protests in public spaces. Reflecting on the aftermath of the 2011 revolution launched in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he said, “Ultimately, tanks trump tents . . . but it’s too early to say that Tahrir had no impact, since revolutions can take generations.”

Ensuring that future generations of change seekers will have access to public spaces is a key item on his agenda. “How we build and sustain those spaces,” he said, “how we make them humane and economically and culturally vibrant, seem to me to be the big questions for someone in my job.”

—Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.


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