Should Ouroussoff Be Missed?

As we now all know, Nicolai Ouroussoff may not have been good enough. But in his ArchDaily column The Indicator, Guy Horton argues that we shouldn’t be too quick to jump for joy at the news of the critic’s departure from the New York Times.  This isn’t simply about judging the work of Ouroussoff and trying to measure in some way whether it was good, bad, great, or just adequate. Horton opens the conversation up to discussing criticism as a whole.

“To be an architecture critic, though, is to be in the position of easy target. They should all wear little signs on their backs that say ‘kick me.’”

It’s certainly true that we all like to examine critics and the work of critics (myself included) and point out what should have been done differently. We judge them on what they did say, and what they failed to include. Architecture criticism is going through a difficult transition as more is published on the internet and Horton argues, “the profession will miss [Nicolai Ouroussoff] because, as a writer for The New York Times, he brought architecture to the consciousness of the masses. He and other critics are the public’s continuing education in architecture.”

But this does not mean we shouldn’t expect good criticism. We can’t have an attitude of simply being happy there are still newspaper architecture critics in the first place. The web may make room for a less focused field of criticism, and as Horton says, “most of the architectural writing on the web is editorless. This does not mean it is bad. You might say it is less mediated, less screwed with, more authentic.”

As we can already see now, printed and online writing does not necessarily have to compete with each other. Both have pros and cons, and offer valuable platforms for critical discussions. We should expect quality in both mediums.

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News Alert: Ouroussoff Leaving the New York Times

According to reports from Architect’s Newspaper, Nicolai Ouroussoff has announced that he is leaving the New York Times!  It’s worth reading AN’s brief report if only for their mention of Ouroussoff submitting his own Pulitzer nomination package this year.

I can’t wait to hear who will replace Ouroussoff!

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Criticism Needs Time

“We reviewed the newcomer as though it were a sculpture and then moved on,” says John King in his recent commentary in Architectural Record, titled, “Criticism Needs Time, as a Second Look at Thom Mayne’s San Francisco Federal Building Shows.”

And nothing is more true. King’s article isn’t about finding faults with Thom Mayne’s building. Instead, his careful examination of the Federal Building, which the critic reviewed previously in 2007, shows that often the true quality of architecture can only be judged after it has been in use for a while.

Writing about the building after 4 years, King finds that the Social Security offices go undiscussed in most reviews, despite the fact that it’s the destination for most regular visitors on a daily basis, and he questions the building’s true sustainability. For King, who is the urban design critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, it is perhaps more logical to consider architecture as part of the design of a larger environment. But as he makes clear in his last paragraph, this is something any critic writing about architecture should focus on.

“The San Francisco Federal Building had its close-up, its moment as an object of architectural fascination. Now it belongs to the city as a whole. Ultimately, that’s the perspective from which a major building’s success or failure is judged — whether or not we critics pay attention.”

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The Value of Small-Scale Architecture

Toshiko Mori, Poe Park Visitor Center

Designs can be great regardless of scale, and bigger is not necessarily better. As Julie Iovine explains in her article on Toshiko Mori’s new Poe Park Visitor Center, “Splashy new architecture attracts a blaze of attention, but it’s the carefully conceived small projects that have the real impact on everyday lives.” Well said – let’s not get distracted by the big scale of certain glossy projects, but also realize the positive impact smaller projects can have on their community.

Mori’s Visitor Center, a new building on the 2.3-acre Poe Park in the Bronx, replaces a “scary 1928 Parks Department bunker for equipment storage, with bathrooms underground.” In addition, it’s the first “project to be completed as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative,” a program that “aims at bringing good design to even the humblest city-funded projects.”

Iovine describes the poetics of the park and Visitor Center, and the importance of the “little farmhouse that was Edgar Allen Poe’s last New York home,” a structure that still stands, and gives the park its name. Everything about this project seems to be great for the community. However, while Iovine doesn’t mention its cost until the last paragraph, this seems to attract the biggest interest from online readers. The comments strongly react to the decision to spend $3.8M on the park, when the money could have been put to better use elsewhere in the Bronx.

One comment says, “That is about five times what it should have cost. No wonder New York is broke. Get rid of those architects and just hire builders.”

On the other hand, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, “I am really pleased that we’ve brought a renowned architect to the Grand Concourse. And that it’s not in Midtown, but along the Champs Élysées of the Bronx where it’s fitting to have a work of great architecture.”

Of course, the city and especially areas like the Bronx can use better funding. But would the same criticism come up if this park was built in Manhattan? Or is this expense shocking because it is happening in the Bronx? Consider the High Line, which opens its second section on June 8. The two sections together, from Gansevoort Street to 30th Street reportedly cost $152M. Part of this was raised by Friends of the High Line, the group that led the project, but how much came from the city?

Spending $152M on such a structure seems an extravagant expense, but the benefits it brings to the city and the community have proven themselves invaluable. Is it really too much to spend $3.8M on reviving a community park and visitor center in the Bronx?

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A new life for the Whitney Museum

Renzo Piano, Whitney Museum

From abandoning less than ideal buildings, to building brand new homes: Justin Davidson reports on Renzo Piano’s design for the new Whitney Museum by the downtown end of the High Line. A story can’t help being controversial when it involves key players like the Whitney Museum, Marcel Breuer, MoMA and the High Line, but a disappointing ending could have been avoided.

While the groundbreaking was last week and construction of the new Whitney is official. Davidson makes clear that the conversation isn’t over and the Piano design is out of place in the Meat Packing District. The area, “where not many years ago, the blood of butchered beasts still ran among the cobblestones” has been transformed into a hip new neighborhood, but despite it being home to the Diane von Furstenberg headquarters and the Puma Black Store, “mottled brick, painted iron, and salvaged wood are still pleasingly rough.”

The Whitney’s old Breuer building wouldn’t have been that out of place here, but their new home certainly is. The design is clean, light, mechanical and entirely wrong for the neighborhood. But what did we expect? Have the last few buildings by the architect not taught us anything? Piano’s architectural style makes for a perfectly fitting addition to the Morgan Library, and a simple new wing to Chicago’s Art Institute, but neither of these two structures have anything in common with the character of this New York neighborhood – not the old industrial area, nor its new fashionable replacement.

With his recent buildings, Piano has proven that he is a successful museum architect. But as Davidson notes,

“Even if Piano’s building satisfies every artist’s aspirations and curator’s dream, even if it speeds the sales of Whitney watches and overpriced panini and hosts the most glittering gala soirées—even if it performs all the multifarious tasks that fall to a major museum these days, it still has the makings of a dud.”

Architecture isn’t only about functionality. This can indeed create wonderful environments for viewing the Whitney’s collection. The galleries can even be much better than Breuer’s rooms, but then we once again return to the question, where does a building’s function end? It isn’t confined to within the building’s exterior walls. Architecture lives in a larger picture and has obligations that reach beyond its plot of land. It is nice for the Whitney to have the opportunity to expand the exhibition of their great collection, but with this design the museum will likely miss out on becoming part of the urban culture. This isn’t necessarily Renzo Piano’s fault. Sometimes clients just pick the wrong architect.

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What is Architecture?

“Gang likens the architect to a cook, a prospector, and a nomad,“ according to a recent piece in ENR about “blooming starchitect” Jeanne Gang. A similarly creative way of describing architects has come from Bjarke Ingels, who describes his role as a “midwife of this continuous rebirth of the city rather than the actual creator.” He has likened architects to “alchemists” and American architecture to “surf and turf.”

It can be argued that Ingels’ view of the architect and architecture describes the work he produces and drives his presentation of the material. Certainly the architect as alchemist explains Ingels’ method of combining seemingly incompatible ideas into new and unexpected forms. But what about Gang? Her choice of words doesn’t seem as clearly connected to her architecture.

Defining architecture and the architect isn’t an easy task, but having a clear idea of what this means seems as important as having a good concept for a design. ArchDaily, a website that isn’t exactly known for their critical point of view or filtering through the massive amounts of available projects and images, has been producing some interesting original content. Their AD Interviews, conducted by ArchDaily founder David Basulto, put architects on the spot, asking them simple sounding questions like “What is architecture?” and “What is the role of the architect in contemporary society?”

It’s surprising to find how many architects are stumped by these questions. In the most recent interview, Preston Scott Cohen admitted, “Wow… that’s a very good question,” before answering, “Architecture is a coincidence.” In the interview with SO-IL, Jing Liu can’t help but laugh at the question.

Some are clearly daunted by the question, and it seems this is the first time they have been asked to define their field (at least on camera). It’s nice to see that there are also some that have a more clear view. Hani Rashid immediately answered that architecture is a “hybrid of other disciplines, it’s a multidisciplinary environment we work in” and clearly explains why he sees architects as “spatial engineers.”

In the end, there is no right answer to these questions. How we define architecture and what we see the role of the architect as being is a personal opinion. It makes each architect different and taking some time to shape these views seems like a great exercise.

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Critics on Critics: The American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum - Tod Williams + Billie Tsien. Photo by Michael Moran

I’ve talked about architecture critics criticizing architecture critics, but this past week, we had an interesting example of cross-disciplinary criticism. It all started with the news that the American Folk Art Museum was relocating to a new smaller space near Lincoln Center, leaving empty its 30,000 square foot home, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, from 2001.

I have to admit that I’ve never visited the museum. But I follow Museum Monger for all my museum news, and I trusted her positive account of the American Folk Art Museum building back in February. Apparently Jerry Saltz did not.

Last Wednesday, Saltz published his New York Magazine article, entitled, “Architecture Killed the American Folk Art Museum.” Saltz very simply states that the culprit for the museum’s relocation is in fact “the museum’s physical home,” a building “not only ugly and confining, it was also all but useless for showing art.”

I won’t say that an art critic has no place looking to the architecture in examining a museum’s downfall – museum architecture has been a hot topic for a while, and there are certainly enough examples of buildings that do a disservice to the art on display. But I’m glad that some important architecture critics have stepped in here, and given their insight as well.

Just four hours after Saltz’s story was posted, Justin Davidson responded: “Jerry Saltz Has It All Wrong About the American Folk Art Museum.” Davidson nicely destructs Saltz argument, shows its personal bias, and how easy it is to simply blame the architect.

As Davidson rightly brings up, in commissioning a new building the “museum crippled itself with $32 million in debt and has defaulted on the loan.” Secondly, since Saltz calls the building an “utter lack of imagination and hubristic mess of starchitectural vanity,” can someone please define the term “starchitect”? What exactly makes Williams and Tsien starchitects? The term is overused, or better yet, should never even be used at all.

In the end, Davidson’s final point is one we should definitely keep in mind: “no architectural finesse can compensate for inadequate management, overreach, poor timing, or back luck.” There are instances in which new museum buildings or additions have greatly benefitted the museum – consider for example Steven Holl’s Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – but these circumstances don’t happen without excellent museum leadership. Similarly, no building can be so horrible that it is singularly to blame for the closing of a museum, business, office, hotel or any other institution.

A discussion of this debate wouldn’t be complete without also mentioning Paul Goldberger’s article “The American Folk Art Museum: Don’t Blame the Architects“, published in the New Yorker two days later. As was to be expected, Goldberger manages to strike a diplomatic balance between the two arguments, and perhaps the best conclusion:

“To the extent that people may not want to go to a small museum that is narrow and tight and sits in the shadow of another museum a hundred times its size, the building hasn’t helped matters. But it wasn’t the architects’ idea to put the museum on a too-small site down the block from MoMA. It was their clients, the museum’s board, who made those decisions. Architects can only work with what they are given. Williams and Tsien were given very little to work with, and produced what is, for all its troubles, a small masterpiece. It would be a devastating loss if it were to disappear.”

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