In that strange week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, in which work published hardly seems to have happened, the New York Times ran an article on Vin Cipolla, the semi-new head of the Municipal Art Society. All speakers, including Cipolla, seemed to agree that the MAS has slumped from its glory days defending Grand Central Terminal. Cipolla is quoted as saying: “We have a responsibility to our members and donors and to the citizens of New York to be a big voice on those subjects,” those subjects being big development and public architecture. (The MAS has done good work on advertecture, but that falls more into the category of civic nuisance than civic leadership.)
I have to agree that we need more voices on architecture — the shrinking of print journalism has meant, among many other losses, that minor arts like buildings and design are barely hanging on in the mass media — but I am not so sure they need to be big. Big voices can easily become divorced from the city, from politics, from the streets, talking about abstractions. What we need is more medium-size voices.
Three of the major contemporary American architecture critics live here in New York, and work for publications headquartered here, but in general they have become too big to pay attention to the small stuff. Yes, Nicolai Ouroussoff weighs in on Atlantic Yards once every 5 years or so, but his most passionate urban writing was about Paris. In the New Yorker, Paul Goldberger too, sometimes touches down on the Manhattan streets, but he has always written for history, and about architects. You can’t imagine him reviewing an automat (what would the modern equivalent be, the Shake Shack?) with the seriousness of Lewis Mumford. Ada Louise Huxtable, my hero and model for the size M review, now writes infrequently for the Wall Street Journal and generally from a much greater distance (psychically, physically) than she did in the 1960s. The image above represents my favorite mid-range review of hers, “Sometimes We Do It Right,” on SOM’s Marine Midland Building.
At the other end of the spectrum, blogs do a great job of keeping up with the small fits and starts of unfolding news stories (who else could have followed the Atlantic Yards designs, redesigns, lawsuits, replacements, warring blogs?). The best often call bullshit on the pontificators, but rarely offer a reasoned alternative. Much like community groups organizing against a large, shiny, moneyed foe, they throw stones but are hampered by an inability to imagine an alternative. It seems like a blog-institution like Curbed could spawn a critic, but I doubt that’s what Lockhart Steele is interested in. It probably wouldn’t pay in hits.
So we have the large and the small. What we need is the middle. Voices about architecture that feel like they live in our city, our reality, but know something other than the building before their eyes onscreen.