The New York Times critic "grab a Metrocard" and see for himself." /> The New York Times critic "grab a Metrocard" and see for himself." />

Andrew Bernheimer | Opinions

An Open Letter to Nicolai Ouroussoff

"Nighttime in New York, 2106," Architectural Research Office, 2007

I would like to challenge The New York Times’ architecture critic’s assertion in his article of August 24th, 2009 (“As Heroes Disappear, the City Needs More”) that Los Angeles has fostered two generations of architects “that has no real equivalent in New York.” While I agree with Nicolai Ouroussoff’s ultimate conclusion that “real change will first demand a radical shift in our cultural priorities”, it would behoove Mr. Ouroussoff, who waxes nostalgically about the 70s-era influence of the “New York Five,” to explore the halls of academia on the eastern seaboard and to grab a Metrocard and visit the architectural studios that are energetically creating new work in our diverse city.

If he does engage in this search, he will find that Gotham isn’t nearly as barren of the “heroes” he seeks. He would find practices and their principals exerting great influence over the current generation of architects and even more sway upon the students of the next generation.

He would meet Alexander Gorlin, whose Nehemiah Housing in East New York is responsible — in every sense of that word. He would find that the three partners of Lewis-Tsurumaki-Lewis are all deeply revered teachers (Paul Lewis is the Director of Graduate Studies at Princeton, Marc Tsurumaki teaches at Columbia, and David Lewis is the former Director of Parsons’ graduate program), respected theorists, and accomplished builders, whose reach extends far beyond just this city.

He would speak with David Leven and Stella Betts of Leven Betts Studio, who are also ensconced in the academy while running a much-honored practice (Leven has inherited the graduate program at Parsons from David Lewis). He would meet Adam Yarinsky and Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Office who, besides regularly teaching and building prominent public work such as the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, have devoted office resources to complete essential work in collaboration with the brilliant structural engineer Guy Nordenson. Their vital research on how climate change may affect New York City was completed through a Latrobe Prize grant and must be taken seriously.

And Mr. Ouroussoff would find countless other studios and offices (nArchitects, SHoP, Lyn Rice Architects, WORKac, Leroy Street Studio/Hester Street Collaborative, and more than I can name here) run by architects, young (and in some cases significantly younger than the accomplished Angelenos he mentions) men and women, all of whom have had broad influence within and outside the profession. Most of these practices and the people who run them, including our own, have devoted themselves to a dual act of responsibly progressive design: teaching and building. They have already had (even though considered mere youngsters in a profession that rewards age and patience) an impact on local and more far-flung colleagues and students, on this generation and future generations of architects, and on New York City itself.

There can be no greater influence on the future of our city and on the built environment than to inspire others to make better and more responsible architecture. The work and teachings of many of my colleagues is mostly lacking in self-promotion but overflowing with substance. This is what makes them influential and, at times, heroic. But it is also, perhaps, what makes them far less visible to Mr. Ouroussoff. He should be looking more closely.

Comments [26]

Yeah Andy!!! And I would add that "heroes" are not really what the profession and the public need. Thoughtful and responsible architects are the real heroes.
Andrus Burr

I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Bernheimer. I think attention to the stars in our system detracts from the more important and consistent architecture produced by the many, often struggling firms that make up the backbone of the design community. And many were contemporaries of the "NY Five". I was a personal witness to the contributions of Bernard Rothzeid, recently deceased, founding principal of RKT&B, who set aside ego, glorification and often monetary gain, to produce an endless stream of indigenous, well designed populous projects; housing, healthcare, theaters and schools throughout the city for more than 40 years. Another unsung NY hero.
Carl Kaiserman

I agree with Andrus. The last thing New York needs is heros of the old-school variety. Much of what the 'heros' contributed did great harm to the cityscape. I'm thinking in particular of the glass tower by Gwathmey at Cooper Square.
Michael Cannell

Nicolai's argument, to me, is rooted in object- versus fabric-oriented architecture. By virtue of their respective contexts, a lot of LA architecture is the former and NYC's buildings are the latter. So no wonder the NYTimes critic does not find a "real equivalent" in the dense urban fabric of Manhattan or the other boroughs. Della Valle Bernheimer's Just Green Housing project -- architects LTL, ARO and BriggsKnowles took part in their masterplan for the affordable housing in East New York, Brooklyn -- embodies this split and the comments mentioned above about responsible architects and architecture.

For "heros" I would substitute "role models"; the person, the work, the effect on locale and profession.
Leni Schwendinger

As previous comments and Bernheimer suggest, there are many prolific and engaged archiheroes in New York City. Ouroussoff can be faulted for a lack of initiative in seeking out the firms that are moving and shaking and educating our future colleagues. His default seems to be to fluff the already fluffed stars; he should remember that the NYTimes *makes* stars. His voice as architecture critic could be sourcing and constructing the stars of tomorrow, instead of reminding us of the stars of yesteryear.

We don't need heroes. We need a culture that values design... and cities that foster design culture.
Leah Ray

Excellent and thoughtful commentary, Andrew!

I for one am very excited about the younger architects in the field (some of them are a little older than I am (42) - it's true that architecture is a slow profession). I'm especially excited to see firms like SHoP and ARO take on the processes of construction in their work - adding a level of complexity and thus deeper understanding of the practice of architecture, in an area that many "heroes" seem to want to avoid.
Donna Sink

Agreed, and Ouroussoff even alludes to the basis of the problem in his article: the New York Five was CREATED by the MoMA and press. They weren't uniform in ideas, methodology, or practice, but were brought together and labeled by a third party. The LA scene, too, was brought together by the media and various cultural institutions. If there is no conveniently packaged group that is analogous to the New York Five (arbitrary as it was, anyway), it is only the fault of currently practicing critics and curators. Not that these labels are necessary or useful, but assuming that Ouroussoff believes what he's saying, he only has himself to blame.
Jaffer Kolb

What I found so perverse about Ouroussoff's piece (aside from the fact that he didn't seem to know the names of any younger NYC architects) was the idea that the work of the Whites could be a model for recession-challenged architects today. Is the way forward for architecture really through formal investigation, and not (as this site and others have suggested) through greater alignment of social, environmental, and intellectual goals with design? I agree with him that there are parallels between the 70s and the present, a time out could help the profession change and grow, but there's a big leap between "cosmopolitanism" and the return of 1000 axonometrics (or whatever the digital equivalent would be).
Alexandra Lange

I agree with everything in this response. And if Ourousoff really opened his eyes, not only would he find all those mentioned, but he would also discover that New York has become the center of contemporary classicism in architecture, with a large number of talented architects and urbanists working, teaching, writing, and advocating.
Christine Franck

I always found Herbert Muschamp to be unpalatable as a critic, but at least he knew his history cold and, like it or not, had a dramatic prose style. Ouroussoff has none of his virtues, and we're stuck with the same formally driven hero worship, but poorly delivered. It's sad to see the paper of record moving toward, at best, irrelevance in the architecture department.

Beyond all the salient points addressed above, I found the conclusion especially irritating. "Real change will first demand a radical shift in our cultural priorities. Politicians will have to embrace the cosmopolitanism that was once the city’s core identity." This city is a pretty cosmopolitan place, from the top down, right now. Let me suggest that it's the critic who needs a radical change in priorities.
Mark Lamster

Ourousoff's beloved NY5 worshiped at the alter of the Single Family Home on Detached Lot, the fetish uber-sprawl maker par none, and helped guide the era of monster-bloated modernist homes (case study on steriods! pumped! 10,000sf is a tear down!) and thus owed a real debt to the wrong coast - his was a particularly sad editorial coming on the heals of his gauzy but almost sentient review of Zaha's central park form-pig marketing gizmo: for a minute there, he lost himself.

Too bad. Density in human settlements is really the only hope this globes' exploding population has, and NYC's daily churning of its physical plant at the hands of all it's design professionals, in service of one of the densest and most polyglot populations on the planet, blows away in every true architectural sense the porn-home collection of saggy tanned-boomer bmw convertible wealth that is LA.

Sounds like Nick should move to Laurel Canyon, get a prius and a tear down, and commence the consumptive life of psychotic exceptionalism that is Southern California - he can f*ck all the stars he wants and continue to phone in his work. SD


No matter how to try to cover it up with your name dropping, good buildings are very rarely built in New York City.

New York City is dead architecturally. All the top New York City firms do design good buildings, but are they actually BUILT in New York? No. They are built in more innovative areas of the country not a backwards ass city like New York where all we get are lame ugly cheap boxes.

And yes, California is one of the many places where innovative and beautiful buildings have been churned out by talented New York architecture.

New York City is living in the past. Nothing in the city can be tall, nothing can be innovative, everything has to be "in context" or it's not welcome. Look at nice buildings like the Cooper Union that has you guys up in arms.

NYC is dead.

Excuse me, I meant more innovative areas of the WORLD like Asia not the country.

All the amazing buildings coming out of Asia put new New York City "architecture" to shame.

While I do not disagree with mr. bernheimer that there are firms based in new york doing challenging design work, it is sad to me that both he and some of the commenters here cannot seem to even acknowledge that the design firms mentioned in mr. ouroussoff's piece (and many many others in California) are doing outstanding work and contributing to the architectural profession, both through practice and academia. Perhaps it would further the profession, which is often maligned, if we put aside our territorial biases and collaborated on building up a profession that is chronically misunderstood.


I wrote this piece in response to Mr. Ouroussoff's charges towards the architectural community of NYC. There is no judgment by exclusion, and it is true that the firms that he mentions are, without a doubt, doing exemplary work that I admire greatly. There are also countless other firms doing brilliant things in the south, midwest, pacific northwest, northern California, etc., but that was not the focus of his column in the Times nor my response.

More importantly and regionally appropriate, how does Mr. Ouroussoff pen that column and not acknowledge the influences of Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, or Steven Holl, to name but a few?
Andrew Bernheimer

is there any kind of identifiable force as a result of these talented NY architects doing "challenging work" in the same region at the same time? some kind of last influence that can transform the profession? Seems like thats what is lacking in NYC -- a movement.


One of the most unforgivable displays in recent memory were the 'dream teams' assembled by the New York Times which were intended, ostensibly, to offer 'alternative' visions for ground zero.

This knee-jerk hero worship showed a lack of understanding then, as it does now. The real heroes are those that continue to work, support and inspire during the hard times - in addition to those mentioned by Mr. Bernheimer, think established mentors like Jim Polshek.

We don't need no NY5! It has taken nearly three decades to get past these guys. Like the comment above, I'm also thinking in particular of the glass tower at Cooper Square. Unforgiveable! Unheroic!
Craig Mutter

Hey, our boxes may be lame, and they may be ugly, but they are by no means cheap!

And of course they can't be tall anymore: sure, you have thousands of people living within a few blocks of the BofA tower, one of the tallest in the world, actually conducting their lives without concern about this tower and without CARS, but nevermind that - apparently, when its common-place to build 50-story buildings (as this city does on a regular basis) you "can't build tall anymore". Puh-lese.

Look, its simple: in strictly architectural terms, as a created and continuously re-created environment for dense human habitation, there are few places in the world that compare to NYC. As other have noted, there is great work being designed here, and contrary to some suggestions, there is great work being built here - to not see that is to be blind and unimaginative.

It was Michael Grave's utter sh*t architecture, foisted stucco turds surrounded by parking, dropped like some faux-gay roman joke amid the inferiority-complexed exurbs of the USA (not unlike much of the NY5 spew) got me interested in the practice: he must, like Kenny G, be stopped.

The firms in LA are unquestionably doing some interesting work, as are many firms in NYC (and elsewhere in the country) but to deny NYC's pre-eminance as an architetural environment, as place where the scale of the human squarely meets the scale of heroic everywhere, all the time, and without effort, well thats just stoopid.

Fortunately, there's help: go downtown; have a couple beers at the Blarney Stone on Trinity Place; and walk it off as far north as your feet can go, dropping into places as needed for fortification.

If being able to walk 200 blocks while keeping a nice buzz, surrounded by millions of people, and knowing there's places all over to duck into if you need cool air, something to eat, or a train ride isn't the best architectural environment that's ever been created, well, its time to get out of Gotham so you can focus on designing those McMansion/Modern/Shingle Style dream homes your wealthy clients have always dreamed of.


I'm as big a fan of ARO as the next guy, but their profile is extraordinarily thin, relative to the NY5. Maybe Holl could so a little more for his former charges the way Johnson did? And one could pick apart this list -- after all, we skipped a whole generation (where is Smith-Miller Hawkinson? 1100 Architect?) here. The problem with architecture criticism for such a broad audience (and the Times is a broad audience for the arts) is that you can't really paint narratives unless they are larger than life. And ARO isn't, which is a damn shame. Maybe DO could help along that road a bit now?
miss representation

It seems all the New Yawkers have their panties in a twist. When Ousouroff was in LA he only wrote about Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas and how great everything was outside of LA. Now he has a better editor, his pieces are far more coherent, but he is finally writing the articles he did not write in LA. In the land of sunshine many are glad to see him finally shining up to what is pretty obvious; New York "Architecture" is mostly unmemorable though it is hard not to have great memories of the City itself.
Joe Angelo

Andrew, thank you for responding to Mr. Ousouroff; I agree with yours and Mark Lamster’s assessment whole heartedly. Yet perhaps Mr. Ousouroff irritating piece serves a good purpose: it allow us to see ourselves with the solidarity of an ascending community! Could this be the time and place when architects come together to become a stronger whole, rather than merely puppeteer singular heroes?
Galia Solomonoff

Unlike the rest of the NY5, John Hejduk's encouragement to "build less" was the radical position most fame seekers ignored. Dean Hejduk imagined a world where architects aren't the impotent professionals they have become..... licking at the boots of developers and critics.

Morphosis' building at Cooper in nothing more than a developer building hidden behind punched metal screens with a twisting atrium that would make a SciArc second year student project complete.

Hedjuk would cry if he had lived see the damage done to Cooper Square and his beloved school.

I hate to be a lone point of dissent here, but Mr. Ouroussoff makes some good points. Doesn't anyone think he may be PARTIALLY correct here?
Tyler Dockery | Dockery Design

A very interesting read. Some really interesting and heart-felt points.

I sat here and tried to think of the first bit of interesting architecture in NYC that has been done of late. The first thing I thought of was the clock at Union Square. And then I thought of Richard Meier's apartment building on the west side. I don't particularly care for Gehry's new building . . . .

While I appreciate Mr. Bernheimer's passion and cited references (which I will look up) -- shouldn't the work speak for itself?

Lest we all forget - the last 8 or so years were boom town years for building and look what went up. I think it would be unintelligent to ignore Nicolai's article in whole.


Jobs | June 14