Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the New York Times, is a gifted writer and thinker. But in the months following his appointment in 2011, the knock on him in architecture circles quickly became his perceived aversion to covering buildings. More specifically, buildings as singular works of architecture (with a capital A). That perception—while not altogether accurate—could almost be excused, since coverage in the Times had for a decade and a half focussed almost exclusively on “iconic” buildings and celebrity architects. Kimmelman broadened the coverage to include transportation, infrastructure, affordable housing, zoning, emergency relief, and in doing so arguably helped shape a shift in the profession. Recently I talked to Kimmelman about the state of architecture, his approach to criticism, and the opportunities ahead for reshaping the world. (This is the first of a two part interview.)
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MK: Michael Kimmelman
When you started one of the things people immediately noticed was a broadening of the coverage. It was less about stand alone buildings. Talk about what went into that decision.
Architecture is a large and essential field, which is not only about buildings. It’s also about the spaces those buildings occupy and the way people use those spaces. Architecture opens onto, inevitably, a network of other subjects. Some of them obvious, like transportation and infrastructure, but also issues like equity, community, public space, green space. I just felt that to cover the field, in all of its complexity, meant we had to acknowledge that buildings were at the center of architecture, but not the whole of it.
It’s sometimes hard for the general public to comprehend that they are in fact surrounded by architecture. They’re moving through designed spaces.
I think that one of the things that happened with architecture was that it gained a larger public profile, at some cost. The gain was that people became aware that architects were designing buildings that, visually, could be quite spectacular. And in some very limited cases, could have catalytic effects in communities. They certainly could become sources of community pride, and sometimes engines of economic development.
Although that was sometimes overstated.
Wildly overstated, in most cases. But the cost of it was, people came to think of architects as glorified sculptors, and that architecture was something only for the wealthy, for limited types of projects: art museums, high end corporate commissions, private patrons and occasional public buildings. That misrepresented the work that the overwhelming majority of architects do, and it limited architecture’s meaning to essentially a number of material and formal advances. Which are important, but hardly the whole of the field. So architecture diminished its own role in the public’s eye, even while it made itself more prominent. Now I also think there is, for many reasons, a pendulum swing taking place. That definition of architecture, that focus within the field itself, has been shifting. I don’t think there would have been the same reception to my work had that shift not already been underway. It’s both a generational and a social shift. And I believe it’s a very healthy one.
I agree. I think the Pritzker going to Aravena was an interesting moment, coming when it did.
The Pritzker Prize, for a little while now, has been trying to acknowledge that the conversation has been changing. The choice of Shigeru Ban a couple of years ago was another reflection of their desire to say: “Look, architecture isn’t just about glamorous buildings. Object buildings.” And, yes, Alejandro’s choice was definitely a desire to send a signal that the prize wants to reflect a larger shift in the conversation. But the prize itself, which I respect, is nonetheless about a certain kind of focus on the individual architect as a great artist. The prize certainly has its own value, but is not necessarily a symbol of change. It is merely trying to reflect that change.
At the time I didn’t know Aravena’s work very well. But when I looked at it, it seemed like he had two kinds of architecture, the patron-driven architecture, which had echoes of Kahn, and his social housing projects, which were very different.
That’s true of Ban’s work too. There’s the work he’s done in emergency relief and the work he’s done for wealthy Japanese clients, museums and corporations. What makes Alejandro interesting is that he seems most engaged by collaborative projects of social purpose that involve financial and political limitations. He’s hired by Chilean companies, but he’s not looking only for clients who can provide him with the most money to realize his vision. He’s looking for ways in which existing problems like housing for the poor can be addressed through architecture. So, if there is only X-amount of money for a housing unit in Chile, and the problem is, how can you build decent housing for people at that number, Alejandro finds that problem a creative and useful endeavor. And at the heart of his work is this notion that architecture is a collaborative process. And not just a collaboration between the architect and developer, or government or corporate patron, but with the users as well. They will have a critical say, in this case, in what their housing looks like. The architects, therefore, have to give up a certain amount of control, and share the creative process.
That’s what I found so encouraging about his firm’s work. We’ve seen in the past, where architects did social work but still brought their formal agendas to bear, whether people wanted the gift or not. He seemed to be doing something more humble.
He’s by no means the first architect to think about incremental housing, or to engage masses of people in formal practices, but he’s doing it in a way that seems fairly effective. I have talked to people who live in those projects and they are happy. They understood the extent to which incremental housing depends on their contribution. Not everyone wants to be involved in building their own houses. It’s not the only model. And for most people in the developed world, this would not be a workable model. But in other parts of the world, it can be an effective way of giving people more for their money. I like this notion of architecture as an interactive, collaborative, evolving, organic process, which produces something that’s not just the product of its creator, the architect, but something richer and more complex, precisely because it engages all of these other people, who ultimately make it what it is.
I think younger architects respond to this approach as well.
Totally. That’s what I’m saying about a generational change. Students in architecture schools now, many of them still want to be Zaha, of course, but they also see there are other ways of being architects and making lasting impacts that don’t only involve that one model, of the celebrity architect designing for a limited clientele. Look, not every architect should be doing the same thing, or be engaged by the same issues, but I believe that most people get into architecture because they want to make the world a better place. And they think they can contribute and create useful and beautiful things. And also do good.
I also believe that’s true, based on the architects that I know.
I have limitless respect for architects. I have one-hundred percent belief that this is a profession based on a notion of social good. It’s fundamentally what attracts people to the field. And we have situations of such enormity now, in terms inequity, housing shortages, war, political and climate refugees.
The effects of climate change will be the design issue of our time, involving massive dislocations and disruptions.
The number of displaced people in the world now is equivalent to the population of France. And there’s going to be more of it, even in the cities that are successful now. I was just in South China, in the Pearl River Delta, which is basically the world’s manufacturing hub, nearly all of which lies about one meter above sea level. The sea levels are rising, quickly. So we’re talking about trillions, with a T, of dollars of investment. Half of the items in your house were made there. So, there’s another place that will have to reshape itself for climate change, in terms of infrastructure, zoning, and equity issues as well.
All coastal cities will have to rethink themselves.
Not just coastal cities. I’m doing a big project on climate change and I was in Mexico City recently, another place where there are climate issues. It’s not always about rising waters. Climate change has multiple effects. And even if climate change didn’t cause a particular problem that exists in a city, it tends to exploit and accelerate it. But all of this uncertainty also presents, it seems to me, an unprecedented opportunity for people who design buildings and cities, to think about how to profoundly reshape the world. It is the absolute right moment to be thinking beyond single, glorious buildings. To think beyond a narrow clientele and a narrow set of issues. I think there has not been a greater opportunity to make change in many years.
Featured image: Ville Verde Housing, designed by Elemental; via CNN.