Times critic discusses social role in architecture

Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman ’80 spoke about journalism and architecture as ways to work for the public good.
Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman ’80 spoke about journalism and architecture as ways to work for the public good. Photo by Vivienne Jiao Zhang.


In his lecture “Public Space, Social Responsibility and the Role of the Critic,” New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman ’80 spoke Monday about his role in drawing attention to architecture as a public good.

Reflecting on the different types of architectural models and their uses, Kimmelman spoke to a crowd of about 100 on a variety of topics including differing opinions on the public and private uses of architecture in the United States and Europe, what constitutes public space in the Occupy Wall Street movement and how a critic can guide the conversation on urbanism and architecture.

Kimmelman, who became a journalist in order to participate in public discourse and debate, said he aims to draw attention to questions of urban infrastructure and planning that give insight into how people live today.

“I focus on cities and use a reporter’s basic skills to talk to people and to play an advocate’s role,” Kimmelman said of his position as a critic. “[I] stimulate conversation and nudge people towards a humane civil ideal.”

The Occupy movement, for instance, has unintentionally raised the debate on what constitutes public versus private space and who governs its use, he said. The “delicious irony of the Occupy story,” Kimmelman added, is that Zuccotti Park — the site of Occupy Wall Street until its eviction on Nov. 15 — is a privately owned park that is open to the public 24 hours a day, while all publicly owned city parks maintain curfews.

The Occupy camp came to operate as a miniature polis, with designated legal spaces, medical stations, media centers and a general store — just as a real city would, Kimmelman said. Occupy revealed how a city functions, how societies work, and how people define and live in public spaces, he added.

“In the end, the question of architectural conversation returns to public good, where it should always begin and end,” Kimmelman said.

In dangerous, poor areas, a notable piece of architecture — such as a sports stadium — can be a source of neighborhood pride and become a locus for the community, he said, adding that he feels a social responsibility to make a difference by calling attention to cases like the slums outside Bogotá and Cazuca, Colombia.

Rather than focus on specific architects and the formal relationships of buildings, Kimmelman said he likes to question the social policy problems surrounding architecture.

“Isn’t it a normal thing to inquire into the use of the building and see how buildings, like everything else, have lives and evolve in unexpected ways?” he asked.

Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the School of Architecture, said Kimmelman’s New York Times column contrasts with that written by Kimmelman’s predecessor, as the conversation has shifted from an emphasis on “star architects” to urban issues.

“It’s great to have someone represent this point of view,” Stern said. “Particularly at this time, I think many students and faculty and other people as well are a little tired of some of the emphasis on star architects.”

Alan Sage ’14 said he thinks urbanism is becoming mainstream and Kimmelman’s shift in the focus of his beat represents a trend in media focusing more on urban planning as a whole. People, he added, seem to be growing more conscientious of urban settings.

In response to Sage’s comments, David Kemper ’13 said he questioned who Kimmelman’s target audience is and whether the writer aims to influence architects or how people view buildings.

Kimmelman was appointed The Times’ architecture critic in late summer 2011, before which time he worked as a foreign correspondent for the paper.

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