Philip Kennicott ’88, Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architectural critic for the Washington Post, brought cultured wisdom and deliberation to his talk in the Branford College Common Room on Monday.
Speaking to a crowd of 30 undergraduates, graduates and faculty members, Kennicott partook in a conversation with Stephen Longmire, photography writer and professor of English, as part of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism series. The fellowship program, organized by Longmire among others, invites journalists and critics to engage with Yale students. During the event, Kennicott addressed his role and goals as an architecture critic, D.C.’s culture and a commentary on the planned World War I memorial.
“I couldn’t ask for a better intellectual life than this,” Kennicott said while commenting on his career. “It’s just the right balance of curiosity and panic to keep one moving forward.”
Longmire told the News that although Kennicott lacked an academic background in architecture, his education in philosophy and music did not impede his architectural commentary. He added that journalism is a fast-paced profession which requires extensive self-teaching.
Kennicott emphasized that his experience critiquing music early in his writing career lent him particular skills and poetic devices for critiquing architecture.
Longmire said he hoped the talk would illuminate how a working critic thinks about his pieces. In distilling his writing process to the audience, Kennicott noted that he begins explaining the piece to himself before describing it to his readers.
The public often perceives critics as wanting to “slay judgment” on designers, Kennicott said. He went on to refute this belief, explaining that such aggressive rhetoric has not been used since the ’40s. Understanding the design’s process and function is more important than cutting down the designers, Kennicott explained.
Carter Wiseman ’68, professor at Yale School of Architecture and former architectural critic at New York Magazine, said that when he worked for the publication, he believed a critic’s major obligation was to neither condemn nor praise a given design.
“I think [Kennicott] represents a highly evolved sense of social responsibility,” Wiseman said. “It’s not just about issuing opinions from Mt. Olympus.”
Kennicott explained that Washington, D.C. looks to New York for cultural leadership, with New York’s cultural affairs budget of $156 million surpassing the entire national arts budget of $146 million. Many design competitions and debates ensue over artistic and architectural additions to the city, which is “frustrating,” Kennicott said, describing the role politics plays in effecting the city’s cultural affairs. Still, Kennicott said it gives him a wealth of topics to write about.
Kennicott further discussed Maya Lin’s ’81 ARC ’86 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, describing the design’s abstraction and the somber reminder it generates for visitors. He lauded the monument as an example of a memorial whose historical and architectural implications have not been paralleled. Longmire added that he believes building a memorial dedicated to World War I — a monument that has been commissioned via a nationwide design competition “in remembrance” of lives lost — is not constructive, since no one from that war period is still alive.
Extending the conversation beyond federally sponsored memorials, Kennicott underscored the importance of the memorials invented “on the fly” that sometimes have a greater impact on public consciousness than those monuments that are painstakingly intentional.. He cited, for example, the Parisian pianist who played John Lennon’s song “Imagine” outside of the Bataclan Theater in the wake of the terrorist attacks last November.
Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon ’16, an architecture major concentrating on urban design, said he found it compelling that Kennicott’s work expanded upon other important international events, including the wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
“I think that Kennicott embodies an approach to architectural writing and criticism, his original background from another discipline gives him a distinct viewpoint while reaffirming architecture as a field whose spatial products impact the broadest cultural spectrum,” Ponce de Leon said.
Eliza Griswold, American poet and journalist, will speak in the next installment of the series on Feb. 4.
Correction, Feb. 3: A previous version of this article stated that Longmire organized the program; in fact, he is one of several organizers. It also misstated New York City’s cultural affairs budget and the national arts budget.