NYT architecture critic avers: 'We need ambiguous spaces'

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Michael Kimmelman says he is a type of "public advocate" at The New York Times. (Photo by Tess Ryckman)

It is vital that the built environment be in tune with the people who live in it, according to New York Times chief architectural critic Michael Kimmelman ’80, who spoke at Yale School of Architecture as a guest of the Poynter Fellow in Journalism on April 16.

In his talk, “Public space, social responsibility, and the role of the critic,” Kimmelman described his journey from art critic to “public advocate” — which is how he describes the position he has held at the Times since September 2011.

In his role as architectural critic, Kimmelman said, he is following a tradition established by the first person at the Times to hold that position, Ada Louise Huxtable, who saw herself primarily as a defender of urban public spaces rather than simply as an arbiter of architectural aesthetic standards.

“I don’t think of myself as a purveyor of luxury goods,” he said in explaining how he evolved from a art historian/critic, whose job is to pass discerning judgment on formal objects, to a journalist with a mission to report on how architectural projects serve a higher social purpose.

A native New Yorker, Kimmelman returned to his native city after several years’ residence in Berlin, Germany, where he filed his “Abroad” column for the Times. Throughout his talk, he frequently alluded to the difference between the social contract manifested in the architecture of European cities, and a less civic-minded approach to common space and land-use exemplified by New York’s Penn Station, which is clogged with 600,000 commuters every day, or the United States’ ever-expanding inventory of public parking spaces (today there are roughly 2 billion, or 8 spaces for every car).

As Kimmelman talked, a slide show of public spaces paraded on a screen behind him. First among them was an image of piles of flowers left in a New York City park by people who spontaneously gathered there in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. These tributes, noted Kimmelman spoke to the human instinct to connect physically.

“People sought out public spaces to be with other people. They gathered in clusters to reveal themselves to themselves and to prove that they were part of a larger community,” he said. This reaffirmation of belonging to a community is something that will always elude online communication, he contended.

Kimmelman noted that he has complete autonomy to write about what interests him at the Times. For his first article as architecture critic, he  purposefully chose  to focus on an innovative new affordable housing complex in the South Bronx. Known as Via Verde, the mixed-use complex offers environment-friendly features, like fans in every unit to cut down on air-condition use, and many amenities that, he noted, would have been unheard of in publicly subsidized housing a generation ago — including an onsite medical clinic at ground-level, community rooftop garden plots, and a fitness center.

Staircases at Via Verde were placed next to elevators, and the stairwells have windows encouraging people to walk up rather than take the elevator. “Public health and public space go hand in hand,” he commented.

Among the public spaces Kimmelman cited as epitomizing the “power of place,” was Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where the Occupy Wall Street protesters encamped for many weeks last fall. As people took up residence there, it was like a whole new city was emerging, he observed. Make-shift shops, restaurants, a library, and even a center for occupants to recharge the batteries of their laptops and cell-phones quickly evolved out of the human gathering.

“People were creating a vision of community out of common ground,” noted the critic. He marveled how these new “settlers” could carve out so many dfferent purposes from the empty park in the heart of the financial district.

“We need ambiguous spaces,” he said. “Public space has to be occupied and used.”

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345