Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New New York Times architecture critic expresses concerns for urbanism, not just in "buildings as sculptures" (and what will he say about the arena?)

After Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff, known for their admiration of starchitects and especially Frank Gehry, the New York Times named Michael Kimmelman as architecture critic. And, though some questioned his background as an art and culture critic, Kimmelman has delivered, at least in his initial reviews, far more context than his predecessors.

As Matt Chaban wrote 9/26/11 in the New York Observer, in response to Kimmelman's first review, regarding the Via Verde subsidized apartment complex (not public housing) in the Melrose section of the South Bronx:
Consider what he, and The Times, have done here, though. This is a review of a public housing complex designed by notable but far from famous architects—in the South Bronx, no less. It is not the latest bauble from from some boldfaced jetsetter. Indeed, Mr. Kimmelman attacks this very type of design in the third paragraph of his piece, in what seems to be, one might hope, a declaration of principles for the future of his work:
The rebirth of the South Bronx isn’t news. But Via Verde is. And it makes as good an argument as any new building in the city for the cultural and civic value of architecture. The profession, or in any case much talk about it, has been fixated for too long on brand-name luxury objects and buildings as sculptures instead of attending to the richer, broader, more urgent vein of public policy and community engagement, in which aesthetics play a part.
Are you listening, Frank Gehry?
And yet the piece serves also as a critique not only of the architectural media but also of architecture, its social and political realities, and how they might be fixed, or even if they can be.
Indeed, Kimmelman wrote 9/26/11 on the Times's ArtsBeat blog:
A few of my own concerns are laid out in the review. I’m interested in urbanism, city planning, housing and social affairs, the environment and health, politics and culture — in all the ways we live, in other words, and not just in how buildings look or who designs them, although those things are inseparable from the rest.
Regarding the new Gehry tower

Given his concerns, would Kimmelman have been able to salute 8 Spruce Street, Forest City Ratner's new Frank Gehry tower in Lower Manhattan, quite as enthusiastically as Ouroussoff, who called it "the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen's CBS building went up 46 years ago"?

Ouroussoff acknowledged that "Gehry’s design is least successful at the bottom," given the "odd coupling of private and public interests" that include a school and hospital services.

But he waved away concerns that those using the public facilities won't mix with residents:
None of this matters much, however, once you see the tower in the skyline, a view that seems to lift Lower Manhattan out of its decade-long gloom.
That, of course, is a quintessential example of "buildings as sculptures." And that helps Forest City Ratner promote the tower, as executive Maryanne Gilmartin did recently at the Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City.

What about the arena?

So, will Kimmelman visit the Barclays Center next year and only assess the sightlines from upper bowl seats, the view of the scoreboard from Flatbush Avenue, the weathered steel panels, the plethora of branding, and the curious oculus?

(That would ape the shortsighted initial reviews from Muschamp and Ouroussoff, though the latter improved slightly. Kimelman also might consult the work of New York magazine's Justin Davidson.)

Or will he see the impact of a parking lot one long block on a residential neighborhood, the effect on pedestrians of narrowed sidewalks, and the impact of a zoning override allowing an arena to face residential neighbors across narrow Dean Street?

Will he point out that the oculus exists because the much-touted Urban Room does not, and the Urban Room was supposed to be part of a tower that remains unbuilt? And that that tower was vital to the state and city's optimistic-to-the-point-of-irresponsible economic projections?

And that the New York City Independent Budget Office, calculating the accumulated subsidies, tax breaks, and foregone alternatives, considers the arena a loss to the city?

These indeed are issues of "urbanism, city planning, housing and social affairs, the environment and health, politics and culture."

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