Mar 5, 2010

On the Ourroussoff Critiques: Economic and Cultural Transition

It's impossible to ignore the current context in which the desire to evaluate Nicolai Ouroussoff's work as the New York Times' architecture critic arises. Not only in the midst of a recession, and therefore a convenient endpoint to an extraordinary period in the history of architecture, but also a time in which so many local institutions are undergoing a significant transition. The Van Alen Institute has appointed Olympia Kazi as its new director, bringing a new and bountiful energy to a place that has stimulated so many useful discussions about public space. Anne Guiney, former editor at Architect's Newspaper, is taking over her role at the Institute for Urban Design, which Kazi single-handedly rescued from political turmoil with the support of people like Michael Sorkin. Storefront for Art and Architecture is looking for a new director, which many hope will reground a place that for the past three years has been a great foothold for experiments by young European architects more firmly in the local New York scene.

At the same time so many design publications are being turned upside down: several have closed down altogether or appear to be on their last legs; Architectural Record will have to adjust to a new role next year, no longer the official publication of the AIA; others are suffering from catastrophic declines in ads and editorial pages. As a result there are simply fewer voices reporting on what's happening in architecture. And there's still an enormous amount happening, both in terms of buildings of significance that were begun before the recession--so many of them, such as Behnisch's Unilever headquarters in Hanover or SANAA's Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, deserve much more and better coverage--and in terms of the conditions of the profession and its products during this strange turbulent time.

Reporters and critics accustomed to commenting on new projects are therefore left to helplessly read the few voices that do, for sometimes inexplicable reasons, continue to find a place in print. There is, however, an inescapable feeling that the concerns of this community of editors, reporters, and critics are of a certain parochial character, reflecting the obsessions of the NY design media perhaps more than the public interest claimed by its arguments. There remains the question of the extent to which this process of evaluation and criticism, especially on the part of magazines that explicitly characterize themselves as trade publications, are by definition and by design serving the interests and concerns of the architecture profession, along with advertisers appealing to its ability to specify their products.

Trade magazines serve a legitimate and necessary function, helping the profession understand itself, publicizing less well-known work, uncovering innovative methods, sharing best practices, raising the bar for aesthetic quality, educating potential clients. But it's not the same as the public interest, or the interest of the various publics affected by its promotion of things that can withstand the glare of full-bleed images. The professional deformation of the design press is probably at odds with many of the things its better angels believe are good for the world.

This week Alexandra Lange, an erstwhile colleague at one such trade magazine, posted an engaging critique of Ouroussoff, a writer who holds one of the handful of offices that stand on the edges of the design media. Along with Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable at the Wall Street Journal, James S. Russell at Bloomberg, Chris Hawthorne at the LA Times, Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune, and Robert Campbell at the Boston Globe, Ouroussoff's potential access to a wider public could give his position a special responsibility, if he chose to accept it. It's a position that he could use to influence public policy, or at least perhaps to stall the implementation of political decisions. He could use it to advocate for architecture, or for particular architects, or for political positions about architecture, or for ideas, or for the realization of certain projects, or types of projects.

Has Ouroussoff expanded the number of readers who would read an architecture review or be interested in urban issues, and if so whose interests has he advocated for? My sense is that the office been diminished by his tenor, reaching a smaller audience that mirrors the self-interested readership of the trade magazines. Say what you like about Herbert Muschamp's exaggerated love for certain major figures, he had an enormous and colorful voice that expanded the role of architecture in cities across the world, defining the so-called Bilbao effect that many critics have been intent on dismissing of late. The professional deformation of a writer is to be nostalgic for the heroic age of writing in which it had an expansive role in public life. -STEPHEN ZACKS

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