Jul 18, 2010

Nicolai Ouroussoff: Radically Ambivalent Servant of the Master Class

I keep coming back to one piece written by Nicolai Ouroussoff at the beginning of the recession in December of 2008, entitled "It Was Fun Till the Money Ran Out" as the touchstone for everything that's wrong with architecture criticism. Here we have the overwhelmingly dominant New York Times architecture critic, the single-most powerful voice in architecture writing--not by virtue of quality of writing or acuity of vision or eloquence but by the stupid circumstance of having been hand-picked by the previous architecture critic--reflecting on the past decade in which he was responsible more than any other single voice for saying what was good or bad in the world of architecture. His conclusion: "one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history" might have been merely a "fantasy," a "poisonous cocktail of vanity and self-delusion" that "threatened to transform [Manhattan's] skyline into a tapestry of individual greed." "Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich," he wrote. The "high-end bubble has popped" and the "public's tolerance for outsize architectural statements that serve the rich and self-absorbed has already been pretty much exhausted." But a lot of "wonderful architecture is being thrown out with the bad," especially a luxury skyscraper by Jean Nouvel that he dearly hopes will be completed (pictured above), along with a Whitney Museum satellite in the awful Meatpacking District by Renzo Piano.

It's not that the self-righteousness of this look backward was exactly hypocritical: Ouroussoff had been hedging each and every hyperbolic celebration of so-called starchitecture with a harsh condemnation of the capitalist and oligarchical system that was producing it. (He gives us a helpful cheat sheet here of the favored few: Jean Nouvel, especially, but also the half-dozen or so famously extraordinary "talents" he has been puffing up over the years: Koolhaas, Hadid, Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, and secondarily, Libeskind, UN Studio, Foster, Piano.) I had always seen this as part and parcel of the service aspect of architectural writing: as one friend, an architecture writer in Podgorica, Montenegro surmised, he has to write about famous architects. Does he? asked a New York architect. But assuming that he must, there's an equally powerful constituency of haters of contemporary architecture, preservationists, locals feeling threatened by new developments, the 99 percent of the city and the country that sees this kind of architecture as an imposition on its aesthetic sensibility and lifestyle. So the hedging, so I thought, is just covering all the bases.

On what basis, though, was he condemning this architecture of the rich, all the while glorifying its aesthetic quality, these "triumphs" piercing the "clouds of a bleak time"?  In the previous year-end wrap-up, in December of 2007, he rhapsodized about a year in which serious architecture had arrived in abundance in the form of "major architectural landmarks" like a corporate headquarters by Gehry on the West Side Highway, a luxury condo by Nouvel in Soho, Bernard Tschumi's Blue Building in the Lower East Side (more luxury condos), and the New York Times building (another corporate headquarters) by Renzo Piano. Ground broken additionally on a high-end condo building by Gehry, and even then the promise of the vaunted Nouvel luxury skyscraper next to the MoMA, the greatest symbol of his reign as NY Times critic, it being the one building he has repeatedly championed, begging for its completion as originally designed by the hand of the Jean God-vel. All of these works of architecture have a dark side, however, in that the "majority of today's projects serve the interests of a small elite," suggesting that the "wave of gorgeous new buildings... [are] a mere cultural diversion." Moreover, a series of large-scale projects, including the Moynihan Station project, Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, and the World Trade Center site all heighten "our creeping awareness that when serious money is at stake, business will be as usual."

We could go further back and trace this theme throughout his six and a half years of writings--I'm especially fond of the ever-pompous and contradictory "Nice Tower! Who's Your Architect?" for its classic strategy of raising up the glory of these "preening, sometimes beautiful, sometimes obtrusive [luxury condo] towers [that] could well be the last testament to this century's first gilded age" before slapping them down as "gorgeous tokens of a rampantly narcissistic age." But there's not much more light to be be found there. Our basic theme is already established in these couple of would-be "thought pieces": a total failure to reconcile the architecture being glorified with the means by which it is being produced, the manner in which it is used, and the way it functions in and serves the city.

One of my favorite absurdities produced by this irreconciliation is the review of Nouvel's condo building on the West Side Highway in which he glorifies it in part for having a representational relationship with the adjacent women's prison, thus reflecting the "grit" of the city: "Rising on the brief stretch of 11th Avenue that doubles as the West Side Highway, directly across the street from the billowing glass forms of  Frank Gehry’s IAC building and abutting a somber brick women’s prison on the other side, the tower is part of a taut composition of disparate — even conflicting — urban realities. Its shifting appearance in the skyline is a sly commentary on the conflict between public and private realms that is an inevitable byproduct of gentrification."

Not only that, it also has windows that allow you to see the neighboring prison: "The care with which the views are framed — reinforced by the windows’ simple heavy steel borders — is such that you can almost feel the city tugging at you...the building is a lesson on how to navigate an enlightened path in an era of extremes. It’s not utopia, but it demonstrates what a major talent can accomplish when he focuses his mind on a small corner of the city." This is what happens when a critic interviews the architect, and the architect alone, then uncritically swallows the entirety of his rationale, this ridiculous flimflam, practically undigested.

The effect of this composition on the critic is, as always, disconcerting and disorienting: "As you approach the corner, the facade’s riotous forms suddenly come into view, and it’s startling. Close up, the steel frames that support the windows look beefier, and the effect is more frenetic...Some of the window frames have been left intentionally empty, so that it may take a moment to sort out whether you’re indoors or out." I have described Ouroussoff's work as a sort of Pentecostalist criticism in this respect, since the experience of the architecture often resembles spirit possession or speaking in tongues. The architecture is "mesmerizing," "hauntingly gorgeous," "spectacular," "crystalline," suggesting "an atavistic preoccupation with celestial heights," and on. All the while he fiercely condemns, in ever higher pitches of emotion and contempt, the worldly means by which our "great citadel of capitalism" is being produced. 

These conflicting forces are brought into relief through a not very delicate procedure. Each review holds up the review-worthy figure of the "talented" architect having produced a work of "serious" architecture--the only type of architecture dignified by reviews by the New York Times' only architecture critic. (The unanimous conclusion of our Public School New York discussion on the subject was that even if the NY Times insists on continuing to foist this most uncritical critic on the world, they should at least have one other voice, another critic to provide some balance. Why more than one for film, art and other culture but not for architecture?) Once this work, and this talent, have been raised up to sufficient heights, the straw man of money is brought in to give architecture a good thrashing for producing "pretty baubles, even if they tend to be hollow." And what about the many "inferior", "mediocre" buildings that go unnoticed? He is only interested in reviewing buildings for which budget is apparently never an issue.

Of course, the figure of the Talented Architect is crucial here: he (and almost exclusively he, except Zaha Hadid) must be given free reign to practice his art without restraints on costs, to produce Serious Architecture. But the only types of projects that this is possible for are projects for the Rich People. If this is meant to be architecture criticism serving as cultural analysis, it's pretty clumsy. It's not very useful for looking at how good architecture gets produced in the city by hard-working architects with actual budgets. These are architects with just as much "talent," if by talent one means great educational training, extremely thoughtful design processes, exceptional sensitivity to clients, wildly original form-making, extraordinary ability to think about materials, capacity to bring projects in under budget, and every award except the vastly overrated Pritzker, and thus slightly lower name recognition. (But probably only 50,000 people, at best, around the world recognize any of these names, judged by the readership of design magazines.)

On the whole, I don't disagree with Ouroussoff on particular buildings. I generally like the same buildings he likes, hate the same ones he hates, and I embrace the notions of tallness and vision that he celebrates. I don't enjoy reading him, though, and not only because of the pomposity of his descriptions, or the repeated resort to the long-dead notion of "talent," rooted in a prelapsarian Romantic idea of genius that is absolutely useless and irrelevant to the society we live in. Where he is grievously in error is in his broader failure to grasp the city as an economic entity and to consider architecture as a product of the prevailing economic forces that are creating it. You cannot like these buildings while condemning these forces. You cannot help improve the city, or be a critic of architecture, without being attentive to them. It's not enough to regard the whole contemporary city as a province of the rich. It is that, in part, in certain places, but it's also an incredibly complex and lively place with so many other things happening that remain untouched by this sort of architectural criticism that I'm tempted to say that the New York Times hasn't really run an actual architecture review in about a decade. If this is architecture, what are the other 8.5 million of us doing here? The city will survive. But will architectural criticism? Should it?  - STEPHEN ZACKS