As you might guess, "community" types
in the Upper East Side neighborhood — the ones who, if it were up to them, would always build in such
a way as to preserve this entire precinct of the City in historically reenacted amber ("If build you must, build it like they did before the war. Twelve stories or less. And no glass, please.") — are nervous that Foster's tower will get built.
The contemporary art crowd is nervous that it won't. Regarding Foster as one of their own, they see in Foster's tower a chance to use his American moment — triggered by the critical and popular success of his recently completed Hearst Tower — to give their traditionally conservative neighborhood an architectural I-V of modern energy.
New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff came out early with a 10 October preview of Foster's design that concluded with the observation that "you cannot help but marvel at the project's sophistication as a work of architecture."
As a work of criticism, Ouroussoff's introduction to 980 Madison was decidedly less effusive, at least on paper, than New Yorker magazine critic Paul Golberger's December 2005 review of Foster's Hearst Tower — a review Goldberger opened by declaring Foster the "Mozart of modernism."
If Goldberger’s review was a French kiss in broad daylight, Ouroussoff’s preview comes off as a somewhat furtive kiss of the ring.
But this is what makes Ouroussoff’s the more
surprising — and troubling — response.
Goldberger, who wrote his review at a time when the Hearst Tower was already being feted as New York's building of the decade, was simply being Goldberger — embellishing the majority opinion with a better set
In fact, even allowing for New York’s justifiable glee
over having gotten a building of such quality as the Hearst built at all — and even by Goldberger's own generally accommodationist standards — Goldberger's over-the-top review treaded perilously close to the kind of oozing, architect-pandering populism that Ayn Rand savaged in her portrayal of Ellsworth Toohey, the self-satisfied and power-obsessed architecture critic
of The Fountainhead. (Ouroussoff was more temperate in his own positive June 2006 review of the Hearst.) One can hardly doubt that, in writing his Love Letter to Norman in such a public venue as The New Yorker, Goldberger, like Toohey, sought to advance his own position as an architectural kingmaker.
There is nothing unduly pessimistic in this reading. If anything, there is something perversely comforting about Goldberger's being so unabashed in print about his status as an insider who writes and speaks of, by, and for the inside. Better the devil you know, they say, and Goldberger is most certainly a—well, you get the idea.
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FOR a host of complicated reasons, Ouroussoff was supposed to be different.
The New York Times hired Ouroussoff in the
wake of its unseemly shakedown of Ouroussoff's long-time predecessor, Herbert Muschamp. Some — including some at the Times — had come to believe that Muschamp's dense and culturally promiscuous writing was obscure to the point of rarefaction and that his personal loyalties to certain architects compromised his independence as a critic.
Ouroussoff was brought on to correct these perceived errors by writing less esoterically (Translation: Dumb down the Architecture pages a little, please) and more independently.
Certainly, Ouroussoff succeeds on the first count — as you’ll know, if you've ever feasted on Herbert Muschamp's rich prose and now, on reading Ouroussoff, find yourself casting a wistful and unsated eye on what was.
To be fair, very few critics on any subject are gifted
with Muschamp’s range and depth of knowledge, his intellectual power, and his writerly savoir faire. Muschamp used these gifts in the only way he could, by stepping outside the arena of traditional architecture criticism and fashioning himself into a culture critic,
with architecture as the vehicle for his observations.
There are, of course, other ways to distinguish oneself as a probing and independent critic. The question is whether Nicolai Ouroussoff will be able — or allowed — to find one.
It seemed like a promising start. By June 2005 — less than a year after his first Times byline in August 2004 — Ouroussoff was comfortable enough in his new post to write bluntly of ground zero that it was "doomed architecturally."
Later that month, he declared that the design of the "Freedom Tower embodies...a world shaped by fear."
That September, Ouroussoff wrote that "the road to recovery at ground zero looks bleaker than ever." With a withering dismissal of the design as "a somber memorial to the dead, neatly parceled off from a sea of corporate towers that could be anywhere," Ouroussoff pronounced the whole project a "crushing failure."
These strong words from a new voice stood out in sharp relief against the worn-out shibboleths that inked the paper's editorial page, where the Times during this period busied itself — and distracted its readers — with the politically fabricated drama of ground zero's culture war.
But at the same time the editorial page was blowing its noisy whistle on the censorious politics of family grief being played out at the ill-fated Freedom Center, it couldn't muster a peep against a plan whose basic one street down, one street across, commercial development to the edges, memorial in the corner design — concocted by actual politicians in early 2002, before any architect was even invited to the table — was the biggest muzzle of all. For all the furor over speech freedom in summer 2005, the plan itself had for years been denying architects the design freedom they needed to imagine a great future for the site.
All of this, the Times editorial board was doing — and not doing — in the same cynical, face-saving spirit of done-deal, turn-a-blind-eye, too-late-now, nibble-at-the-edges-leave-the-rest-alone, build-anything-just-build-it accommodation that has marked the board's approach to ground zero ever since it allowed itself to be dazzled, seduced, and flimflammed into believing that the so-called "Libeskind plan" was any different from a nearly identical plan the board rightly rejected in
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WHAT Ouroussoff was writing during that too-brief summer of 2005 made it possible to believe that there
might be life after Herbert Muschamp, after all.
And yet, in the last 14 months, Ouroussoff has written
only twice about ground zero. On the first occasion —
a piece in June on the memorial redesign resulting from politically mandated budget cuts — he still had enough
fire in his belly to say of ground zero in general:
"One hopes, however perversely, that as the hollowness
of the plans becomes hard to deny, the process will simply grind to a halt and have to be rethought once again."
By the time Ouroussoff drafted his response, in September, to the recently delivered package of designs for three new ground zero towers — one each by Foster, Richard Rogers, and Fumihiko Maki — last year's truth-telling fervor had been replaced by utter resignation.
Why? Is ground zero any different or better now than
it was then? Any less important? To be sure, calling bullshit is just one part of any critic's job. But one wants to be confident that when a critic does go negative, he means it.
Now, for all the hue and cry Ouroussoff raised last summer about ground zero, he never once made a
case for starting over and doing something different. That's important to remember, because it suggests that Ouroussoff either came to understand or was told directly what his limits were.
But it also begs the question whether the Times
was using Ouroussoff as the resident "bad cop" on ground zero — the trash-talking heavy in a carefully top-managed, tell-the-editors-and-writers-only-what-they-need-to-know charade designed to create the appearance that the Times was exercising responsible stewardship over ground zero's future, while the
paper's ownership and management, having assured downtown's "leaders" that the Times would not stand
in the way of "progress," ran out the clock on the possibility of getting anything else on the table.
Was Ouroussoff's increasing silence on ground zero a sign of his increasing recognition that the Times lacked the institutional courage to call for meaningful change — and that knowing when to lay down his pen and admit defeat was simply what it meant to be the Times architecture critic now?
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FOR Foster’s 980 Madison project, Ouroussoff appeared to be playing the "good cop, bad cop" game with himself. And that's one way of thinking about what a good critic does — weigh the cons and the pros and see what comes out in the balance.
After throwing a pretty big bone (but not much meat) to
the neighborhood's anti-tall-building brigade — frowning on the tower's "outsize height" but suggesting only "a little trimming" to address the "problem" — Ouroussoff moved on to something a little bolder, tweaking Foster for giving architectural form to the selective virtuosity of the wealthy:
"What [Foster] has designed is a perfect monument for the emerging city of the enlightened megarich: environmentally aware, sensitive to history, confident of its place in the new world order, resistant to sacrifice. Still, one cannot help but marvel...." (emphasis added)
And that "Still...." may be where the real story lies.
For when the architecture critic of The New York Times underscores his stated reservations to a building by instructing his readers to "marvel" at the "sophistication"
of Foster's design...
When the architecture critic of The New York Times prefaces this injunction by rhapsodizing that the design's "glistening forms reaffirm the city's faith in progress, suggesting that Lord Foster has a better grip on what makes New York tick than architects who have worked in the city all their lives" — as if, with a single building, the Hearst, Norman Foster is suddenly New York's Architect...
When the architecture critic of The New York Times does
all of this in the article that makes the very existence
of the project public; indeed, when the design itself is still very much on the drawing board (witness the release of only two misty-eyed, soft-focus renderings)...
And perhaps most important of all, when the architecture critic of The New York Times does this while failing to mention that a contentious community board vote on the project is expected in a week...
The disarming and preemptive effect of Ouroussoff's hosanna was to mute any possible objections to Foster's project (indeed, to suggest that even his own objections are mainly for show); to mask the real political purpose the piece was timed to perform; and to manipulate the thrall in which Norman Foster, in the wake his Hearst tower, seems to have everyone in town.
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NORMAN Foster's record is not one of unmitigated success. In his recent survey of the three latest tower designs for ground zero, Ouroussoff found that Foster's offering was the least "convincing as architecture," not least because — surprisingly — Foster kept alive an aesthetic and rhetorical conceit that most observers assumed and (surely) hoped had just gone away.
Daniel Libeskind had imagined all five towers with
deeply canted tops, as if to genuflect to the memorial park below. The idea had long been ridiculed as kitsch and long since dropped from the Freedom Tower. But Foster served up a token slice anyway. Neither of his colleagues did. Ouroussoff called the move "simplistic" and "cheap."
Many think Foster turned in a nearly pitch-perfect performance for the Hearst. Undoubtedly, some see the building as haunting proof that his original "kissing towers" for ground zero should have won him the whole commission. Against this backdrop, Ouroussoff’s cringing at Foster’s off-key entry for the consolation round could certainly be characterized as a comeuppance, if not quite a takedown.
One can argue that, precisely because of this, Ouroussoff's real agenda with the 980 Madison piece was to keep Foster in the New York mix over the long haul; to preserve a receptive atmosphere for Foster
the architect, so that, even if every building Foster does for New York isn't a Hearst — note that Ouroussoff never mentioned Foster's late-inning ground zero stumble
here — the city increases its chances of getting another one or two buildings of that caliber on the skyline.
Critics embed this kind of gentle politics all the time, and
it's very likely part of the story here. But at close range, it looks like Ouroussoff's primary motive was political; that while creating the appearance of sponsoring an enlightened public debate about Foster's project in particular and about architecture in general, he was ultimately more interested in setting up a quid pro quo on height — "OK, you can have a shorter building, just give us the building." — that he hoped would get Foster past a community board that he knew was stacked against the project.
Whatever this is, it's not criticism. And it didn't work:
The community board, in its advisory role, voted down
the project, 20 to 13.
Of course, no good project should get sent to an early grave by well-meaning but architecturally underinformed citizens. But a critic is a critic — not a designer and certainly not a politician. The lines that separate these mutually dependent spheres of activity can be difficult to see. But the lines are there, and unless Ouroussoff guards them with the utmost vigilance and jealousy, his readers will have no way of knowing when he is being sincere; and the trust they invest in him to help them make informed decisions will vanish into the ether.
The problem with Ouroussoff's approach to 980 Madison is that he never really addressed his whole readership. Rather, he appeared to write as an eleventh-hour peace negotiator with an ax to grind and only a few column inches to grind it on. His goal was to get Foster's design built by telling a small group of warring stakeholders how all of them could have their cake and eat it too. If the public learned something by reading over his shoulder, that would be a bonus.
With little more than aesthetics in his quiver — never enough on its own to get any building, no matter how promising, across the line — Ouroussoff finally resorted to outsized superlatives that turned him into just one more stakeholder with three minutes at the microphone.
With thumbnail images such as accompanied Ouroussoff's commentary, one cannot see "glistening forms," much less "marvel" at them, much less read them as a sign that "Lord Foster has a better grip." It was as if all Ouroussoff really had to say was, "Trust me, I'm the Architecture Critic of The New York Times."
A different scenario: What if Ouroussoff had started a week or two earlier? What if he had made the public at large his audience, and had addressed this public with a couple of pieces — a more detailed article, with more (and more informative) images, on the design itself; and a jointly authored historical piece, with New York Times real estate reporter Charles Bagli, on development and architecture trends on the Upper East Side?
What if, having presented this information and analysis of the building and telling his readers what he thought the stakes were for the neighborhood and the city, Ouroussoff had forthrightly told his readers about the community board meeting and told them when and where they could go to make their voice heard?
In other words, what if Ouroussoff had trusted the planning process — and Foster, for that matter — rather than try to manipulate it, and him? Perhaps the public turnout would have been much higher. Perhaps the vote would have gone differently.
Surely this would have been better, whatever the outcome, than Ouroussoff's trying to polish a halo for Foster and his project, without first proving that either
of them deserved it.
Even Paul Goldberger waited until the Hearst building was nearly complete before committing his deep kiss to print.
As for Herbert Muschamp, if he was a slave to anything, he was slave to his own passion for the sublime. Indeed, one always had the sense from Muschamp that he supported the architects he supported and wrote what he wrote about their projects because he truly believed that their work was where the architectural sublime was being revealed.
Nicolai Ouroussoff appears to be in the most precarious position of all — not quite having crossed the line that separates criticism from politics and design, yet straddling it in the most ambiguous way.
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PERHAPS Ouroussoff will turn out to be right about Foster's Madison Avenue project — assuming it gets built at all. An architect friend of mine, who has designed a number of celebrated buildings in New York and elsewhere, is forever reminding me that the most important and basic work of creative design takes
place in the first month, and that everything else is elaboration.
Maybe Ouroussoff just has an eye for quality.
Still, one has to wonder: Is Nicolai playing nice with Foster because he wants to (he really likes the building); because he thinks he needs to (to get along); or because someone at The New York Times told him he has to (also, to get along)?
It's not the job of a critic to "play nice," in any
event. But if Ouroussoff is doing so to get along —
either by censoring himself or by allowing himself to be censored — we may be witnessing the making of a writer who wears the critic's hat but whose real job at the Times is to help preserve architectural business as usual.
If Nicolai Ouroussoff is not a great intellect or is not yet
a great writer, he is a very perceptive and good writer,
with every potential to become, in his own way, great. His clear-eyed retake on Jane Jacobs this past April and his sure-footed takedown of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in May were among the wisest things any architecture critic has published in years. Indeed, Ouroussoff's good writing far outweighs the bad.
The point is that we need for Ouroussoff to be keep being good. We cannot afford for the architecture critic of The New York Times not to be good. We cannot afford for him even to appear to be carrying water — however elegantly — for any architect, any developer, or any planning organization, public or private.
Nor, for much the same reason, can we afford for him not to feel free and, indeed, obligated by the Times to write as vigorously and for as many times as necessary, no matter who he risks offending, to protect the public from any project he feels is not in the public's best interest.
We cannot afford a sycophant.
Architecture is too important for that. Too important to
our cities. Too important to our own sense of place and personhood. Too important to the making of good society.
This is something both Ouroussoff and the Times need to hear and understand.
If they don’t, the real and present danger is that there, in the brave new Architecture pages of The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff will turn out to be more Goldberger than Goldberger, tiptoeing his way to irrelevance.
The sound of greatness is the sound of eggshells crunching.
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