It took Theodore Dalrymple, an essayist for the Manhattan Institute’s splendid quarterly, City Journal, to pull back the curtain on the operatic vapidity of New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. The latter has written his architectural review of the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, on Manhattan’s West Side, in Chelsea. In “A New Whitney,” Kimmelman shies away from pure architecture criticism. His architectural pieces often opt to opine on infrastructure, sustainability and other nonstylistic nuts-and-bolts matters affecting the built environment. And he is good at that. He has fetched me in on occasion. The Times now lacks a real architecture critic, even a bad one, of which it has had all too many in the past. And yet Kimmelman could not dodge the Whitney.What Dalrymple did in “A Monument to Tastelessness” was to distill Kimmelman’s maundering into its essential dodging of the point of an architectural review. The Timesman even concludes by twisting the truism (quoting former Times(wo)man Ada Louise Huxtable) that “beauty, as here at the [old] Whitney, is not always in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty certainly is not in the eye of the beholder of the new Whitney.
Here is Dalrymple’s summary judgment in the case of Kimmelman v. Beauty:
At no point did Kimmelman offer a clear indication of whether he considered the building good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Instead, he used locutions such as the following, compatible with any value judgment whatever: “It ratifies Chelsea”; “The museum becomes . . . an outdoor perch to see and be seen”; “Mr. Piano’s galleries borrow from the old downtown loft aesthetic”; “They’re nonprescriptive places . . . that may prove to be the ticket.”
Or, of course, “they may end up a headache.” “But it is a deft, serious achievement, a signal contribution to downtown and the city’s changing cultural landscape”; though, on the other hand, “The new museum isn’t a masterpiece.” But it’s an “eager neighbor”; and “it also exudes a genteel eccentricity that plays off the rationalism of Mr. Piano, and of Manhattan’s street grid.”
Like much architectural rendering today, architectural criticism is designed not to tease out the character of architecture but to cover it up. But in case anyone has trouble decoding Kimmelman’s description of the Whitney, the Times offers a tour-de-force of video swooping. The reader scrolls down through Kimmelman’s piece and comes across an illustration that suddenly starts to move, to shift, and then loop-the-loop, via what I imagine to be CAD renderings. I assume these are from the office of the architect, Piano, not the “image desk” of the Times. Renderings today seek to turn ugliness into a sort of artful fartful beauty, and these succeed. They too must be decoded, but don’t worry. Anybody with eyes open can read easily between the lines, both those of text and those of CAD.
Dalrymple closes his own masterful defenestration of Kimmelman not with a twisted truism but with a straightforward truth: “With architectural critics like this, no wonder celebrity architects get away with it.”