Michael Kimmelman on Building More Beautiful and Equitable Cities
Michael Kimmelman does nothing in half measures. For more than 30 years, he has brought his assertive, culturally astute, historically sensitive perspective to The New York Times, which he has been contributing to since 1987 and joined full-time in 1990. During his tenure, he has written more than 2,000 articles, ranging from art criticism (he was its chief art critic from 1990 to 2007); to reporting from Europe and the Middle East (from 2007 to mid-2011, he was based in Berlin, where he was the “Abroad” columnist); to civically minded coverage of the built world, which has been his focus as the paper’s architecture critic the past seven years.
Throughout Kimmelman has displayed the rare ability to balance his writing in a way that shows him to be more far more level-headed than hot-headed. He is a classically trained pianist who plays with the well-rounded, even-keeled temperament and gentle skill of someone who clearly has done the work and put the hours in, and the same is true of his pieces in The New York Times. Consider his judicious take—note: not takedown—on a 1992 Julian Schnabel show at Pace gallery: “Mr. Schnabel’s ambition and ego continue to outstrip his ability to paint. But there’s something impressive about his sheer audacity, and just enough talent in him to make it impossible to dismiss his work out of hand. One wants to ignore it but can’t.” Or, more recently, in 2014, his view on David Adjaye’s Sugar Hill social-housing complex in Harlem: “Sugar Hill is something of an extravagance and not easily replicable. But it posits a goal for what subsidized housing might look like, how it could lift a neighborhood and mold a generation.” Kimmelman more often than not sees the bigger picture and, at the same time, injects his own shrewd, deeply studied understanding of the subject at hand.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Spencer Bailey speaks with Kimmelman about his lesser-known talents as a pianist, his three-plus-decade path at The New York Times, and his goal as architecture critic to build a greater discourse around designing cities that are better, healthier, and simply fairer for all.
Bailey recounts the first piece Kimmelman ever wrote for The New York Times, in 1987, and the two go on to contrast Kimmelman’s talents as a classically trained pianist with his work as a writer, journalist, and critic.
Kimmelman reflects on growing up with radical leftist parents in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. He talks about how his doctor father and sculptor mother were both civil-rights activists, and helped shape his worldview—within reason.
Kimmelman opens up about what it was like to become chief art critic of The New York Times in 1990, at age 31, replacing the then-71-year-old John Russell. He also recalls his work in that post over the following 17 years.
In 2007, Kimmelman left his post as the chief art critic and moved from New York to Berlin, where until mid-2011 he covered cultural, social, and political issues throughout Europe and the Middle East. He remembers this time and discusses how he chose Berlin as his base.
Kimmelman discusses his transition to the New York Times architecture critic position in 2011 and how he has reshaped the role to a more globally and socially minded perspective—one that’s both more in line with The Times today and the times in general.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Michael, welcome to Time Sensitive.
MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
SB: I wanted to start the conversation, actually, about your first lede that you wrote in The New York Times, in 1987.
SB: I don’t know if you remember it.
MK: I’m sure I don’t.
SB: You were writing about an all-Finnish concert at the Christ and St. Stephen’s Church in New York, and the sentence was—or is—“Time has generally been a good editor.”
SB: I was thinking, it would be a great way to start the podcast, this being the thing to bring up because, well, this is a podcast about time, so …
MK: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m not so unhappy about that start. That’s interesting.
SB: Yeah, I think just as a phrase—“Time has generally been a good editor”—it’s probably even more relevant than ever in the twenty-first century.
MK: Yeah, I mean, look, time is a pretty good editor. We have to curate what we want to remember and what we don’t … what I should say is, what we don’t want to forget.
We do live in a moment—and it’s hard to avoid saying this—when people barricade themselves in fortresses of selective memory, or try to ignore what they don’t want to face, happening now or historically. I don’t think time is an unhindered determinate of what we edit, or what we should edit. But, on the whole, in terms of creative stuff, I think it is. It certainly has allowed us to appreciate an evolving series of things, because it has allowed us to return to things that have dropped out of historical memory and for various reasons suddenly seem interesting again. That’s very useful. We should have, as part of our repertoire, a whole range of things—styles, thoughts, biographies, and so forth—that didn’t seem relevant in one moment and maybe now seem relevant.
SB: I think it’s worth mentioning here you studied history at Yale and, later, art history at Harvard. From that perspective—just thinking about history and the relationship to time—how do you bring that into your own work? Are you constantly thinking about history in your writing?
MK: I mean, there is no way to avoid the idea that, first of all, if you’re writing something, you are presumably doing it with the idea that it doesn’t just—that it’s not the classic fish-wrapping that disappears tomorrow. You hope that’s not the case. But quite apart from one’s own hopes for your own work, yes, I think everything is written against a historical backdrop. If you’re doing it as a critic—and it’s not just historical figures; you’re talking about contemporary artists, or architects, or musicians, or whatever—you’re trying to put that in some context, and that context is a historical one. History is, of course, many different things.
My original interest in history was because I didn’t really feel I could understand the world now, social and political affairs, without understanding that context, without having not just historical knowledge, but some tools to interpret history and to understand how to extract from history the bits of information that would be useful to understanding today.
SB: The “How did we get here?”
MK: Yeah, how did we get here? And how have we interpreted, in the past, events that are taking place in the moment? Are those useful tools for now, or do we need to rethink how we interpret creative endeavors or anything else? I think that’s also part of the historical process, a constantly evolving sense of what’s important and how we interpret what’s happening now and what happened before.
SB: In your other life, you’re a pianist and longtime student—or were a longtime student—of Seymour Bernstein. Talk about that in relationship to time, and as a practice that you’ve had ongoing while also writing very prolifically for The Times.
MK: Well, first of all, making music, especially—I’m a classical pianist, so one of the interesting things for me about that is the way in which the things that I work on musically take a long time. In a way, they take a lifetime to come to grips with, to learn to play, to understand one’s relationship to them. It never stops, in a sense.
For a while, I stopped playing [piano] entirely, and when I returned to it, I think one of the things that that was very crucial—and that was absolutely essential to my balancing my work, and it helped my writing and helped my thinking as a journalist—was to work on things that were long. You couldn’t just finish off in a day or two, or a week, or even a month, sometimes not in a year or years. That sense of giving yourself over to something much larger than yourself—that was endless—was very important to balancing the work I was doing, and is both the most humbling and inspiring thing about making music, I think. There’s also a physical aspect to it, which is another counterweight to writing, which is a pretty solitary and dull thing to do physically. Making music and playing the piano is a physical thing, and when you’re in the midst of it and doing something very beautiful, it’s almost an erotic experience. It’s so intense. And the ability to move from that kind of activity and that kind of thinking to writing, I think, has been very healthy for me.
SB: You’ve performed a couple of times—or several times I’ve seen you perform—at Bargemusic in Brooklyn. Is performing … I imagine it’s quite a different experience than just practicing at home. In some sense, is that how you feel when you also publish a story?
MK: [Laughs] Yeah.
SB: You know, you’ve been behind the desk, or the keyboard, or piano for a long time, kind of crafting this thing, and all of a sudden you’re putting it out into the world?
MK: There is a thing about publishing. I have a privilege of publishing in a place like The Times, which is about as much a writer can ask for in terms of just getting it out in public. But, of course, you don’t really know how people react to it. You get feedback, and nowadays on social media that’s a good and bad thing. But it’s very different, of course, when you’re a performer going up on stage.
I think another reason I returned to playing the piano and to performing was because I thought—and I don’t mean this in some weird, altruistic way—if I’m going to write as a critic, it’s a very useful thing to put myself out there in a situation where I am subject to other people’s judgements. Because, look, anybody involved in creative endeavor, if they’re good at it and if they’re really doing it seriously, is putting their heart and soul on the line. And, as a writer, one needs to bear that in mind. Especially if you’re wielding a giant stick, like I am by virtue of the publication I work for. And so I think it’s always useful to remember what it is like to be in that situation, and to need to make yourself vulnerable.
I do have to say that the joy I feel playing in front of people—and also playing with other musicians—is something that is not the same as the pleasure of publishing an article. Which is pleasurable, but there is something that is so immediate and intense [in performing]. The feeling that you have from the audience. And also the poignancy—the thing about making music, which is different than, let’s say, painting, architecture, or writing, is that it is disappearing in the instance that you’re making it. And so there is this sense that this thing you’re doing, which is hopefully moving someone in your presence in some real way, is also disappearing in that same instant and will never come back. The immediacy of that moment can’t be captured, even on film, much less in recording. I think that sense of ephemeral beauty, hopefully, is quite different than what you’re doing as a writer, which is to create something, as I said earlier, that you hope has some legs and you can always go back to.
You quote something I wrote as a child, and I think that even that sense of time—the sense that you write in one mode of time and you make music in a very different one—the balance between that is fascinating to me, and has been, I think, very healthy.
SB: I’d like to circle back to young Michael Kimmelman, growing up in the West Village. Your father [David] was a physician, and your mother [Edythe], I believe, a sculptor.
MK: That’s right.
SB: And they were both civil-rights advocates and activists. What was your childhood like? And how did that lead you on this path toward art criticism, music criticism, architecture criticism?
MK: Yeah, I grew up in a comically clichéd version of a Greenwich Village family. I grew up in a family that was—you just can’t get farther to the left if you tried. And that was true of my immediate extended family. My uncle and my aunt lived across the street. He [Harry Weinstock] was a well-known union lawyer—and a poet, of course. My dad was an avid reader of all sorts of leftist journals, and he read The New York Times voraciously. I remember him reading it with a pen and circling articles and underlining things, and cutting stuff out, because he was absolutely convinced that The New York Times was run by the C.I.A., and that if you could just decode it, you would know what the military-industrial complex was really up to.
MK: That whole thing gave me—and I mean this quite seriously—a sense that there was an importance to a public conversation. That what was written, and what was being debated, in these journals and newspapers, that this mattered.
And I traveled with my dad through Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. I went to North Vietnam when it was not legal to do so, because my father was demonstrating surgery—surgical techniques—there. I had the full-on indoctrination. And it wasn’t that I believed exactly what my father believed. I never could quite buy into his view, say, of the “Soviet miracle.” But I did believe that there was an importance to trying to participate, in some way, in a public conversation. I didn’t think about it a lot, but I think it stayed with me.
When I graduated from Yale, I was debating a little bit what to do, and fell into a job as an editor at I.D. magazine. It was really by chance, and at the time I guess the magazine was so awful that they would just hire somebody as inexperienced as me. But it was a fantastic experience. Now the magazine is considered a great, sort of chic thing of the past. But at the time it just gave me a footing in the world of journalism. I remember the excitement of the first issue coming out that I had written something for—I hadn’t worked for the school newspaper or anything—and just feeling that I was in the world.
So, when I went on to do my graduate work, which I chose to do in art history, not really because I was deeply devoted to art history—although I had studied [art] a lot and spent some time in Italy studying [art] and so forth—but really because it was, at that time, a field, the cutting edge of which was dedicated to social history and an attempt to situate cultural studies in a historical and political context. To me, that was interesting. I was pursuing it for the reasons I’ve explained, but I kind of had one foot still out the door in journalism. I liked being in the world, and I liked that idea of a public conversation. I trace that back to my dad’s weird habit of circling The New York Times and just conducting at the house with friends all of the time.
SB: Was there an art influence from your mom?
MK: Yes, there was. My mother was a wonderful sculptor, and I think that I … I was a kid who—I liked sports, and I wasn’t a completely nerdy kid. But I also did love going to museums, and I remember having this sense of being not just at home, but having a place that I could call my own, in the garden of MoMA or something, in a way, I think, that a lot of New Yorkers did. But I felt that way as a kid. And I used to go with her to her studio.
My mother was also very politically involved. She was one of the founders of Women Strike for Peace and just a wonderful woman. But it was my dad, I think, with whom I think I had the most arguments.
MK: We had people over to the house—all sorts of crazy people. The entire McCarthy hit list probably came to our house at one point or another for dinner or to hang out.
So, yeah, I think a combination of the two of them. But when I think of my mother, it wasn’t so much the political aspect, and it wasn’t even so much that she and I had a lot of art discussions. I think it was just the fact that for her art was a part of life. For me, it seemed like a normal thing, just to look at it, to talk about it, and to see it as part of the conversation about the state of the world.
SB: I imagine those debates with your father probably were good practice for the criticism to come.
MK: Yeah, I think that’s certainly true. I can’t say I ever came out of them satisfied. He was a very loving and wonderful man, and a fantastic physician and a beloved doctor. I say this as a devoted son, but also, it’s true. He had a thriving practice and people really loved him as a doctor. And I always had a hard time reconciling what I thought were his … his sort of quasi-religious views about politics, these patently disprovable feelings, with his extremely scientific way of looking at the world.
So our arguments were often about “How could you possibly feel …?” That frustration now comes to mind in our current era, when it seems like it’s impossible to have rational conversations with people. Sometimes, I felt, with my dad, we would just reach these impasses. But they were always healthy, and it seemed to me that that was what a fully lived citizenship involved—these conversations and debates—and with the health of the society at large at stake.
SB: Yeah, I mean, I feel like right now we’re in this moment where it’s all about presentation. There’s no real conversation happening. Everybody is kind of posturing.
MK: Yeah, well, one of the problems with social media—this is among other banal things I will say; it’s going to be high up there—but, let’s face it, there is this way in which everyone pees in their corner just to mark their spot, but they’re not really doing anything significant. A lot of debate gets just stuck at that level. I can’t even call it debate; it’s just noise.
We have to work our way through this, obviously, because there is also something that is very healthy and very useful about having such democratic access to the spread of information—as we’ve seen with the spread of videos [showing] conflicts between the police and African American communities and so forth. This is a whole new level of accountability, which is a very healthy thing. On the other hand, it’s clearly a moment when the level of discourse has deteriorated profoundly, and that is just not good for the kind of complex issues that we need to deal with now. And I don’t look nostalgically back on the days when, I don’t know, Hilton Kramer was the art critic for The New York Times and there was this very narrow band of people who were allowed to give their opinions of things, whether it was culture or politics. But something in between—some curating—and maybe, again, to get back to your original point, maybe time will be the curator again in that case.
SB: Going back a little bit, to 1990: You’re age thirty-one, and you become chief art critic at The New York Times. This is after having been a freelance critic covering music and art for them for a few years. What was that like?
SB: I mean, you were replacing someone [John Russell] who was in his seventies.
MK: Yeah, it was fairly terrifying.
MK: I spent those first years—it was an incredible privilege, and I was very, very lucky. And I mean that absolutely. You have to just have happened to have been in the right place and whatever.
I spent the first few years just trying to not make a complete idiot of myself in public. Actually, there are two ways you can approach a position like that at that age: I think one is to try to make your mark by saying very bold things, and I, I think, very consciously thought that was not a good move, because you can’t really take those things back. On the other hand, if you do what I think I was trying to do—which, as I said, is to not get too many things too horribly wrong and sort of work my way into the job—it takes longer, I think, to establish your voice, your bona fides.
In the beginning, I just sort of sensed that everyone probably hated me, and I was thinking, What the hell is going on? And some people did. I remember being so sensitive at the time, to that feeling. I just thought—I was young and I was just trying to do my best—why aren’t people just being nice about it? That’s how naïve I was. Some of those people who were critical of me at the time, or questioning that decision, I have to say, have become—or became—very close friends of mine. Which is a funny thing about time as well. But at that time I was just trying to keep my head above water. And it was thrilling. I mean, it was scary, but really thrilling.
I was not prepared in the sense that I had not really been steeped in contemporary art. Look, I hadn’t really intended to become an art critic. I just kind of fell into that job. So everything about it was new, and I had to familiarize myself with the contemporary art world that I was definitely an outsider in. That had its advantages, because I didn’t come with too many debts or preconceived ideas. But it also came with obvious disadvantages. I had to catch up pretty quickly. I was fine dealing with historical materials, and I had an inclination to do things which now seem normal, but at that time were new.
MK: A couple of things, I would say. I wanted to—The Times still had a relatively narrow view of what we covered: certain galleries and certain museums. And the art world seemed like a much bigger place to me. It was expanding, and that also included the range of art. We were very Western-focused. I wanted to make sure that we covered things that were non-Western, non-traditional. One reason I sought out Holland Cotter as a freelancer at that time was to try and beef up our coverage in areas that we had not really been very good at covering.
There was a lot of resentment in the art world, even though what happened under me in those first years, I’m proud to say, is that our coverage [of art] expanded enormously and we created what was then a whole new section: the weekend section devoted to art, with its own front page. But there was complaining in the art world, and that was because a lot of galleries that were used to being covered regularly were now getting covered much less regularly, because a whole lot of new galleries were getting more coverage. I wasn’t alone, of course, in doing this. But I’m glad, in retrospect, that was one of the things that happened at that time. That blowback—I was also contending with … now, I think people would think it’s insane if we didn’t cover such a wide range of things. We need to cover an even wider range probably.
SB: I think, on this subject, it’s interesting to bring up your book Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere that came out in 1998. In it, you follow artists into all of these different cultural institutions. Sometimes, I mean, in one case, there was a strike, so you couldn’t actually—and that was with [Henri] Cartier-Bresson.
SB: You couldn’t actually go to the museum that he wanted to go to.
SB: Or even the second museum he wanted to go to, and ended up at a Chinese restaurant.
MK: [Laughs] That’s exactly right.
SB: Then there’s—you go with Francis Bacon to the V&A, Elizabeth Murray to the Met. What was fascinating is that these were contemporary figures at the time, or I mean in the case of Balthus, a very old man at the time …
MK: Yeah, some of them were quite old.
SB: Yeah, but you’re taking these living, let’s say, “contemporary figures” into these institutions of deep history, really, and showing this contrasting approach. Was that kind of what you were doing at large at The Times?
MK: Yeah, I think that’s true. But I would say that project—which grew out of a series that I started at The Times—had several functions. One was to find a way for me to interact with artists whom I respected or was interested in. And, by the way, it wasn’t just old white guys. Cindy Sherman and Elizabeth [Murray] …
SB: Kiki Smith.
MK: And Kiki and so forth, yeah. It was a range, and that was also the point. But I wanted to find a way that I could interact with them that was, it seemed to me, not social but constructive. So, selfishly, I wanted to learn from them about how they looked at art. I thought that was a good thing to do.
In a sense, [this idea was] to bring in more voices to the paper about how one thinks about and looks at art. But it also began as a Rashomon project. The idea was that we’d all go to the Met, and, essentially, because every artist looks very selfishly at a collection like the Met’s, for good reasons, that everyone of them would look differently at essentially the same thing. And that that itself was an important lesson, because it would say, “Look, there is no single correct way to think about or to look at art. Here’s this range of all these artists that are showing you a million different ways of looking at the same thing. That should be liberating for you when you think about art, or creative endeavors generally.” And finally, also, because I realized that artists who talk about their own work have a kind of packaged spiel, but if you get them talking about the art that has influenced them, or that interests them, then they’re actually giving you their biography in a much more open and interesting way. So, it was selfish for me, I hope that it was good for readers, and it was another way of writing profiles. I enjoyed it enormously.
What happened was that many of the artists simply just had other interests. Richard Serra wanted to go to MoMA, and then I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of artists in Europe, and obviously wasn’t going to be in the Met. And so the Rashomon thing of the Met came apart, but the principle was the same. I loved doing that series, and I think the book, which expanded on that quite a bit, is something that I’m still not only proud of, but I think has use. Because I think the way they look at things remains—they remain interesting artists—and the way they look at art continues to be instructive for us.
SB: Yeah, as someone born in the 1980s, reading it in retrospect, seeing Balthus and Cartier-Basson, these characters who I only became aware of later in life, after they had died, it’s also a kind of time capsule.
MK: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I cannot claim to be the first person who thought of that idea, by the way. I believe it was [art historian and Matisse scholar] Pierre Schneider, back in the ’50s or early ’60s or something, who did a similar project with artists at the Louvre.
SB: I’m pretty sure the Met also later did this idea with a video series. [Editor’s note: The series was called “The Artist Project,” and it also was published by Phaidon as a book.]
MK: It did, yeah. They stole my idea. I guess it’s allowed. But I’d stolen as well. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] In 2005, you did another book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. What’s really refreshing about that book is that it’s more of a primer for people who are not necessarily as well-versed in art, but those who are really well-versed in art can enjoy it, too.
MK: Yeah, that’s good to hear.
SB: There were some sentences in it that I pulled out that I wanted to bring up on the podcast, because I found these sentences to be really meaningful, or poignant, even now. And the first one is: “To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity.” This idea of living intensely, could you elaborate on that a little bit?
MK: Yeah, I think it’s essential to the entire idea of creative work. It’s a little bit what I was saying earlier about performing. You have to be in the moment to perform in some way that’s going to get across to other people what you really want and feel. But I think intensity is—it’s one of the basic requirements of doing something creative, because a true creative act somehow pushes the boundaries of what is normal. I don’t mean that it has to be something groundbreaking or something. But just doing something routine is almost, by its nature, not terribly creative. But trying to do something creative requires, I think, a certain sacrifice, a certain commitment, a certain vulnerability. And all of those things create a state of intensity. It seems to me almost the most essential thing about creative endeavors.
SB: Another sentence I pulled out is about shock and awe. You write, “When nothing is truly strange or foreign any longer, everything having been predigested, we then demand to be shocked, shock being an experience that still seems genuine to us. Thus we mistake shock for awe.” I think, in this current moment, having read that sentence, and thinking about a Trump White House and this scenario that we’re in—but also just in digital culture and how we see things and what’s cool on Instagram or just in general—I think this idea of shock and awe and the thin line between the two …
MK: Yeah, I mean, look, this has always been a technique of bad art. Not just visual art. I mean in all forms of art. To do something that is just shocking. Sometimes, we enjoy that. It’s sort of the stock and trade of the average horror movie. There’s a lot of art that tries to—visual art—that tries to get some traction by doing something that’s shocking. By pushing the envelope, that’s not what I meant, of course. But, right, I think awe is something much more profound and requires a much deeper kind of—the act of sacrifice and doing something that’s a lot more difficult. Both to do and to interpret.
Look, we will look back on an interview in which we are complaining about all the social-media stuff now as quaint, in the same way—I’m sure you could extract from a book from fifteen years ago quaint stuff, too. But it is definitely the case now that there is a desire—you said Instagram; it’s true on all forms of social media—to find some [way to], you know, to stick your head above the crowd. And the easiest way to do that is to do something outrageous. That has always been the case, because there is so much noise now as the crowd is so big. It’s hard to do that without doing something even more appalling. That’s really not interesting in the end. But we’ve drifted, by the very nature of having that conversation, away from what creativity is about. Because that’s really not where the creative act takes place.
SB: Yeah, and in this age of convenience, there was another section in the book that I found really compelling. You’re just talking about how we ignore all of these small little miracles around us. You say, “Convenience comes at a price.” And then, just shortly after that, “The world is full of small miracles … accessible to all of us, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them.” In this world of visual noise, do you think it’s becoming harder to look for such miracles? Are there a lot of people still out there, do you think, capturing this? Is this something that …?
MK: Well, look, my point there was—and I believe this deeply—in a way the whole point of the book was: We need to see the world with open eyes. And that means we need to think openly about received ideas. We need to see each other openly. And we need to just see what’s around us. There is, in fact, an enormous amount of beauty and invention and novelty, and just fascination, in things that are constantly around us. But, on some level, which we’re blind to, because we’re used to seeing things in a certain way, or we’re distracted … Here’s a tiny, probably not terribly good example, but if you’ve ever walked down the street with a small child and you’re, say, going somewhere and you’re distracted on your phone or you’re noticing whether the light is changing or whatever—the normal thing, how late you are, whether you have the tickets to the event—the child is often seeing an entirely different world, which is also there: the airplane stream in the sky, the bottle tops that are on the ground, a balloon that is drifting in the air. It’s as if that child occupies—although it’s the same space and time—a different reality with a number of small miracles.
I remember, when I was living in Berlin and I came back to New York and was walking through my old neighborhood in the Village with a guy who had lived upstairs from me, he had never left and I had come to feel that the Village was a place that had been largely, well, destroyed, but in any case dramatically changed by all of the money and redevelopment that had moved into the neighborhood. And when I had came back and had walked around I saw that new stuff. But walking around with him, he had not moved anywhere, and his routines had not changed over the years. It was as if I suddenly walked through some strange screen—visible screen—into the world that I used to occupy. It was still there. He saw the guy who was on the lawn chair outside of the fruit stand who’d always been there. He saw the woman—we passed the newsstall where this grumpy lady had always been since I was a little boy and sold me the newspaper that I would go pick up for my parents on Sunday mornings. It was as if a separate reality existed, layered over this one that I had come to see. And I think the world is full of those kind of layers. It’s a question of how open we are to seeing, to seeing through other people’s eyes, and that’s certainly true of art. I think one of the things art does—and one of the most profound aspects of modern art, which is to say the art of the last fifty, seventy years or more—is to open our eyes to the way in which seemingly everyday, normal things have about them a beauty, a grace, a meaning that we might ignore if we were not really attentive.
SB: It’s interesting, in hearing you describe that analogy between the adult and the child, that a lot of artists will say that they like to look at the world through a child’s eyes.
MK: Yeah, I think that’s a conceit that’s half true.
MK: We all look at children’s drawings, for instance, and think, Man, it would be great to do that. The idea is, somehow, to capture something about what seems to be the unencumbered directness of those drawings, but to channel it. And yes, I think that idea is part of what artists are looking for. How do you see things that other people see in a way lets them—lets other people see it afresh or differently? And, look, as a critic, that’s part of the job, too: to somehow take something that people may not have thought a lot about, or may have thought about in one way, and open them up to the idea that there may be other ways of thinking about it. At least, open them up to the idea that debate about this thing is in itself a healthy, useful way of talking about the thing, the world, our relationship to each other, and so forth.
SB: So, you were primarily covering art from 1990 until around 2007, and go to Berlin late that year, where you transition more to a cultural role where you are covering many different realms around Europe and the Middle East. What was that transition like for you, having spent the better part of two decades, almost—seventeen years—covering this very specific world, and then all of a sudden planting yourself on a different continent and looking at things outside of the realm of public art, galleries, museums?
MK: Well, so, as I said, I fell into my job as an art critic. I think there are people for whom it’s, quite understandably, their life’s ambition, and the art world is their world. That was never really me. I have friends who are artists and dealers and creators I love, but I was never really at home in the art world, truth be told. And part of that was a feeling that I wanted to write about the world in a larger way.
I talked earlier about my childhood, my background, and the art world is a fascinating place, but it’s also kind of a bubble. So I felt increasingly frustrated, I’ll be honest. And I was trying to find ways to write about art that would open it up—and open the discussion—to a larger audience, which wasn’t necessarily the art world. And that put me sometimes a little at odds with the conversation in the art world. But the book you described, The Accidental Masterpiece, was—both of them, frankly, were attempts to do that. But over the years I was constantly restless, and so I was writing more and more for The New York Review of Books, writing a lot for The Times Magazine, trying to find ways to write my way out of what I was doing. Privileged and grateful though I was. I don’t just say that. I was not diluted—I had a great job. But I also thought, Look, I had gotten it when I was very young, it’s not the only thing I could do.
So, when I went to Europe, in a way, I had already a foot out the door. And The Times, I think, thought, Look, let him go for a year or something, and then he’ll come back and he’ll get this out of his system. But I had a kind of idea of what I wanted to do, and it was to write a column that essentially looked at politics and social affairs across Europe and the Middle East through a cultural lens. Sometimes, the cultural aspect of it was hard to discern, but that was the basic idea. And it got back to my very first interests, in how culture is a way to talk about the world at large, and I loved doing that. I felt much more at home doing that, in a way, than I had felt as an art critic, because I loved getting out and about and talking to people. I loved collaborating with people. I had to do that in countries where I didn’t speak the language.
MK: It was a somewhat rootless job. You are a thing in the public’s eye, such as the public cares if you’re the art critic of The Times. If you’re writing one week about life under Hamas in Gaza, and another week about culture under Putin, and another thing about Négritude in France, people don’t really necessarily have any idea of what you’re doing. [Laughs]
MK: Or read more than the thing that they are interested in. And so, for me, it was wonderful, but I think it also seemed like a hiatus for some people who had known me in one role for a long time.
SB: Yeah, almost like a sabbatical from being a critic.
MK: Yeah, I mean, I wrote it in a voice, and that was also very important to me. I haven’t really talked here that much about this, but the throughline for me, creatively speaking, is how to be a good writer. I think the essential role of a critic, in a way, is to develop a voice so that people want to read you and so that they know where you are coming from. It’s an art to write as a critic well. That’s the art that I’ve devoted myself to. And so this was a way of elaborating on the voice. I did not think that it was really different. I had, as a critic, often written profiles or written other things that were often outside of the straight-review form. For some people, that was considered weird. I just saw it as another way of exercising one’s voice. I didn’t see it so much as giving up my role as a critic, whatever that means—I didn’t really care. I just thought it was trying to write in a way that’s personal.
But yes, in terms of a strict—sort of the way that we pigeonhole jobs and have ideas of what people do, or are supposed to do, it was outside of the box. And I actually, if I may say, think that that’s what made that job creative and interesting. It’s what differentiated [my role] from the normal foreign correspondent’s job or the normal critic’s job, and, as a result, it fell between stools. But I think it’s produced some interesting things, and for me it was very exciting.
SB: You lived in Berlin during this time. Why Berlin? And also, connected to that, what was your experience there like? What did you learn from your years in Berlin?
MK: Well, I chose Berlin for many reasons, some of them quite practical—living with a family. But I also chose it because it seemed to me to be the most interesting city to be in. It was not London or Paris, and, especially at a publication like The Times—The Times tends to get rutted in the sort of touristic conversations about what’s happening in London or Paris. I wanted to be away from that. It was also moving east, and so it was central to Europe, but that also included Eastern Europe.
I love Berlin. So I think it was—I thought about many other places. I mean, I went through ridiculous real-estate explorations and conversations. You wouldn’t believe where. But Berlin was always sort of the most logical place. And I really loved it there. It’s a very—you know, it has this reputation as a place twentysomethings would love to go and party and pretend to be artists, but the truth is, it’s an incredibly humane, comfortable, decent place to live. And the people I came to know there I adored. I think, outside New York, it also proved to me that you can have a very full, rich, actually rather sane life without being here. Which for a native New Yorker was a healthy thing.
SB: Did you view that time, on some level—or did you ever expect or think that it might lead you toward the architecture critic role?
MK: No, I wasn’t thinking specifically about that. I had always had an interest in architecture, going back to my days at I.D. and even before. I had studied architecture history in graduate school and so forth. But I hadn’t aspired to that job.
No, I had had other ideas about how I would move on, and the newspaper had discussions with me about maybe taking this act from Berlin to Asia or something. But when they asked if I would do the architecture job, I thought about it. I didn’t just immediately say yes. But I did have an idea of how I would do that job. And it was a moment that seemed opportune, and honestly, that kind of moment does not occur often in one’s life, if ever. So I saw that it was something I should do, and I’m glad I did.
SB: That was in 2011. You were the fifth critic at the paper, after Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, Herbert Muschamp, and Nicolai Ouroussoff. In terms of your process as a critic—and this question is in connection to time—how do you project for the future? Because you’re looking at architects who are doing just that. So, I’m curious, how do you identify an architect’s intent and recognize change that’s happening at large around that? Sort of this idea of intent-based criticism.
MK: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I think about things that way. I do think that, as with all art, but certainly as with all architecture, intent and result are very often not the same thing. And I think that’s one of the most fascinating and often beautiful things about architecture, is that if it has value, it evolves as the society evolves around it. I mean, there are famous historical examples—the Pantheon or something—but it’s even true true … We’re also sitting right now close to some tower-in-the-park housing projects [the Chelsea-Elliott Houses development], and they began out of a certain idea about the city—the decline of the city, the failure of historical architecture as it was declining with the city—and over time those buildings have come to look rather different. Some of them, in fact, are quite desirable now, even though that form of architecture was widely discredited, especially discredited by Jane Jacobs in the early ’60s. This is actually a roundabout way of saying the intent of that architecture is one thing, and the context out of which it is born is one thing, but of course it has come to have different lives, because it can have different uses over time. So, those tower-in-the-park projects, some of them have become wonderful places for retirees to live, because they have some green space, they have elevators, they have some community areas. They had not been intended as retirement communities, but that is basically what they have become. That’s fascinating, I think. Architects can anticipate a certain amount of change, and try to see the way architects, planners, urban designers, and so forth see the way cities, communities, are evolving, but in the end you’re building something that you hope continues to have some value, even if the circumstances have changed.
SB: Another thing sort of connected to the craft of your work is the pace at which you do it, and I’ve noticed that, on average, since you’ve become [architecture] critic, it’s about one story a month.
SB: How do you approach what you’re doing in terms of time, in terms of thinking about the reporting, the writing, the research? It’s very different than going to, say, walk into a museum and review an exhibition. You’re going to Medellín, Colombia, and Quito, Ecuador, and having to sort of understand a place in very deep terms, in order to write about it in a critical context. What’s that process for you, and how have you come to this sort of pace?
MK: I mean—I’ve never counted. And if you add it up, I suspect the numbers are a little distorted because, for instance, last year, I spent almost all my time—not all of it really, but a lot of it—or the year before last, I should say, on a big project about climate and global cities.
SB: That was a Pulitzer finalist.
MK: Yeah, and that was obviously a year-plus-long project that produced five giant things, and they were very labor intensive. So the pace varies. When I started this job, I wrote at a much faster clip. But you’re absolutely right.
So, one of the differences between an art or music job—or, for that matter, movies or TV—is that it involves tremendous triage. If you’re the art critic, basically, you and your colleagues are covering every major show, or you’re trying to, so everyone’s practicing some triage. But with architecture, there are a million things that happen every day: new buildings, new plans.
A lot of my job, I think, is trying to select the things that speak to something larger than just themselves. You’re not just walking in and trying to suss out what the show is like and learn a little bit about the artist, let’s say. You’re dealing with projects that are often very complex, and I think if you want to write them in a meaningful way you’re trying to situate them in a larger context, too. So, I wrote the other day about the Strand bookstore. A straight-up way of doing that would be to say the Strand’s building is up for landmark status, and it should or shouldn’t get it, and leave it at that. I think [what I wrote] actually opened up a whole other conversation, which is part of where we are now as a city, about how we preserve—what the meaning of landmarks are, what the meaning is of a landmark, if it extends beyond the architecture, or the place, to the things that are happening there. So that can include shops, local legacy bodegas, and bookstores, and so forth. What do we really mean about preserving things? What is it we want to preserve when we talk about the culture of a city? The Strand brings that up. To write something like that, you have to be responsible, of course, to these issues, which are complicated. So that’s the way I’ve approached this. I would say I have on my list a million things I want to do, and every day—and I don’t mean this just as a phrase; I literally mean that every day at least one or two new things come up that I feel responsible to doing, and I will not get to.
SB: Yeah, and there’s, of course, the challenge with it being The New York Times. You have to cover the home turf, but it’s also a global paper. I’ve written down here a list of all the locations that you’ve reported from since starting the role in 2011, and it includes Madrid; Rome; Ronchamp, France; Miami; Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia; Louisville, Kentucky; Oakland; Amsterdam; Naples, Italy; Stuttgart; Baghdad; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan; Al Fawwar in West Bank; Detroit; Mexico City; Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago; Houston, Texas; Erie, Pennsylvania; Charleston—I could go on
MK: You’d be shocked at how bad I am at keeping frequent-flyer miles tracked.
SB: [Laughs] I had to bring up travel because it’s one of those things—just the fact that you’ve been to all these places and seen them through the lens in which you’re seeing them, which is as this architecture critic in pretty much the most important post in the field, at the most important paper. I mean, some think it’s “the failing New York Times,” but …
MK: [Laughs] I have to say several things. First of all, let me reiterate: It’s been an incredible privilege to have a career in which I’ve been able to travel so much. And I cannot lie, it’s been one of the great joys of this job. But why do I like it? It’s not for frequent-flyer miles. It’s because, for me, it’s been an opportunity to really see places in ways that one doesn’t do as a tourist, to meet a million people, to hear their voices and understand what they are thinking and talking about. I can hardly begin to tell you how profound that has been for me, and to then somehow convey that is the job.
So, I think, in all of these cases, it’s not just about covering the globe; it’s about finding examples of things that will resonate beyond Louisville or Medellín or the refugee camp in Jordan, because I think all those things represent something larger than themselves. And that’s what I meant about triage. But I also think the field is such that we need to learn lessons, and we need to look beyond our immediate surroundings. New York has been a place, of course, which I write about all the time, and I could just do this job only writing about New York, of course. But I think New York allows me, in a sense, to get down to the level of the curb and the sidewalk, and sometimes it’s possible, if you go someplace else, to look more from 30,000 feet.
Though it’s very important, I think, as a writer, especially when you’re dealing with the social role of the built world, to always ground what one is doing in the experiences of the people who built—but also are using—the things you’re writing about. So never really 30,000 feet—as in completely disconnected.
Just to answer this question you may not have asked: I not long ago wrote about the gilets jaunes in France, and although that’s technically not architecture, of course, for me the way in which the protests in France have evolved, and the growing—in part sparked by protests over gasoline tax—opened up to me an issue about the way France had been planned and evolved and grew. A physical question about the way the country is laid out and what social and economic impact that had had. To me, that’s part of my purview, as well: that if you look at the world, if you look at the landscape—the built world—as a kind of text of the social and economic effects, as a tapestry essentially of social, cultural, and economic things, then writing about those social-economic things in the context of the built world is a very natural thing to do. I didn’t even think of something like that as being a kind of time-out; I see it as an extension for the larger task of the job.
SB: I wanted to finish this interview with a tougher question, which is how and when you decide to come out guns blazing. [Laughs] There are three examples that came to mind as I was researching for this interview, and one was about when you wrote about the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which you said is: “Entering an oversize plumbing fixture to commune with classic modern art is like hearing Bach played by a man wearing a clown suit.”
MK: [Laughs] Yeah.
SB: Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus at the World Trade Center you describe as “an epic boondoggle” and describe Calatrava himself as “a one-trick pony.”
MK: [Laughs quietly]
SB: Of the Vessel, here at Hudson Yards [points north through the window on 26th Street, toward the Hudson Yards development], by Thomas Heatherwick, you most recently described it as about as much like … [Laughs] You’re basically comparing it to a waste-basket of sorts.
I think it’s this idea of being very critical and also pressing hard—when do you decide to do that? Because it’s not that often. These are three examples out of a hundred-plus stories you’ve done [as architecture critic].
MK: So, I also said earlier—and I believe it’s true—that one always has to remember that, as I said about the creative endeavor, that people are putting their hearts and souls on the line, and I think that’s true. As a critic, especially for a publication that is so widely read—and whose reputation I also need to represent—one doesn’t say too many cavalier, insulting things, and one never does it without a reason. So I think being selective also makes the impact of those things more useful, and there has to be some reason beyond just you don’t like it. It’s a cheap trick to come up with something really insulting. The people like it, but it doesn’t wear well. And, look, as I said earlier, you can come out and say strong things as a critic, or you can sort of learn how to do your job—that’s something I felt early on. I still, in a way, feel you have to pick your shots carefully.
In all of those cases [you mentioned] there was some underlying issue. In the case of the Calavatra train station, it was an incredibly costly venture for the city and for taxpayers, which basically produced a shopping mall. And I think that New York did not—taxpayers did not—benefit from that. If it had just been a project that had been in the middle of the countryside, I wouldn’t have written about it. The Vessel is on what passes for—or should be what passes for—public land, but it really isn’t much more than a dropoff for a shopping mall. So, again, I feel that there is somehow a swindle for the public that’s involved here. And I find it particularly annoying to be sold a bill of goods about the creative novelty of these things when, in fact, they’re just not that interesting, and sometimes they’re just downright awful.
I think there has to be a reason why you wield that particular cudgel, but let me say something else: I hope I haven’t been pontificating that much, but I do think this job has a use in promoting ideas in what we could build and how we should build. I don’t see the role of—this role—as being simply to respond to what’s out there. I see it as much more as an activist’s role, and I’ve treated it that way, for better or worse. And what that means is that I myself have goals, which is: How can we build more equitable, more beautiful, better cities and societies? And while that sounds pollyannaish, we do it incrementally, and I think architecture, design, landscape design, and so forth are all critical to this.
At the heart of what I write, mostly—and I think this affects this question you’re asking about how much up-and-down writing I write—is an optimism, or a hope, or an idea of moving towards something better. You know, we’re very skeptical of progress these days, but in many ways there is a larger sense in which we’re making progress in the world. And I think, even in the Hudson Yards piece that I wrote, there is, embedded within it, a notion about what a better neighborhood could be, what a better-run city could be. So that’s what I also hope people take away from what I do: a sense of hope, and a goal. Not just the occasional nasty pleasure of schadenfreude. Or finding someone who agrees that the thing you hate they also hate, too—that’s fine. But there is something that one can achieve here, this public conversation about how to make a better society and how to move forward our civil welfare. So, as inflated and crazy as that goal is, it informs, in the back of my mind, a little bit of everything I write. I hope, somehow, it’s useful and that it comes across.
SB: Thanks for joining us today, Michael. This was great.
MK: It’s a pleasure for me. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 26, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.