Alexandra Lange | Opinions

Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough

Nicolai Ouroussoff on Charlie Rose, December 2005.

When I told an editor recently that my dream upon graduating from college was to be an architecture critic, she laughed. Not at me (I don’t think), but at the idea of aspiring to a job that might be doomed. Online, both everyone and no one is a critic, and architecture talk proliferates, often in the absence of buildings. Yet there are still a few architecture critics who count, and Nicolai Ouroussoff of The New York Times is perhaps the most powerful (rivaled only by his predecessor Paul Goldberger, now at The New Yorker). Ouroussoff has the opportunity to write about architecture anywhere and often. He is read by people who are not already interested in the topic, and he is read by important people. Should Ouroussoff turn out to be the last architecture critic, that makes it even more imperative to say: He is not good enough. He is not winning hearts or minds. He is not making a case for keeping the breed.

In 1985, Michael Sorkin wrote a Village Voice article titled, “Why Goldberger Is So Bad.” A set of recent Paul Goldberger columns in the Times on prospective buildings for Times Square had sent Sorkin into personal attack mode. His issue was not the designs, though the massive, repetitive Johnson/Burgee buildings would have truly been terrible, but Goldberger’s inability to take a position for or against them. “Goldberger artfully presents the existence of conflicting opinions as a means of showing the superiority of having none,” Sorkin wrote. “His strategy is to take all the positions.”

Now, I am not as mean or as funny as the 1980s Michael Sorkin, but I can’t help sharing his wrath. What outraged him about Goldberger was Goldberger’s inability to express his own opinion and his refusal to speak truth to power (in the form of Philip Johnson). What outrages me about Ouroussoff is partly the opposite. Ouroussoff has an opinion about design, but his reviews offer not much more than that opinion. His approach — little history, less politics, occasional urbanism — shrinks the critic’s role to commenting only on the appearance of the architecture. He might have been the perfect critic for the boom years, when looks were the selling point, but this formal, global approach seems incongruous in a downturn. His evaluative criterion was never clear to me until I embarked on this essay; in re-reading him, I found frequent defenses of one quality: the new.

If that’s what he’s selling, I’m not buying it. For three reasons: We don’t know where he lives. He’s slippery. And he doesn’t care (enough).

Zaha Hadid, MAXXI, National Museum of 21st-Century Art, Rome, 2009.

He Doesn’t Seem to Live in New York City
Local residency should be a requirement for the Times architecture critic as it is for city police officers and politicians. Ouroussoff must have moved here in 2004, when he was hired from the Los Angeles Times to replace Herbert Muschamp, but I don’t recall him ever referring to his neighborhood, to a favorite park or plaza or to the pedestrian everyday city that the rest of us occupy. Alice Twemlow argued recently on Design Observer that the best design criticism is based on user experience and unpretentious language, and the same standard can be applied to architecture criticism. To know where critics are coming from, particularly on urban matters, it helps to know what they personally prefer: high-rises or brownstones, big parks or small. Does Ouroussoff jog? Have a dog? Ride the subway? The easiest way to draw in readers who don’t think they’re interested in architecture is to offer a parallel experience, say, approaching a building on foot, as a stranger. I’m not asking for personal revelation — though it always charms me when Christopher Hawthorne, Ouroussoff’s replacement at the LA Times, makes appropriate mention of his family — but for a sense that he dwells in our reality and not Airworld. Even after all this time, he rarely writes as if his feet touch the ground.

Exhibits A and B in this critique are Ouroussoff’s reviews of the massive Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. It was unclear from his first review whether Ouroussoff had ever been to Brooklyn, so grateful did he think we should be for the services of (Los Angeles) architect Frank Gehry. On July 5, 2005, he wrote:

          Frank Gehry's new design for a 21-acre corridor of high-rise towers 
          anchored by the 19,000-seat Nets arena in Brooklyn may be the most 
          important urban development plan proposed in New York City in decades.           
          If it is approved, it will radically alter the Brooklyn skyline, reaffirming the 
          borough's emergence as a legitimate cultural rival to Manhattan. 

To which the proud Brooklyn resident could only respond: We need Frank Gehry’s affirmation?

          There are those — especially acolytes of the urbanist Jane Jacobs — who 
          will complain about the development's humongous size. But cities attain their 
          beauty from their mix of scales; one could see the development's thrusting 
          forms as a representation of Brooklyn's cultural flowering.

Here Ouroussoff performs a neat trick, (mis)characterizing the opposition as a bunch of Jacobsian sentimentalists, and informing us that Gehry’s new architecture would be the borough’s best representative. Those brownstones are apparently so retrograde that they and the rest of the project’s existing context warrant only a three-sentence paragraph. Ouroussoff never bothered to orient his readers to the importance of the site, the windy, well-trafficked corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. Naturally the Brooklyn bloggers had a field day with this piece, for reasons valid and conspiratorial.

Later, much later, Ouroussoff would try to make amends, when, in one of the more scathing reviews of his Times career, he told Gehry to walk away from the compromised vision. On March 21, 2008, he wrote
          No development at all would be preferable to building the design that is now 
          on the table. What’s maddening is how few options opponents seem to have.  
          We could wage a public campaign to stop it. We could pray that Forest City 
          Ratner comes up with more money… 
The use of the royal “we” was startling — Ouroussoff had suddenly aligned himself with the opposition — but in truth he was just as worried about Frank Gehry’s reputation as “our” options. 
          Mr. Gehry, on the other hand, could walk away…  But by pulling out he would 
          be expressing a simple truth: At this point the Atlantic Yards development 
          has nothing to do with the project that New Yorkers were promised. Nor does 
          it rise to the standards Mr. Gehry has set for himself during a remarkable career. 
In neither review, nor those in between, did Ouroussoff ever describe the intersection as it exists or offer any personal experience with that Brooklyn renaissance. It was as if all he knew was what he had read in his own paper. He could see the models at the office. He could talk to Frank Gehry. That was enough. He was far more lyrical, and particular, when he walked a series of redevelopment sites in Paris last year in the company of various famous architects. 
Frank Gehry, Atlantic Yards, first proposal, 2005.
The first Atlantic Yards review went a way toward establishing Ouroussoff as a character, and like Muschamp and Goldberger, a lover of stars. Muschamp’s repetition of a short list of famous names — including Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and Diller + Scofidio — became so noticeable that it provoked Michael Sorkin to publish the number of times (as a percentage of total citations) those architects were mentioned in his columns.  
If we were to reduce Ouroussoff’s output to a list, the names would be slightly different, but the emphasis remains the same: yes to Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel; no to people you haven’t already heard of. His neighborhood, then, is the floating world of the international architectural profession. He goes where the big-name action is (most recently, to Boston and Basel). This approach only reinforces contemporary architecture’s disastrous tendency toward placelessness and divorces the New York Times critic from New York. He can judge a design anywhere, but he can’t assess its function, urbanity or livability. And he’s unlikely ever to revisit, since that would involve another flight. 
When Ouroussoff critiqued MAXXI, Zaha Hadid’s museum of 21st-century art, in Rome, he did recommend the best pedestrian approach along Via Luigi Poletti, but without characterizing that street, or the neighborhood around the swoopy object. There was nothing to talk about but Hadid. 
          Maxxi, which opens to the public on Saturday for a two-day “architectural 
          preview,” jolts this city back to the present like a thunderclap. Its sensual 
          lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making every-
          thing around it look timid. The galleries (which will remain empty of art until 
          the spring, when the museum is scheduled to hold its first exhibition) would 
          probably have sent a shiver of joy up the old pope’s spine. Even Bernini, I 
          suspect, would have appreciated their curves.


Zaha Hadid, MAXXI, interior.

It is hard for me to get over the oddity and cheesiness of characterizing that pope, Urban VIII (1568–1644), as “dreaming up lavish new projects over breakfast with his artistic soul mate, the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini,” and imagining his MAXXI enthusiasm. This was Muschampian smoke and mirrors leading the eye away from the uncomfortable fact that the building wasn’t ready for him. Ouroussoff, because he’s the Times critic, was first on the scene, but even he had to admit that his job wasn’t quite done:
          What we don’t know, however, and won’t know for a while, is whether the 
          galleries strike the right balance between the need to move crowds and the 
          stillness required for contemplating art. 
Contemplating art. Isn’t that what museums are for? Ouroussoff’s review makes it sound as if MAXXI is more important as “proof that this city is no longer allergic to the new and a rebuke to those who still see Rome as a catalog of architectural relics for scholars or tourists” than as a functioning building. He’s treating Rome the same way he treated Brooklyn: as a city of nostalgics who should be grateful that a curvaceous UFO has awakened them from slumber.  
He’s Slippery
I teach architecture criticism at New York University and the School of Visual Arts. In trying to stay current, I have often assigned Ouroussoff reviews. Typically, we only end up discussing the topic rather than Ouroussoff’s approach. Rarely does he turn a phrase that sticks in the mind, or take risks with comparisons, structure, even vivid description. The emotional tenor of his writing is always fairly close to that of the rest of the Times’s Arts section: knowledgeable, covering all the bases, but somehow unremarkable. This evenness makes it almost impossible to characterize his critical persona. To follow in Ouroussoff’s footsteps (as I encourage my students to do with the critics we read) wouldn’t lead them to be more than competent writers. That would be a plus in innumerable cases, but is not, in my opinion, what criticism is about. Critics should have followers, people who can’t wait to hear what they say next. It makes me nostalgic for the days when you couldn’t believe what Herbert Muschamp had just written. That outrage was earned. Ouroussoff seems only to inspire annoyance. 
Ouroussoff’s lack of artistic ambition leads to lazy writing, words and characterizations, unexplained assumptions and manufactured opponents that appear and reappear. In his largely unqualified rave for the High Line, enthusiasm inspired him to use some colloquial references, from Carrie Bradshaw (horrendously dated) to Bambi: 
          What saves all this from becoming a saccharine exercise in nostalgia is 
          the sophistication with which these elements are fused together. 
Given that he had just been talking about the fragments of railroad track in the thickets, if I were grading his review, I would ask first, What’s “all this”? And then, Who ever said the High Line was going to be nostalgic? He raises the specter of nostalgia only to demolish it, a one-paragraph tempest. I was so struck by his abuse of nostalgia in the High Line review that I went back through my clippings. Nostalgia came up again and again, never explained, always as a negative. In his similarly positive take on the designs for the East River Waterfront, he writes: 
          The typical riverfront developments of today, with their traditional lampposts 
          and quaint park benches, drip with nostalgia for a city that never was. 
I agree we should install no more reproduction 1880s streetlights. But “nostalgia” (whose nostalgia? Nostalgia for what era, what architect?) without context becomes a straw man, an illusory opponent for contemporary architects to triumph over. 
Jean Nouvel, 53 W. 53rd Street, proposal, New York.
A different straw man appears, bearing pitchforks, in Ouroussoff’s January 20 review of Renzo Piano’s Isabella Stewart Gardner addition. 
          More than a few eyebrows will likely be raised on Thursday when the 
          Italian architect Renzo Piano unveils his design for the expansion of the 
          Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here. The cultural watchdogs of Boston 
          don’t take well to change… 
          Well, the preservationists should put away their torches and pitchforks. 
Whose eyebrows? Why pitchforks? I believe the stereotype that Boston is a city of conservative taste, but this sort of broad-brush introduction is too easy. He’s invented an opposition to the addition and then demolished it, in the space of two paragraphs. It is manufactured drama, and only delays our access to the building.  
          If the design has a flaw, it’s not that it tramples all over Gardner’s memory, 
          but that it holds it in too high regard. Mr. Piano has been so careful to protect 
          the sanctity of the existing museum in his design that you may find yourself 
          tiptoeing through the galleries instead of floating joyously through them as 
          visitors do today. 
Why shouldn’t we raise our pitchforks against banality? If you read previous Ouroussoff reviews of Piano’s work, you realize that he has made the argument that Piano is too cautious — possibly nostalgic! — before. Here, about Piano’s addition to the Whitney Museum:
          Such humility may seem laudable. Who doesn't want to preserve the city's
          architectural legacy? But great design is never cautious; it cannot arise amid 
          a climate of fear. The risk is that the building will ultimately be too subdued, 
          as if it is trying too hard to fit in. 
If Piano really is as boring as all that, Ouroussoff should finish him off, shaming museum directors out of ever hiring him again. But he can’t do that, because sometimes he likes Piano, and history too:
          In the end, the Morgan expansion is the work of a master who has reached 
          full maturity, and is thus at ease with contradiction.  
          Mr. Piano no longer has any interest in annihilating the past; nor does he 
          worship it blindly. He appreciates its rare treasures while living solidly in the 
          present. A result is a building that doesn't retreat from the city, but makes 
          us fall in love with it all over again. 
Maybe I can’t teach him as a critical model because he keeps changing his mind. 
He Doesn’t Care 
For me, architecture is emotional. When I see a terrible building, or even just one with large, windy, unmanageable public spaces, I get mad. One of the best aspects of Muschamp’s writing was that he would get mad too. Ugliness and ordinariness were an affront. By the end of Muschamp’s time at the Times I had grown weary of his shtick — the flights of greater and greater fantasy, connections between architecture, poetry and film comprehensible only to himself, the droning repetition of the same list of big-name, big-gesture architects any client should have hired. Everyone had a different breaking point. But now I see why we had to put up with all that. He cared, and kept on caring for quite some time. Ouroussoff rarely seems roused above a scold, and then only to defend a similar list of big-name, big-gesture architects. (One notable exception: “New York City, Tear Down These Walls,” in which he advocated the demolition of Madison Square Garden, the Javits Center, Charles Gwathmey’s condominium on Astor Place and 2 Columbus Circle. 
A sudden blast of energy: “Does Manhattan have a future as a great metropolis?” he asked on September 10, 2009, about Jean Nouvel’s controversially colossal midtown building design. 
          If you hope the answer is yes, you will be disheartened by the City 
          Planning Department’s decision on Wednesday to chop off 200 feet from 
          the top of a proposed tower next door to the Museum of Modern Art on 
          53rd Street … 
          It’s true that aspects of the design had yet to be developed fully. The three 
          peaks were too symmetrical, which gave them a slightly static appearance. 
          And they could have been sharpened to finer points. But Mr. Nouvel, one 
          of the profession’s most creative forces, would have been more than capable 
          of dealing with these issues. 
This review returns us to Sorkin and Goldberger. They have made up now, and appear on panels together, so I don’t want to quote too extensively and ruin their friendship. But Sorkin specifically savaged Goldberger for suggesting that all that Johnson’s mega-towers needed was a few tweaks at street level, and that the problem was essentially decorative, not conceptual. Ouroussoff is taking the opposite position — taller is better — but argues, like Goldberger, for the supremacy of the architect’s idea. This guy is so good, he seems to be saying, we should just let him do what he wants and worry about the details later. In doing so, Ouroussoff has to ignore a lot of other problems with Nouvel’s project. Problems way down there at street level, where people live. Fifty-fourth Street is already a wind tunnel on the south side, what with the blank and blanker facades of the new MoMA and its sculpture garden, and Nouvel’s tower simply holds that line, albeit with a scrim of structure-as-spectacle. Ouroussoff wrote, 
          The design’s beauty stemmed from its elegant proportions, particularly 
          the exaggerated relationship between its small footprint and enormous 
          height. Seen from the street, its receding facades would have induced a 
          delicious sense of vertigo. 
But we have to take his word for it. Vertigo can go either way. He paints City Planning chair Amanda Burden as an enemy of progress, without mentioning the highly interpretive reading of the city’s zoning laws that allowed the tower’s developer to accumulate air rights from non-adjacent landmarks like St. Thomas Church, and the role of the Museum of Modern Art, which will be a tenant of the tower, in further raising the skyline of its midtown block. He’s leaving the politics out of it, along with an assessment of the pedestrian impact. 
Ouroussoff is at his most Mumfordian when he walks us through buildings that aren’t there, relating the experience of the virtual architecture so specifically that many readers have been sometimes confused about whether buildings like the downtown Whitney Museum or the Berkeley Art Museum exist. He is most convincing about the beauties of unbuilt architecture because the real world has not yet impinged upon its design. For it is ultimately design, the endless renewal of architects’ dreams, that Ouroussoff supports. Back to Nouvel’s tower: 
          Still, the notion of treating the Midtown skyline as a museum piece is 
          more disturbing. The desire of each new generation of architects and 
          builders to leave its mark on the city, to contribute its own forms, is 
          essential to making New York what it is. 
It is our city the New York Times architecture critic should be trying to save, not the gargantuan works of Frank Gehry or Jean Nouvel (or Philip Johnson). They can parachute in and out, but we (and ideally the Times itself) remain to live with the consequences. In his defense of the Nouvel tower, Ouroussoff comes closer than ever to embracing the new as his preeminent critical value. That’s why nostalgia is bad. That’s why Zaha and Frank and Jean are good. That’s why Renzo is only sometimes good, or only good when there isn’t a better, bolder architect (like Rem Koolhaas, in the case of the Whitney) waiting in the wings.  
That’s just not enough. Architecture criticism cannot simply be about what’s new because that leads precisely to the globe-trotting, star-gazing, architecture-as-sculpture approach we have now. What we need is criticism that treats renderings and buildings as different, since users are the ultimate critics. We need criticism that connects us to a building’s references, emotions and textures, not only its news value. We need criticism moored to place, and to the history of that place, so that the ways forward multiply (and don’t only involve building something curvy). Ouroussoff is not good enough because he reinforces the worst trends in architectural culture, never explains where he comes from and never explores the many different places we might go.

Posted in: Architecture, Media

Comments [86]

Someone should have said this years ago. Thank you!
john s.

Bravo, Alexandra. This is a huge moment for architecture criticism. Your voice comes through strong and clear. Thank you for taking this huge step and sharing your writing.

Great article!
However, on Ouroussoff's defense I can't resist to say that the Carrie Bradshaw mention was a rather nostalgic (!) way to start the article. It's not tacky or dated, as he's just using an overwhelmingly known urban/ TV reference rather then using an highbrow one.
As for bambi, I think humor should be part of criticism too. A good laugh midway through a serious article, can only benefit the reader's attention for the remaining part.
Jane Cullen

As a non-architect, I have almost always loved reading his reviews. In writing about New York specifically, he has drawn connections with other buildings and movements in architecture and tied them into larger trends in the economy, neighborhoods, etc.

I may be wrong to feel this way, but it feels really very icky to have a piece so negative and pointed at one man (and presumably his livelihood) on Design Observer.
Dave F

sounds like the Times editors have neutered Ouroussoff's soul. I wonder what opinions he'd give with no editor revisions. Somehow this reminds me of the "Arts & Leisure" coinage. What do "arts" have to do with "leisure"?

Like Ouroussoff and architecture, absolutely nothing.
felix sockwell

Thanks, great article.

Ouroussoff's criticism is too reminiscent of the substanceless "talk-itechture" you find in most architecture schools. Sexy and appealing for a little while, but anyone who's even partly grounded in reality soon grows out of it.

John B

You can't be reading Hawthorne too closely. He's the guy who liked the disastrous Pershing Square concrete ramparts makeover.

Beautiful piece of criticism. Thanks so much. I live on West 54 Street and am the vice president of the West 54-55 Street Block Association and the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development. We have fought long and hard to prevent this building from adding "one more nail in the coffin" as Ada Louise Huxtable said about the Nouvel building's impact on our streets. Amanda Burden, the City Planning Commissioner started the so-called impartial hearing about whether or not to grant the zoning waivers allowing the Nouvel building to be built by saying, "I'm in love with this project." People have to live with architecture; it affects their lives, but Ouroussoff does not seem to care about the greater context. Real estate developers are the biggest advertisers in the Times and it would be unlikely that they would have an architecture critic that really cared about the people and the surrounds that are being negatively affected by these projects of insane scale.
RitaSue Siegel

I really enjoyed this article as well. It's nice to see someone stand up for criticism! I understand the NYTimes is written for a broad base, but Ouroussoff represents some of the moments I like least about the Times. Ouroussoff's more abstract, neutral and academic approach starts looking sort of dry and frankly, un-researched in the blog/twitter present. And anyone who's set foot in the Atlantic Center area could have highlighted the obvious scale issues with Atlantic Yards and that's just for starters.

So many areas of design are moving into more user-centered discussions, shouldn't architecture as well? Yes, clearly people and place are totally important to thinking about buildings. Let's hear about what spaces are for and who will use them.

I totally want better architecture opinion in the Times, too. The last thing we need is more vague fawning over Gehry or whomever. The Times is funny.. maybe with architecture, well, so few of the 'educated Times public' know how to talk about it even they figure they have to keep it super general? (I don't know how to talk architecture either!) It's one explanation.

The nostalgia discussion had me a little confused. By nostalgia, I thought he meant looking at preserving the High Line's appearance (in part) as nostalgia for New York's physical past. The High Line could have been done just as symbol/evidence of earlier function/origin and that would have been nostalgia.

Oh, and Dave F, get over yourself. There's nothing 'very icky' about this piece. Ok, maybe it's a tiny bit pointed... but why oh why can't people separate discussions of people's work and writing ...and personal attacks. They're not the same thing and this is the former. I think it's the difference between people who learned critical thinking in college and those who didn't. Just sayin'.

If you're writing bland wank in the Times you need to get checked and checked hard on your talk. I've been doing a little research lately on 7 World Trade and I've found a lot written about the building (which I do like) but kind of a dearth of real opinion about it and how it fits into the architectural landscape. We really need opinions, discussion and yes, design criticism. So I thank this author for that.
Peter A Jacobson

Wow. What an excellent and thorough dissection of mediocrity. And, to respond to an earlier comment, I think that this is exactly the role Design Observer should play. Who else will watch the watchers?

This is an excellent example of the kind of critique that rarely ever goes into "critique."

The only hope I hold out in architectural criticism is Owen Hatherley. And even he is a blogger, rather than a traditional "columnist."

His first book, Militant Modernism is a must-read, and his blog is worth a good look at http://nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com/

this article is just like the ones it is trying to bash. she is a star gazer herself. i am not buying this rant and i think she wants his job without offering anything that much different. so what? these people are all elitists.

This piece left me feeling the same way I feel reading newspaper critics. Unsatisfied and a bit bored. Populist critics become populist critics because they are not interested in the profession but more interested in the gloss and people of the profession. There are amazing architectural critics in this World who don't stick to this generic anti-star view but lay the ground work for dialogue. They do not write for New York Magazine or Metropolis or The New York Times. All articles that appear in any of these outlets are dumbed down pieces of sludge. I knew within 6 seconds what your dried up thesis was going to be. Any architect or architectural student interested in architectural discourse knows where to look. There are so many avenues for architectural critique so why does it have to be recycled God damn boring crap. Because it's easy?

"I teach architecture criticism at New York University and the School of Visual Arts. In trying to stay current, I have often assigned Ouroussoff reviews." This is how you try to stay current with architecture. Really? Maybe this is the whole problem.

By the way Christopher Hawthorne articles are horrible. It's embarrassing you would even mention his name. I really cannot believe you even brought him up.

I assume the people praising this piece are not architects. Which is fine but I think they should all know what young progressive architects think about these types of articles. We are OFFENDED by this generic garbage.

"He Doesn't Care.'
I thought I should add a bit more.

I would ask someone who makes a living writing what she knows about caring about a piece of architecture. Do you really care about the texture? Do you really care about how a handrails material affects the mood of a person? Are you going to give a historical rundown of Phenomenology every time you write about a New York architectural piece? It sounds like that's what you want Nicolai Ouroussoff to do. Do you think your writings and critiques will ever compare to the intensity of the people who work for Gehry or Piano? That intensity is what creates incredible pieces of architecture. Not generic cynicism. You are part of the process that tries to stifle architectural design for growing. Take a bow please.
JtotheM 2

I really appreciate the risk it takes to write this type of article within a public forum and find it to be one of the most pleasurable reads I have had on Design Observer in quite some time precisely because it is a bit cranky and has a directed point of view.
John Kaliski

Bravo, this is a well-written piece. I've always despised Ouroussoff for being a stalwart of the "new" rather than of "good" architecture. I am constantly repulsed by the eyesore which is the new Cooper Union building of which he touted as being some god-send of a building. I still deem it as the "broken air conditioner" building. It is overwhelmingly intruding and forbidding thing which shadows what is otherwise a lively chunk of the East Village. Nicky describes it as such:

"Designed by Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis, it is not a perfect building, but it is the kind of serious work that we don’t see enough of in New York: a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value."

What civic value? This isn't a public park, it's a private building which only wants to grab your attention for a few moments before you realize how ugly it is. Very much akin to NYU's blocky suicide-center known as the Bobst Library which towers unhappily over Washington Square. At street-level, it looks like an engineering site gone wrong which I suppose fits in with Cooper's engineering credo. And despite local kids attempting to skate and slide on some of the street level slopes attached to the building, they've introduced some unwieldy spikes to deter anyone from 'interacting' with the structure. Again, a massive failure of a building in an East Village that is exhausted from garbage architecture.


The poster above this one is exactly the type of person this article is written for. Someone who obviously has no sense of design or aesthetics. It literally took a few minutes and these are the people defending your work. What do you want for the most progressive school of architecture in the World? Do you want a brownstone? The Cooper building is amazing. "At street-level, it looks like an engineering site gone wrong." What is an engineering site? I have never heard of that in my life. You are comparing a building to something made up. You might as well have said it looks like a pink dragon. Please save New York from garbage morons.

Why is this risky. She would take his job and slam out the same crap that he does. I have a novel idea. A rotating set of articles by leading architects and critics. And I mean leading critics.

"JtotheM" should think twice before assuming all young progressive architects think like him (her?). I am both a practicing architect and a lecturer, and I can relate much better to Lange's piece than to Ouroussoff's writing.

At any rate, "JtotheM" seems to think non-architects are naïve and only "real" architects can see the light. This sounds an awful lot like the emperor's clothes which only smart people could see.

Why should architects who do not write for a living be more entitled to *write* about architecture than writers who do not design for a living, anyway? Corporatism is a nasty bug.
Pedro Palazzo

JtotheM wrote -

"There are amazing architectural critics in this World..They do not write for New York Magazine or Metropolis or The New York Times...Any architect or architectural student interested in architectural discourse knows where to look."

I'm interested in architectural discourse. Can you share this with the rest of us? I would very much like to know where to look for good architectural critics. Journals?


The new blog ArchiTakes.com did a great piece on what's lacking in today's architecture journalism, and specifically took Ouroussoff and Architectural Record both to task for their superficial treatment of 41 Cooper Square: http://www.architakes.com/?p=4140

This is one of the best pieces I have ever read on DO. Thank you for delving into this subject and doing so in such a thorough and honest way. Well done.

(I still miss Ada Louise Huxtable)

Interesting. Whether one agrees or not, it's worthwhile to have a focused, intelligent criticism of the reigning (seemingly unquestioned) critic. With all the time we untrained (in architecture) writers spend trying to translate the architects to the non-architects, it is a question worth asking: are we qualified to do so? And if we aren't, who is? Certainly not the architects. That said, we can't just let Muschamps, Ouroussof or Goldberger be the single critic of record. In the end, I think it's critical (ha!) to have more than one critical voice or we risk not having a discussion about our cities.

If New York is no longer interested and even obsessed with the new, then the city has given up its role in the culture. It might be that Ouroussoff just isn't right for this period in New York's history. New York is fading, and "New York Architects" are more interested in defending New York than producing work that is undeniably great.

I applaud the author for illustrating in the structure of her article the necessary elements of informed criticism that are so lacking in Ouroussoff's columns. I can't even call them "criticism" or even "evaluations." His treatment of the Atlantic Yards monstrosity in all its variations was comically acrobatic. Criticism is supposed to be a consideration of something through a personal lens that, in the best examples, irises open to broader implications for society and a culture. Ouroussoff does none of that. He's an IT-girl cheerleader, telling the uninformed unwashed who's hot and why you should love them. Never does he bother to explain why he makes these judgment calls, just take it from him, this guy is hot!

Especially if they're building something for a developer with ties to his publisher.

re: "we don't know where he lives..."
an interesting comment. when Ourosoff wrote for the LA Times we thought he lived in NY!!! or certainly aspired to live there. He appeared only to know Gehry, Mayne and Moss when he was with the LA Times and wrote about LA architects - infuriating. the rest of his writing was about east coast architects and his departure was no loss to LA.

as for Christopher Hawthorne....he's our man!! he writes with a thoughtful wide-angle lens to inform us about WORLD architecture.
ann videriksen

Thank you for the critique. I have been struck by his dismissal of certain projects as "nothing new" for some time. He continues the trend of critics that treat architecture as fashion produced by international celebrities. And clearly, he wants to be invited to their cocktail parties. Architecture must work on so many levels; response to program is a key one that either doesn't interest him or that he fails to comprehend. His analysis is skin-deep and insipid. I love the NYT and he is not worthy.

A big thanks to NY for taking in NO...here in LA, we previously had a critic who would find real buildings to write about.

"Why should architects who do not write for a living be more entitled to *write* about architecture than writers who do not design for a living, anyway? Corporatism is a nasty bug."

It is not a question of enlightenment. It is a question of truly knowing a profession that is consistently watered down.
As a practicing architect who does not have time to be a lecturer I have realized that the dominate force in architecture is the exact mentality that you stand for. I hope there can be interesting thought provoking pieces in the New York Times that cater to both architects and non-architects. Pay By the way - nice job on discounting the incredible history of architects writing about architecture.
I am offend by pieces that dumb down what we do. I think you should be too. If you are content to enjoy simple critiques then we have no foundation to argue on. I DO think most recent graduates from schools that help shape progressive architecture would whole heartily agree. Do I speak for them? No. I speak for myself but I think people reading this should know that there are many who find this article, and populist critiques in general, annoying and counterproductive.

There seems to be a bit of a theme to a few threads stating that architects are not qualified to describe architecture to non-architects. Do people agree with this?

My favorite Christopher Hawthorne piece was when he wonder why there was no DIY (Do It Yourself) projects in the MOCA show Fashion and Architecture. Awesome! The back story is he was mad that he was not allowed to see some of the pieces before the show opened.

Can't we just pay Jeffrey Kipnis a bunch of money to write for the New York Times. He is incredibly entertaining.


Hi Peter!
I may not be big on book lurnin', but I'll give it a shot…

I think you're wrong to see such a neat distinction here between 'discussions of people's work and writing ...and personal attacks'. The article is too pointedly bitter and doesn't fairly consider the challenges Ouroussoff faces in writing for such a large, diverse audience.

A detached quality is not necessarily a bad thing, I think I'd rather have a critic who helps the general public contextualize things before offering a strong personal opinion. But maybe that's why I like Manohla Dargis.

Hi Blayze!
A building need not be public to offer 'genuine civic value'. Cooper Union has for quite awhile attracted some amazing people, and 41 Cooper will only help. A great many of these folks will stay and enrich NY for generations.
Dave F

a critic who is not an architect or a failure at one has no business talking about a damn thing. criticism is best left for the art/architecture/so called theory based grad school and, after that, nowhere else.
ryan will.

Hilarously, Nicolai lives in brownstone Brooklyn, or at least used to. Unlike Goldberger or Muschamp (both of whom had their profound weaknesses), as the author points out, you would never know that (not that we knew where exactly PG or HM lived, but we were fairly certain they lived in NYC and those with an eye towards the city and an ear towards their writing could pretty accurately pinpoint their neighborhoods).
On a more important point though, NO abdicated his responsiblity to accurately chart and critique NYC's greatest building boom in 25 years, and for that - he is a failure as an urban observer.


Architecture criticism needs a Roger Ebert. Someone who is a fan but not a fan-boy. Someone who loves cities and values context more than ideology. Ourosoff is a modernist ideologue. Show me a design--don't tell me the city or the location--and I bet I could guess his opinion of it over 90% of the time. He pays lip service to the old structures of a city but seems to want nothing more than to rebuild everything based on New New New designs that pay little mind to any of the lessons learned from the thousands of structures that have come before in places like New York. I think it's interesting to ask where the man lives...I would be shocked if he lived in one of experimental non-nostalgic forms he praises to the heavens. He's a Neophiliac and that's fine if he were selling condos at Atlantic Yards. For the rest of us who have to live with the place, this poses a problem. I'm afraid the opinion of New York's paper of record still carries weight and as long as that's true, the paper is doing the city a disservice by letting Ourosoff throw his weight around. Without the humanity, unpredictibility (and humility) of someone like a Roger Ebert, critics like NO live down to their low standing.
Troy Torrison

I can recall at least one piece N.O. has done on historic architecture. "Saving Buffalo’s Untold Beauty" was important because it provided support for a group of citizens in Buffalo that are fighting to preserve a neighborhood threatened by a plan to expand the US/Canada border crossing station.

"The federal Homeland Security Department has proposed an expansion of the entrance to the Peace Bridge, the city’s main border crossing into Canada. Preservationists balked. The project, which includes a vast new parking plaza for commercial trucks, would require razing five blocks of Columbus Park, a neighborhood of historic houses mostly built from 1860 through the late 1920s. A 20-foot-high berm would also be built alongside Olmsted’s Front Park, which flanks one side of the neighborhood, blocking out sublime views of Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

The National Trust, which opposes the plan, has suggested moving the new parking plaza to the Canadian side of the border — a possibility that the Canadian government says it will consider — or rerouting traffic to one of four other bridges. But those prospects appear doubtful."
John H.

Maybe he lives in Buffalo.
John H.

Spot on article to call Ouroussoff to the mat for those exquisite literary indescretions. I'm starting to think there may be an advantage to architectural critic term limits. Its fun and games to live a cush and privileged life of an elite ostensibly in the "know". Then talk about someone elses work. Particularly if they occupy that ephemeral "otherworld" of architectural theory and especially if theres no accountability.

The Architecture profession would be better served if the greater society could relate to our profession and the best of what it can do for humanity.
Charles Cordero

An architectural critic is an oxymoron. When I think of Frank Gehry I think of huge cost overruns and failed buildings like his MIT building. No practicing architects can stay in business with that kind of reputation- unless the architect's pr arm has developed this architect into a celebrity. Zaha Hadid is the ultimate example of this.
What is good architecture?
don tishman

How nice to do nothing but sit back and put all that time energy into criticizing another critic, just what we need, multiple layers of people not doing anything but offering opinions on the opinions of others.
Peter Gulick Jr.

As an architect who knows how to write about architecture from both the emotional as well as theoretical viewpoints, I find Ouroussoff rather moronic - no better word.

Indeed, his shamelessavidity for the new, the weird, the grotesque (e.g: anything by Gehry) knows no bounds.

His defense of the Nouvel colossus is indefensible, for the reason Ms Lange gives and many other reasons. I hold hope that funding will not be available and that this atrocious project dies quietly, as it deserves.

Roger Ebert of architecture - yes, I'll volunteer for that position.
Curtis B Wayne, Architect

In my Atlantic Yards Report blog, I wrote critically about Ourousoff's first assessment of Atlantic Yards, raising some of the same issues Ms. Lange points out. See:

Here's my take on his latest piece:
Norman Oder

Alexandra Lange wrote:

"Here Ouroussoff performs a neat trick, (mis)characterizing the opposition as a bunch of Jacobsian sentimentalists, . . . ."

Benjamin Hemric writes:

It seems to me that Mr. Ouroussoff has a penchant for spouting opinions without backing them up with and either facts or logic.

And this was most apparent to me in his various discussions of Jane Jacobs. Aside from the surprisingly shoddy logic exhbited in those essays, his unsupported characterizations of Jacobs are so far afield, I find it hard to believe that he's actually read any of her seven books from cover to cover. His idea of Jane Jacobs writings have almost nothing to do with what Jacobs has actually written (or said, or did), but seem to be based solely on out-of-context quotes and what some people mistakenly believe Jacobs wrote.

From a brief skimming of Ms. Lange's essay, it seems to me that she makes a number of good points about Mr. Ouroussoff's criticism. However, if I understand her comment above correctly (and if I haven't missed something because I only quickly skimmed her essay), I have to wonder if she too has never really read any of Jane Jacobs books cover to cover. It seems to me that such a characterization is not based upon Jacobs' actual writings (from cover to cover), but more likely upon taken out of context quotes and what some people say Jacobs wrote -- unless she means by the phrase something like, "sentimalists who mistakenly believe that Jacobs is one of their own."

Tues., March 2, 2010, 9:30 p.m.
Benjamin Hemric

We at Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn really had a good laugh when Nicolai, referring to the degraded Gehry plan for Atlantic Yards wrote:

"We could wage a public campaign to stop it. We could pray that Forest City Ratner comes up with more money…"

The actual, rather than the royal, we had been waging a public campaign to stop Atlantic Yards for five years prior to his revelation. We certainly weren't praying for Ratner to come up with more money.

Had he actually joined WE from day one, HE might have made a difference with other opinion manufacturers.
Daniel Goldstein

Thank you for this piece, more for what architectural criticism should be out and less for Ouroussoff who I read only rarely.
Arif B

Thank you. Keep it up.

I am always curious to know, why so little attention in criticism is ever given to the success/failure of the completed design addressing the program of the client. Why is the 'usage' factor and internal programming of criticism so under reported?

Very well written and to my mind accurate critique of the manque Ourousoff. Of course, coming from Los Angeles, the man is starstruck. However, even if we forgive that minor but telling vice, it doesn't excuse his general if genial ignorance, or his absent of insight, spun out in terrifically dull prose when writing about Gehry and Atlantic Yards or Nouvel's 75-story monument to vanity and opportunity and waste.

Writing this what one must keep in mind is that his employer is in the real estate business and can clearly be called the Developer's friend. To my mind, that's why the boy was brought to the paper: to deliver on its commitment to the City's real estate interests. And, having few gifts as a writer, and lacking the skill, or courage, to be an architect himself, one shouldn't be surprised that Ourousoff won't bite the hand that feeds him.

I am an architect and I greatly appreciate that Lange has taken the time to topple the bilious Ouroussof from his perch. He reminds me of decorators I have worked with who seem to only have one word to fall back on: “Fabulous!”

The New York Times has by far the largest reach of any form of media that offers architectural criticism and has let down its readers by only covering a tiny segment of a broad and nuanced art. It often feels like Ouroussof only writes about architects and works which are represented by a publicist or have been preceded by a press release. Is it too much to ask that a critic be able to carefully analyze a building, an architect’s thought process, an urban condition or a structural concept?

One of the most compelling qualities of architecture is that it endures—we are often stuck with the hideous and the sublime for very long periods of time. Having a critic who is aware of this more subtle rhythm of time and not a slave to the winds of fashion would be a nice change.

I have enjoyed the writing and criticism of Sarah Williams Goldhagan, Philip Nobile and Donlyn Lyndon for the deep analysis they offer plus the dynamic writing, understanding of history and strong personal perspective they offer. Not that these writers necessarily fit the bill for a publication like the Times but, at least they offer a model for a rich and thoughtful discourse.
Roger Broome

Right, so we'd rather not have these buildings from Gehry, Hadid, Piano or Nouvel in New York? "New York architects" can do better?

These comments are ridiculous and it shows how much dead wood is in New York Architecture culture.


"It is our city the New York Times architecture critic should be trying to save, not the gargantuan works of Frank Gehry or Jean Nouvel (or Philip Johnson). They can parachute in and out, but we (and ideally the Times itself) remain to live with the consequences."


wait. when did applauding novelty qua novelty become an intellectually problematic position? if this is the reason why the author thinks ourrousof is a problem, the author is blaming the bowl for holding hemlock.

what are good and honest and modern critics supposed to be doing in a non-politburo world if not levying opinion on things metered in large part on how 'interestingly different and new' such a thing is?

i would like to understand why

"Architecture criticism...simply...about what’s new...leads precisely to the globe-trotting, star-gazing, architecture-as-sculpture approach we have now."

what is the necessary cause and effect here? seems like uninspected and hazy intuition.


Thinking outside the box a little bit: Perhaps architecture is so important to the lifeblood of a city that there should be more than one architectural critic at the New York Times? You wouldn't have one definitive voice to cover food, fashion or politics — why is architecture not up there?
Michael Pinto

Wow! Great examination and spark for a conversation that doesn't happen enough.
Laura Newman

From an architect and a Brownstone Owner in BedSty, shame on Frank Gehry and Ouroussoff. Kudos to the writer of this fantastic article. (For him, the beer is on me!)
Emad K.
Emad K.

The constituencies that would agree most strongly with Lange (anti-atlantic yards, anti-starchitect, New Urbanism) are regressive forces in the profession.

Here in Philadelphia, I'd take the NYT's Nicolai Ouroussoff over our current architectural critic any day of the week. At least his recycled hash is worthy of a broader design discourse. We are saddled with a vapid troll (too personal?) whose commentary only contributes to a public perception that good design is a fools errand. No one wants to read prattling garbage, particularly about your home town, which is why I suspect this author get her knickers twisted about Atlantic Yards and other closer-to-home projects.

What we have seen in Philadelphia is that the Owner is never brought into the story for withering criticism. That place is reserved for the design professional, and possibly a faceless government agency like the City. If I were Joe and Jane Q. Public, I might falsely believe that architects wield unbelievable power and control every facet of a project. Big LOL there, eh? Haven't met too many design professionals (even at the top of the food chain) who control the purse strings and have the final say on a major programming decision.

There is so much intense interaction and collaboration in any modern construction project that to eviscerate only designers without digging into the process (i.e., research) critics miss a great opportunity to educate the broader populace about how we build and what we value. Add to this mix the ever increasing complexity (financing, delivery methods, etc) of today’s built environment and architectural criticism is in danger of being just soft-core PR pieces for the tiniest fraction of projects, the key players, and their acolytes. I think I all ready know the equation at work here:
Process = Boring.
Sexy Images and No One Gets Hurt Review = Increased Revenue.

It all makes me wonder: how long does it take for an architectural critic to be compromised by his/her employer, by fawning star-chitects, by big money developers? Or by the Owner who paid for the building and will not tolerate a ravaging review in a major publication? Day two of your new assignment, perhaps? Maybe the gibberish that Ouroussoff peddles - and maybe it is the same everywhere - is just a normal function of this fuzzy grey area in which they operate.

Didn’t Architectural Record (magazine) have a “protest” page awhile back? That didn’t last. True design criticism will never fit comfortably at the nexus of advertisers and investors because large, high profile commissions capture these two elements as de-facto User Groups. Better to hedge your bets, speak in tongues, and enjoy the cocktail parties. And take a little heat for it now and again.

"Right, so we'd rather not have these buildings from Gehry, Hadid, Piano or Nouvel in New York? "New York architects" can do better?"

I don't think that's really the issue. You're making it sound like that's the only choice. If you don't like NY architects, aren't there other people beyond those four you mentioned with any ideas or vision? I personally don't think NYC needs another Gehry. The nautical one in Chelsea is just fine. Those are the only four firms that can build anything good?

"The constituencies that would agree most strongly with Lange (anti-atlantic yards, anti-starchitect, New Urbanism) are regressive forces in the profession."

You don't actually believe that, do you? So Starchitect is a good term? Make way for the visionaries? Is that it? Anyone who's been to Atlantic Center could point out how kind of foolhardy that project was (esp. at the outset).

Watch this video of Gehry and Laurie Olin:

Ok, now a part of me feels bad for these guys. They got wrist-slapped hard by Brooklyn. I can buy into the idea of architect as visionary. If I were an architect, I would definitely dream of a huge project unfettered by dissent. And yeah, of course, there's always going to be haters. They have a point, change is hard and everyone (presumably) wants the best future for Brooklyn.

I think this situation brought up a little more than that though. There's a definite vibe in this vid for instance that the people of Brooklyn and the existing area of business and buildings and activity are just this minor nuisance to be overcome. Like, great, talk to me about topography, but you're also talking about a site that's in a historical area that's really surrounded by low-rise structures and is also, gee, I don't know, not completely white/well-off so this might count as a tiny bit political(?). Hmm? So you're inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge? Great. But why in hell would a resident of Brooklyn want to then live in or work around something that explicitly or implicitly reminds them (or is scaled to!) the Brooklyn Bridge?

So make a bold grand statement but why can't it include serious examination of the existing landscape and residents and use. I'm waiting for a huge wave of new architects interested in the user. How is this building going to be used? Who is it for? Gehry isn't asked to think for a minute about what happens with Atlantic Yards when it's completed, right? Why not?

Let me know when the design/build rise up starts or user experience architecture gets kick started.

Peter A Jacobson

The 2 truly great independant critics are Martin Filler and Ada Lousie Huxtable- she gets more and more magnificent every year. Martin Filler shoudl be at the Times
mary rose

I am only surprised that anyone is even remotely surprised. However I question whether Muschamp or Ourossoff was worse.

But I praise your distinction -- and I think that is what you are doing -- that critics should be more about how a building 'behaves' than it 'looks.' The passive one-way eye-candy of aesthetics should be largely ditched in favor of the practical, on-going interaction between user and building.


The real problem we have with the NYT is that the management doesn't have the confidence to get rid of Ourossoff because it would suggest that the NYT made a mistake in the first place. You find that in lots of major institutions: they can't change because change would imply that everything isn't perfect.
David Sucher

"I can buy into the idea of architect as visionary"

The pejorative use of the word "starchitect" is essentially anti-visionary. It suggests that the ego of the individual has eclipsed the needs of the client/users/community. Thats absurd. Architecture is a team sport, and it takes a long series of negotiations and compromises to get anything accomplished - especially in New York.

I believe "starchitect" is the straw man in this thread.

Lange wrote "But “nostalgia” (whose nostalgia? Nostalgia for what era, what architect?) without context becomes a straw man, an illusory opponent for contemporary architects to triumph over."

Nostalgia IS illusory. Its based on a fantasy. Sit in on a community board meeting where an architect is proposing his design. The conversation between board members can very quickly become a bizarre comparison of vague dreams of Olde New York. Fantasies are fine until they limit what we can do in the real world during our short lives.

And nostalgia will break New York. Ouroussoff is right to champion the new.


Reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey + Peter Keating a la Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead!

Noah Raford

If you are after criticism based in a personal persona why don't you try and convince Fox News to get Bill O'Reilly to critique architecture? Fox News seem to make a business of having the oversized persona based criticism that you are demanding of Ouroussoff.

Hats off to Ouroussoff and the NY Times for continuing to provide knowledgable,objective, and unsensational criticism... something that is sorely lacking in this age.
Craig Johnson

ouroussoff is not very good. but an article that spells out why he's really no good would be a tedious one. it'd be a laundry list of shortcomings that really have to do with how poorly he frames arguments, makes inferences from experience, and picks out the evidence to make the reader want to understand more. in otherwords, the hard stuff that makes up the core of the craft of good criticism.

but this author's dissatisfaction with ouroussoff has more to do with an explicit rebuttal of a critic's role in modern society. there doesn't seem to me any coherent, rational alternative for a critic's role than to champion and defend evolution and change over stasis or atavism.

or i should say there is one alternative: to be some form of natural rightist or something and claim that nothing needs to move us forward, and that we know the natural kinds that exist, and there they are: all the components of cultural production need not be reassessed.


again, i repeat: ouroussoff is not my cup of tea because he lacks skill. but he's hewing to the things critics should hew towards.

Fantastic article. The problem with this guy is he always mentions a Los Angeles architect. In every review. He rarely praises New York based architects. He always covers his ass. He says one thing and two paragraphs later he says, the exact opposite, no need to go back to previous articles. He is completely 100 percent concerned about keeping his job. That's all that matters to him. Bring back Herbert - even from the Heavens.
NY Lover

John Ruskin wrote that "architecture is the most political of the arts." Unfortunately one would never know this from the writings of recent NYT critics.
Jeffrey Karl Ochsner

"The pejorative use of the word "starchitect" is essentially anti-visionary."

"Starchitect" IS a pejorative. I've never heard the term used otherwise. It's a mocking term usually used to mean the architect has a level of success where they're not doing any real thinking or making tough choices anymore. Right? Vision isn't the same thing as fame.

"It suggests that the ego of the individual has eclipsed the needs of the client/users/community."

Well, I don't know. Gehry eclipse the needs of Ratner and the Atlantic Yards development. Meanwhile, 2,250 units of affordable mixed-income housing was proposed, built by 2016. It's currently down to 300 units. http://www.brooklynspeaks.net/then-and-now
Peter A Jacobson

Why are people saying this is great? I do not think most people know what architects do. I really don't think they know any of the factors that shape a building. It's disturbing.

I am curious what nostalgia the author is talking about. You are only hurting architecture by your stupid populist pandering rants. I guess you don't care because even though it seems you went to architecture school YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE NEVER PRACTICED ARCHITECTURE. You can only speculate at the truth of a building.


This is VERY good. Not schlocky like the above criticism.

[email protected]


The problem with Ouroussoff, as was also the problem with Muschamp, is different than you say. These critics talk about architects as celebrities, and architecture as fashion, as high end consumer art objects for conspicuous consumers, as works of fine art or sculpture for the initiated elite to contemplate.

But architecture seen as an esoteric sculpture on a pedestal is irrelevant. These critics never talk about the life of cities, how buildings affect neighborhoods, who really uses them, who can afford them. They never talk about ordinary housing, about preservation and reuse of old buildings, about schools and parks, streets and transit and bridges. They only talk about fetishized modern art museums, concert halls, and luxury condo towers. They talk about the superficial differences between star architect's style but fail to notice that under the skin they are all alike, filled with the same programs and built with the same money for the same people. Is this not worth examining?

In the end, Ouroussoff is disappointing because he practices "cupcake criticism". He talks about the color of the frosting and prinkles, (the style and the surface), but he never talks about the cake (why was it built, how it was built, built for whom, at what cost and with what effect on our cities). Sadly, he may not even have ever noticed the cake or even thought about why it is there.
R Upjohn

"These critics never talk about the life of cities, how buildings affect neighborhoods, who really uses them, who can afford them. They never talk about ordinary housing, about preservation and reuse of old buildings, about schools and parks, streets and transit and bridges. They only talk about fetishized modern art museums, concert halls, and luxury condo towers. They talk about the superficial differences between star architect's style but fail to notice that under the skin they are all alike, filled with the same programs and built with the same money for the same people."

This is just not true. Go back and read Ouroussoff's articles.


It seems like Lange and many of the commenters are looking for a type of criticism that is pre-Bilbao and pre-internet. You're asking for architecture criticism that resists politics, rejects the global media and instead addresses architecture entirely on Architecture's terms. I think its nostalgic and inappropriately narrow. It would likely miss the reasons why a building was designed the way it was. I'm fine with crunchy activists from brooklyn ripping on contemporary values. I can't be ok with crunchy architecture critics.


if only you could also make the case against manhola dargis, we'd be getting somewhere.
donnie jeffcoat

A superb piece that needed to be written long ago. I've posted similar things in my blog, Frozen Music. The most important point, I think, is that we have someone in the chair at the Times who isn't up to the job, during a real crisis in the news media, when we need strong critics in every chair. Otherwise they'll cut out criticism altogether and just publish glowing PR pieces on every building erected by deep pocket owners or famous architects. (Like they do in Architectural Record).
Mark Alan Hewitt FAIA

I have to disagree with your assessment of Ouroussof. I think he lends a larger understanding and breath of knowledge that spans from the academic and esoteric to the most grounded. Architecture increasingly has widened its scope of intent, ranging from the most academic and paper based to the socially and ecologically focused.

I think Ouroussof has done an exemplary job of understanding the context from which the architecture is derived and the intents of the architect in the grand scheme while not being ignorant to the larger stage upon which architecture forces itself.

And with respect to his Los Angeles background, I think it begs the question of why this coast still feels the need to deride the left coast, when it is clear that architecture has blossomed there. LA has become a hot bed of talented designers.
Andrew K

For all that Nicolai Ouroussoff repeatedly sounds like a writer of an earlier generation -- perhaps the scion of Tsarist diplomats, kneepad to kneepad next to Philip Johnson, worshipfully at the feet of Le Corbusier in the 1930's -- he is, in fact, younger than I. I was astounded when I learned this, given how fusty and old-fashioned he always sounds.

Ouroussoff manages to be most entertaining when he's writing completely free of irony and self-awareness. Take this quote from a piece in praise of Lebbeus Woods:

"But that (Woods) now stands virtually alone underscores a disturbing shift in the architectural profession during the past decade or so. By abandoning fantasy for the more pragmatic aspects of building, the profession has lost some of its capacity for self-criticism, not to mention one of its most valuable imaginative tools."

You heard it here first: If only architecture hadn't placed a "disturbing" focus on, you know, architecture, it could train that focus on drawings and sculpture and all those aspects of the craft that don't involve pesky things like clients, or weather, or materials, or the laws of physics -- which abstractions are architecture's proper domain.

Or how about his piece in praise of "China's new architecture," where he cited five buildings in Beijing during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. There wasn't a Chinese name or firm in sight. So in what way, exactly, was this China's new architecture? There may be intellectual ferment at work, but was it *in* China, or *about* China? And it contrasted strongly to Ouroussoff's cited evocation of turn-of-the-century New York -- which was almost entirely designed by Americans, rather than imported prestige Europeans.

It's all too clear that the most influential architecture critic in America -- which the Times' critic is, pretty much by default -- would be most happy if he was alive in the 1930's.

That's the problem, also, with the denunciation of "nostalgia" upthread. Bad news, folks: All architecture these days is nostalgia. "Modernism" is almost a century old. Nothing being built today would look out of place in the renderings of the 1920's and '30's. So the choice isn't between something fresh and relevant vs nostalgic. The choice is which flavor of nostalgia do you prefer?
Hal O'Brien

if possible, i'd like to take a step aside and label myself a critc's critic's critic's critic

Hear, hear. Ouroussoff never says anything even vaguely incisive. Never seems to offer any insights whatsoever. Chris Hawthorne is infinitely better! Whether you agree with Hawthorne or not, his writing + thinking are undeniably intelligent. A few years ago, The NY Times (which happens to be incestuously well represented on the Pulitzer board) captured embarrassingly few Pulitzers, far fewer than the LA Times. One weakness for the NYT seemed to be criticism. To 'fix' the situation, the NYT 'stole' a few critics from LA. But apparently they didn't do much homework -- and snatched the very critics the LA Times was more than willing to dump. Including Ouroussoff and that dreadful so-called film critic Manohla Dargis!

I thought I was the only one. Thank you for your comprehensive demolition of his writing. You have a fantastic voice I hope to hear more of it.
Nick Dine

Thank you! You've put your finger directly on what makes Ouroussoff so awful. Novelty for novelty's sake, and the use of the word, nostalgia, as a verbal sneer against anyone who would oppose it, are his entire stock-in-trade. If one were to imagine shill for the architectural avant-garde (which is to say, the architectural establishment), that person would write exactly the way Ouroussoff does.
Craig Banholzer

Has New York become so provincial that a critic can be attacked for turning his eye on architecture in other parts of the world? Ms. Langue's diatribe is a selective reading of Mr. Ouroussof's work; as such, it is disengenuous. Mr. Ouroussof does not write only for the fussy, high-strung, oxygen-depleted world of art and architecture in Manhattan, but for the rest of us who experience -- and pay for -- the buildings and public spaces that architects build. I thank him for that.

Ms. Lange writes that "Local residency should be a requirement for the Times architecture critic as it is for city police officers and politicians" New York police officers are not required to live in NYC.

It takes a powerful critic to deal with powerful people and he or she has to strike a balance of radicalism and conformism to stay on the payroll. Judged by these standards, Ouroussoff has probably taken more risks and proven more courageous than most people care to notice or remember. A lot of critics would like his job, but personal attacks against him are the opposite of a qualification for it. My advice: write better, keep at it and focus on the real issues. Architecture criticism is about architecture, not critics.
Bertram Beissel

I have just read your article and find it totally offensive. A building is completed and the Times reviewer writes about it. Carping about the utility of a building is not that easy. It takes a good period of time to understand if a building really works. Often the full measure of a building will not be visible until time passes. However, the duty of a critic is to write about the building when it is completed and thrust upon the stage. At that time what most readers are looking for is an analysis of the visual aspects, and in this regard Ouroussoff does a fine job. Enough of ivory tower criticism from "so-called" teachers of the art of criticism!!!

Joel Armstrong

have to disagree. Ouroussoff tends to take a social, philosophical and artistic approach to reviewing, which is fresh air and a welcome change even if takes some paragraphs from pure urbanism. It's also good for the NYT to actually have good writers.

I don't know if he lives in New York, but I think that's beside the point. NYT has always been international when it comes to it's architectural reviews.

As for Hawthorne, he's Ouroussoff's opposite. He rarely make apparent his opinion, whether he likes a building or not. His approach is much more academic, but his taste is questionable.

Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger are/were major league heavy hitters. Ouroussoff is a minor league player (I daresay, out of his league, to extend the metaphor).

The NYT should find a architectural critic worthy of its caliber and import.

Even Roberta Smith can outwrite him on architectural matters.

I feel Vicky Goldberg and Holland Cotter have a more keenly developed aesthetic sense (since the complaint is that O is 'dwelling' on the superficial and surface elements of architecture) and perhaps would do a better job on the underlying cultural impact of any architectural topic that they cover.

The recent Spruce St article was simply amateurish and glossed over a lot of its flaws (eg neighbors windows overlooking each other; awkward shaped apts; plebian base; no mention of Park Row;

Sumeet Sood
sumeet sood

Ouroussoff is an easy target because he defends starchitects, focuses more on the need for a more aggressive architecture, and writes in a rather subtle, not particularly dynamic fashion.

But look a little deeper and you'll note that he has an incredible understanding of architecture and a sophisticated philosophy that seems very much in touch with our times. He doesn't always focus on context or details, but rightly so -- his job is to provide accessible yet intelligent analysis of buildings overall, and in doing that well he wisely chooses to focus on the merits of the ideas that drive buildings, and how those ideas are executed in real life. He has recognized that context should not control architecture, and that the projects most worth writing about at this point are often designed by so-called 'starchitects.' He himself wrote an eloquent defense of such architects: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/weekinreview/16ouroussoff.html.

As for the claim that he doesn't care enough, frankly, that's absurd. Ouroussoff may not rant for weeks on end in high-blown language the way Muschamp did, but that does mean that he doesn't care. He simply writes in a much more controlled way, and that should not be mistaken for not caring.

ALH and PG heavy hitters? Petters, maybe. They were the last of the diletante critics, or at least we may hope. Not that I haven't enjoyed ALH's writing, but the title Kicked a Building Lately? ought to speak for itself.

And who uses the word 'daresay' anymore (besides ALH and SS)?
Stourley Kracklite

For those who are interested...

My own earlier extended critique of Nicolai Ouroussoff's writing, from November 2006 -- noted at the time by Design Observer, Archinect, Curbed and others -- is "The Taming of Nicolai".
John Lumea

Jobs | June 16