Architecture Journalism

Architecture Journalism

On May 3, the second of a four part series on architecture and the media organized by AN, Oculus, and AIANY’s Marketing and PR Committee, focused on media channels outside the design and building industry.

Held at the Center for Architecture and moderated by Julie Iovine, the panel included Robin Pogrebin, culture reporter at The New York Times, Steve Cuozzo, real estate reporter and restaurant critic at The New York Post, Matt Chaban, real estate editor and reporter at The New York Observer, and Rob Lipincott, senior vice president, education, at PBS. Here are some edited and excerpted highlights from the conversation, starting with each of the three print reporters describing their beats:

Robin Pogrebin: I am a reporter on the Culture Desk at the Times where there are actually not that many reporters. A few years ago, when Nicolai [Ourossoff] started as architecture critic, it was decided that there was a need to cover architecture as a story as opposed to as criticism. There had not been a dedicated reporter prior to that so that’s what I became and I have been doing it ever since. I still cover cultural and performing arts issues, the NEA budget, preservation, and a lot of these things intersect but architecture is the main thing.

Steve Cuozzo: As a genetic New Yorker who loves the city with an intense passion, I have since 1999 been covering commercial real estate. It’s only since after 9/11, that I have also been writing on design-related and architecture issues. I am a real-estate reporter only part-time; and architecture is just a sub-set of that.

I have no training, no background, and I don’t even have the proper vocabulary. Still, I believe I can really contribute to the dialog because architecture is this strange art form that’s the most invested in people’s daily lives while it also comes across as the most elitist of the art forms.

I say that, in part, because architecture critics don’t write that much. Imagine if restaurant critics, dance critics, theater critics wrote as infrequently as most architecture critics do. Just look up their by-line counts! I feel that the public is entitled to more of a voice in the realm of architecture and design and urban issues than they are getting from people who really know more about it than I do.

Matt Chaban: I am also a genetic New Yorker, although I happen to have been born in Pittsburgh. I write on real estate for the paper and edit a daily blog aimed at real estate professionals and aficionados. I see my job as explaining how the city works. And as much as I like covering the big new buildings, it’s really the nitty-gritty of how and why projects drag out that is the most interesting to me.

How much interest in, and knowledge of, architecture do you assume there is among your readers?

RP: Since Bilbao and the so-called starchitect phenomenon, there has really been a heightened interest in architecture. That changed coverage in that the general audience now knows names like Rem Koolhaas. Lately, I have found with the downturn that as major projects have fallen off there has definitely been diminished coverage from my standpoint. When I first took the beat, I could go anywhere, cover anything and that was my mandate. Given the finances of the Times, now it only makes sense that the critic go to some places. There also seem to be fewer grand projects to write about now and so the question becomes, what else rises to the level of really needing to be covered?

I get pitched in 100 to 200 emails a day; and I feel terrible about what might be falling through the cracks. I know the bar has become somewhat higher in terms of what we write about. Why should we write about this one? That is a hard question to answer. Ideally, it is a story that has larger implications beyond just the project itself: something about it represents a trend; or there’s a controversy about it (for better or worse); or a window into architecture through another route, say, the controversy about naming of Miami Art Museum.

At what point do you write about a project, and how many times can you return to it?

MC: Since we run a daily blog, it’s as much as I want, and then there’s the weekly paper, too. The upside of the blog is that those stories can be either long or short, whatever the story needs. It’s a judgment call. But the basic line is that the more you write about something, the more you start hearing about it. So for me I cover things as often as I can: right now I write as often as possible on New York University because I think it’s a serious development.

RP: Traditionally we might write about something when a design came out. Increasingly, it became clear that some of these projects were pie in the sky and might never be realized. Writing about fantasies seemed a kind of disservice to the reader. It made more sense to wait for the actual bricks and mortar to happen: then the critic can review it and we can talk to the experience of the building. So now, we’ve been doing more at the tale end than at the beginning.

SC: The important issue is what and when does a project rise to the importance for a broader audience. Frankly, I don’t understand the way the architectural critical establishment works. Theater critics, film critics, book critics review everything; I don’t understand why architecture is placed on such an exulted plane of discourse and appreciation that does not obtain in any of the other art forms. To illustrate, the 9/11 memorial opened in September, it’s now May and unless I missed it, the New York Times architecture critic has yet to weigh in. Never mind that the museum is incomplete, we all know that; the fact is the Times wrote for ten years about the importance of the 9/11 museum and the urgency of the memorial and all the design issues. Now that it has finally opened to the world, they seem to have gone silent. I don’t get it.

RP: At the Times, critics are in a separate world from the reporters. In this case, Steve, I happen to agree and I have raised the question. I thought maybe it happened while we were in the process of changing critics and it had fallen through the cracks. I think Michael Kimmelman has a very different approach to criticism than we have ever had. He’s not, so far, reviewing individual projects as we have in the past. He doesn’t really have an architectural background. We may see some frustration: Not only are we not up to reviewing every thing, we may not review what might be expected of individual projects.

Are you pressured to cover subjects, or projects?

MC: I have been told to be less wonky. I have been told to stop invoking Robert Moses. We write almost not at all about architecture except in terms of development; we do a lot of residential real estate and industry types fighting each other. I have been asked to profile architects—for example Tod Williams and Billie Tsien because of the Barnes Museum opening—but that goes in the culture section. It’s not considered hard news.

SC: I have numerous editors breathing down my neck about  many things but never about architecture and design. I have this truly strange role at the paper that I wish I could share with architecture enthusiasts who are more learned than I am. I can just tell my editors at business or the editorial section that I really have to write this piece, and I have extraordinary freedom to do that. There’s a lot more pressure when it’s about breaking news concerning commercial real estate and that has become an extremely competitive environment only in the last four years.

RP: Opinions are really not my turf. The conventional wisdom now is that there is no such thing as subjectivity if there ever was. And there is certainly more attitude and voice in what you see online, but at the Times, it is the critic’s job to weigh in with opinions, not mine.

What’s your take on starchitecture? Does it make reporting easier?

RP: I have started to want to move away from the usual suspects. We will always write about these guys with the names but it’s nice to expand the circle. That said, it’s not as easy to get at those other stories.

Rob Lippincott: I think we can chock up some of the interest in starchitects to Charlie Rose; he had them all on his show and he really help demystify what current architecture is all about.

SC: On balance, the starchitect phenomenon was a good thing. It drew attention to a subject that too many people did not think about on a regular basis, in the same way that star chefs brought attention to food or the way the American Ballet theater and dancers like Baryshnikov in the 1970s made classical dance popular in a way that had never been done before.

On the other hand, you have something like the Gehry building on Spruce Street that is dammed marvelous. I wonder about all the people who look at it everyday and think, That’s terrific, and if they really even know it’s by Frank Gehry or if they know anything at all about Bilbao. I really don’t know.

What needs to be written about right now?

SC: There’s a lot of residential building going on and I could be missing the boat here, but there really isn’t that much going on in terms of design issues to be discussed and debated. Yes, there are these huge projects like Hudson Yards and Hudson West and Ratner’s site behind the arena where there may, or may not, be some new buildings. But I am not aware that any of these projects are even remotely close to happening in terms of actual development. There are holes in the ground everywhere, but there’s nothing to engage the public’s attention the way the Trade Center did or even Columbus Circle did when it went through its many permutations before it finally got built after ten years. There’s nothing like that right now.

RP: One of the things interesting me right now is the degree to which developers have decided whether name architects were worth the investment in bringing added value. We haven’t checked back, post-recession, to see whether developers feel like those architects were worth the extra cost and the headache.