The People’s Critic

Photo: Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Madison Square Garden, the scene of sporting triumphs and architectural atrocity, now faces a death sentence. Granted, the date of execution is still years away, and the convict may yet wriggle out of it, but last month, the city planning commission voted to place a fifteen-year limit on the obscure municipal permit that allows for the arena’s operation. The provision aims to start a process to roust the Garden and reclaim its land for a resurrected Penn Station. Not surprisingly, the arena’s operators are furious. The imperious Dolan family has rallied developers, business groups, and sports-talk-radio hosts to the Garden’s defense but has thus far been outmaneuvered by an ardent band of civic irredentists.

If the wrecking ball does swing someday, it will be clear who set it in motion: Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’s architecture critic. Kimmelman has been inveighing against Penn Station’s “daily blight” and calling for “hardball politics” to relocate the Garden, and he has pushed for an expiration date on the Garden’s permit. “He had a meaningful impact on that decision—and that’s unusual,” says Brad Lander, a planning expert who serves on the City Council. “He’s lit a fire under the civic community and under the political leadership of the city,” says Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.

One recent Friday afternoon, as he sat before an untouched mountain of orangy French fries at the Penn Station TGI Friday’s, Kimmelman took some time to savor the most tangible victory, so far, in a campaign to wield his Times column as an instrument of practical influence. He explained how he’d poked around the question of “carrots and sticks” before hitting on the musty 50-year permit, due to expire this year. “When I did first inquire about it, I got a lot of blank stares,” Kimmelman said. He wrote a column proposing the sunset provision, a crafty suggestion that took on a momentum that surprised both city officials and the Dolans, who were expecting a quiet renewal in perpetuity.

Kimmelman’s idea is to create a deadline, which in turn will spur public officials to devise a plan for relocating the Garden and allowing the subterranean station to resurface. ­Kimberley Kerns, an MSG spokeswoman, said the company was “being unfairly singled out because of a decision that was made 50 years ago—to demolish the original Penn Station.” When the ­Municipal Art Society recently displayed some architects’ renderings of new station designs, MSG officials dismissed them as “pie-in-the-sky drawings.” They argue that nostalgic zeal can’t overcome a lack of political will, public funding, and the fact that the arena’s ownership purchased the land from the Penn Central Corporation in 1985. A recent Post editorial, headlined “Banana Republic,” accused the city of property confiscation.

It might seem like a mismatch: the Dolans, veterans of many public brawls, against Kimmelman, an urbane trained pianist who previously wrote primarily about art. But such is the power of the Times when it’s given to a crusading voice.

“As journalists, we have this control of the spotlight,” Kimmelman said. “So power, ­talent, and capital gravitate to where the spotlight is shining.” Earlier this year, he wrote a fond obituary for Ada Louise Huxtable, the first Times architecture critic, praising her recognition that “buildings are lived in, after all, not just sculptures or monuments on a skyline.” The remembrance read like a manifesto—and a rebuke to his more recent predecessors, notably ­Herbert Muschamp, a monomaniacal ­aesthete who championed an ­international class of “starchitects” like Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas.

Kimmelman, by contrast, has all but dispensed with reviewing buildings, focusing instead on “who benefits from them and who doesn’t.” Architecture, as he defines it, encompasses real estate, zoning, transportation, bike lanes, rising sea levels, affordable housing, and the workings of power—not the least of which his own. He has taken up subjects like public libraries in Queens, Manhattan’s overlooked zoning-mandated plazas, and Via Verde, an affordable-­housing project in the Bronx. After Sandy, he wrote about the need for massive new public works and questioned whether the city had “lost something of its nerve” since the autocratic days of Robert Moses. (He said he was even more revisionist until ­Robert Caro “talked me down from the cliff.”) He’s covered Occupy Wall Street and the roiling urban life of Egypt and Turkey. That he rarely writes about actual buildings rankles some architects, who complain that the Times no longer has an architecture critic. “I don’t think it’s hideously elitist,” says one, “to think that there’s still a place for thinking about building as a cultural art form.”

Kimmelman appears less interested in passively assessing than in speaking directly to an elite audience of decision-makers. He has challenged the boards of the Museum of Modern Art, which is trying to tear down its quirky neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, and the New York Public Library, which is pressing forward with a controversial $350 million renovation. He’s questioned whether the library’s trustees—including literary figures like Robert Silvers and David Remnick alongside the usual plutocrats—are suffering from “a form of architectural Stockholm syndrome.”

Penn Station, Resurfaced
Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s rendering of what a new Penn Station might look like.
Photo: Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The project, designed by Lord Norman Foster, calls for gutting the building’s ­century-old stacks and constructing a ­lending library in their place. Kimmelman’s column questioned whether the scheme would undermine the library’s physical integrity and its finances, labeled Foster a “celebrity architect,” and concluded that his “designs have all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall.” (Foster responded with a letter, huffing that Kimmelman’s “diatribe about our design is both offensive and premature.”) “If you’re going to be spending untold millions on this plan, it better be what the city really, really needs,” Kimmelman said. “Otherwise, this will be considered one of the calamities of the city’s history, along with Penn Station.”

Sometimes, however, demolition can be a delightful prospect. As rush hour approached and the neon cavern of Penn Station swarmed with roller bags, Kimmelman turned his critical eye toward the future. The battle now moves to the City Council, where speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, who is publicly uncommitted, will likely have the ultimate say. Kimmelman wants the Council to tighten the time frame and a crucial loophole. Beyond that, there’s also no redevelopment plan, no billions to pay for it, and no cure for the government dysfunction that has scotched all previous attempts to fix Penn Station—none of which will be solved by slapping an expiration date on the Garden. (“It puts a gun to the wrong head,” says Richard Gottfried, a state legislator who has defended the Dolans.) Despite all this, Kimmelman is sure he has a winning political argument.

“The thing about Penn Station,” he said, “is the sheer crappiness of this place is so universally understood.”

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The People’s Critic