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Walking in the Many Footsteps of Architecture Critic Philip Kennicott, 2013 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Criticism

At The Washington Post, Kennicott is the design watchdog for the nation’s capital city

By Mike Singer

While buildings may be everywhere, those who win Pulitzer Prizes for writing about them are not. Last week, Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post joined this distinguished group as only the seventh architecture critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

The first Pulitzer given to an architecture critic was awarded in 1970 to Ada Louise Huxtable, Hon. AIA, of The New York Times, and 14 years later to her successor, Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA. Two Chicago Tribune architecture critics have won--Paul Gapp in 1979 and Blair Kamin 20 years later. Allan Temko of The San Francisco Chronicle won the prize in 1990 and Robert Campbell, FAIA, of The Boston Globe, in 1996.

Few critics actually set out in life to be critics--and Kennicott is no exception. Unlike some of his Pulitzer peer group, he was trained as neither an architect nor a journalist, majoring instead in philosophy at Yale.

“Like most things in life, becoming a critic was a mix of intention and accident,” he says. “I have been interested in architecture since I was a boy, and when I was in college at Yale, I had the good fortune to take--by accident, really--a course taught by Karsten Harries entitled ‘The Bavarian Rococo Church.’ It was an in-depth look at an architectural form as far from my taste, at the time, as anything I could imagine. Harries was a philosopher first, but also a very fine architectural historian, and his approach was historically and intellectually broad. The real subject of the course was the Enlightenment and its discontents. By the time I finished the class, I had a genuine sympathy for the ornament-encrusted style and gained a sense that architecture is a kind of lens that helps us focus on deeper questions about history, society and aesthetics.”

After Yale and two years at the small, experimental Deep Springs College in California, Kennicott moved to New York City where he primarily wrote about classical music. After spending time at The Detroit News as the classical music critic, he then landed at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, first as chief classical music critic, and then as an editorial writer covering local politics, infrastructure, preservation, and urban design. The Washington Post hired him as a classical music critic in 1999, and in 2001 he became the paper’s culture critic before assuming, in 2009, his current role as architecture critic. He became the paper’s art and architecture critic two years ago.

Having served as a critic of art, music, and architecture, and an independent blogger on various cultural topics, Kennicott, 47, brings multiple viewpoints into focus to get readers to take note of the designed world around them. AIArchitect spoke with Kennicott the week of the Pulitzer Prize announcement, as he reflected on his roles as architectural observer, interpreter, and watchdog, all from the vantage point of living and working in America’s capital city.

AIArchitect: In your current dual role as both an art and architecture critic at The Washington Post, how do you see these two distinct fields influencing each other?

Kennicott: Architecture is more often a matter of politics, policy, and controversy, especially in Washington, where frequent debates about monuments and memorials force us to consider basic ideas about what buildings represent. The built environment is naturally contentious, and I find myself playing a stronger role as an advocate, and sometimes a scold, when the subject is a three-dimensional object in the middle of our shared urban landscape.

Given how strong the museum culture is in Washington, I spend much of my time writing about art that has already been vetted by history and critical wisdom, so the challenge is much more about explaining the material, and sharing my interest in it with readers. I try to approach art and architecture as distinctly separate fields. It‘s especially important not to treat architecture purely as an aesthetic object, but the process of criticism leads to fundamental questions that apply to both. What makes a picture/building beautiful? How is it built up? What social or political concerns had a visible influence on the work? How does it relate to past work? And how did it change what came after it?

Why is helping your readers engage more fully in architecture important?

The fundamental message of good architectural criticism is that we have choices. Ugly, inefficient, and unhealthy aspects of our built environment don’t happen by accident. Although it often seems that we have little influence on what gets built, I have seen on many occasions smart and focused criticism--often from people who aren’t architects--steer the design process in positive directions. Washington is a city that gives people many chances to show up and be heard, at design review boards and other public hearings. Very few people take advantage of that, but the ones who do, especially those rare people who can deliver a sharp, reasoned, and grounded judgment on a building, can make a real difference. My goal is to demonstrate in print the process of having an opinion, supporting it, arguing for it, and explaining it.

Buildings are physical objects that function in particular ways, but together they form communities. How much does a sense of place guide your consideration and criticisms of individual buildings?

I wrestle with that everyday. Washington is owned, symbolically, by so many different people, so many different constituencies, that no one can lay claim to a single understanding of what it should look like, how it should relate to its past, and how it should develop in the future. The city might be very different if, say, the Northern European, brick aesthetic of architects such as Adolf Cluss had prevailed instead of the sunny, classical ideas of John Russell Pope.

I hate to see Washington frozen in the past, and I bristle when people tell me that only white marble and classical columns are appropriate to the nation’s capital. At the same time, much of what I admire about the city’s public spaces is a result of the city’s fundamental architectural conservatism. So I wrestle and debate with myself and hope for clarity. When I’m particularly frustrated, I walk. My own neighborhood on Capitol Hill is full of beautiful Victorian brick homes--and a few very rare instances of architects trying to find a new idea compatible with the old urban fabric. There are successes, and so I try to take note of them, mark them down in my memory, and steer like-minded people--who are also troubled about maintaining the city’s sense of place without becoming completely regressive--to find them too.

Surveys show that while the public likes architecture as a profession, they don't have a real understanding of what architects do. How can more actively engaging the public in architecture change that?

Architects, by necessity, are very good at explaining what they do, and why their designs look the way they do. But these explanations are generally given to clients and other professionals involved in the process of making buildings. The problem is getting the public in a place where it can access the architect’s thinking.

I’d love to see more architects lay out, on a daily basis, a journal of their process, and post that material online. I'd particularly like to read in that journal about a building idea that failed, didn't get built, or was radically changed over time. One might start embedding a QR code somewhere near the entrance of every building that linked to materials that gives insight into the structure and the process. These could be branded through the AIA and incorporated into published AIA guides for different cities.

But even more important than connecting ordinary people with the thinking of architects is giving ordinary people access to architectural advice and professional help. It remains prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Americans to consult an architect. That needs to change, somehow. One way might be to look for communities where homes are very standardized, all built to roughly the same plan, around the same time. Architects could then propose standardized interventions—for example, a sunroom or garage conversion--that could be applied by multiple homeowners. In many D.C. neighborhoods, the enclosed front porch is a standard homeowner "improvement" to the house, but how nice it would be if someone went to these neighborhoods and offered advice to the whole block on how to do it right?

Perhaps economies of scale could give suburban homeowners access to top-quality architectural thinking, and thus engage them in the architectural process, and by extension, get them involved more proactively with the way their communities make design decisions.

In our sound-bite age of tweets and blogs and transmitting images via Tumbler and Pinterest, how hard is it to make architectural criticism rise above judging a beauty contest—so that your readers understand and care about the complexities of the built environment, including such concepts like sustainability, health, smart growth, and contextual design?

I tend to use the short-form social media, including Twitter and Facebook, only to steer people to longer-form media. And yet Twitter, while no substitute for serious criticism, does one thing very well which is elemental to good criticism: It can say, “Look at this.” Noticing is a large part of what critics do, and if used judiciously, social media can help people notice things. If I had more time, I’d try to use Twitter to send out a series of small, targeted observations perhaps linked to photos or my own blog.

The challenge of not letting criticism devolve into “beauty contest” writing has always been there, even in a newspaper such as The Washington Post, where I’m allowed an extraordinary amount of space. If you don’t want to write an endless series of “Top Ten” articles, you have to think of better subjects. Laziness is endemic, no matter the subject or the medium. So have some discipline, avoid the kind of writing you wouldn’t want to read yourself, and do something different.

Here in Washington, D.C., public scrutiny has played an important role in what gets built--from the outcry against Maya Lin's design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to more recent objections to the design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. There are city building-height limit debates, and mass-transit options to ponder. As an architecture critic, how much must you also be a social activist and guardian of design for the greater good?

It’s a large part of what I do. I have been a strong--and rather lonely--advocate of Frank Gehry’s, [FAIA], Eisenhower Memorial design, which I think could productively transform how we think about memorials. I also think the design--which features large metal “tapestries”--will be very beautiful. I pass by the proposed site of the memorial often, and every time I do, I try to picture what it will look and feel like. I can see an urban garden, surrounded by a diaphanous suggestion of the Kansas landscape, where Ike grew up, wrought in silvery metal. The edges of the National Mall, where the memorial will be built, are so desolate and dispiriting that I think visitors will find the Ike memorial a real balm. I believe they’ll feel a sense of refuge and connection there, a reminder of the many different landscapes around this country that have produced people of immense accomplishment. I think it will give visitors an uncanny feeling that Washington, as the capital city, harbors within in it the memory of prairies and forests and mountains and oceans. I very much want to see that memorial built, and I’ve used every resource at my disposal to explain why I think it will make Washington more beautiful and livable.

How would you describe the state of architectural criticism today?

I would say it’s rich, varied, and not easy to find. If you’re looking in newspapers, you’ll be disappointed unless you live in a city, such as Washington, D.C., where the hometown daily has made a commitment to criticism. But if you look elsewhere--on the Internet, at public hearings, in schools, and on college campuses--and if you attend to the conversation around the dinner table when friends and neighbors gather, you’ll find an abundance of criticism. It may not be the sort of criticism that gets published, but it’s relevant and surprisingly wise. I try to absorb it whenever and wherever I find it.

That said--is the traditional craft of architectural criticism healthy today? No, and that’s a shame. I’m quite sure that I belong to the last generation of critics who will make careers at newspapers. But that won’t stop people from thinking and having opinions about the built environment.


Image courtesy of The Washington Post


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