No More Nicolai: Critic Leaving NY Times

Nicolai Ourossoff appeared on Charlie Rose (Screen Capture)

Nicolai Ouroussoff appeared on Charlie Rose (Screen Capture)

According to an in-house memo, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff is “moving on” at the end of this month.

The sweet but short memo about the critic—who this year submitted his own Pulitzer nomination package—was sent around this morning from culture editor Jonathan Landman. Ouroussoff’s plan, the memo said, is:

to write a book about the architectural and cultural history of the last 100 years, “from Adolf Loos’s Vienna and the utopian social experiments of post-revolutionary Russia to postwar Los Angeles and the closing years of the 20th century,” as Nicolai describes it.

That’s the level of ambition we’ve come to take for granted in Nicolai. He’s a critic whose seven-year run has been distinguished by qualities of unfailing intelligence and integrity and the kind of relentless journalistic drive that propelled a worldwide search for steel-and-concrete manifestations of big, important ideas. His recent series on efforts to use architecture to transform the Middle East was only the latest example.

And a grand one it was. On a different scale, I have another favorite, a review that shows off all of Nicolai’s discernment, courage and skill in a smaller package. That was his appraisal of our new building. There was a lot he didn’t like about the place and he said so – there’s the courage part. On the discernment front, there are fascinating observations about the building’s interplay with the history and ideals of modern journalism. Skill? Look at the direct and good humored way he handles the problem of reviewing the boss.

No doubt there’s much more where that came from. There’s a ton of Nicolai’s trademark ambition in the plan for his book, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which aspires to put a century of architecture into the kind of social and political context he always aimed for within the more limited constraints of newspaper writing.

We’ll miss him. He’ll miss us.

The question is will the readers, too? The sporadic critic was known more for chasing down exotic locations and predictably championing all things Californian than analyzing local conditions and his even-handed voice sometimes had us all missing the impassioned harangues of his predecessor, Herbert Muschamp, but at least he was there writing about architecture for the general public, one of the last of a rare and rarer breed.

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12 Responses to “No More Nicolai: Critic Leaving NY Times”

  1. MWnyc says:

    Julie, you say “chasing down exotic locations” as if it were some dereliction of duty on his part rather than a legitimate part of his job at one of the most widely-read news organizations in the world.

    I was very happy to read Ouroussoff’s reports from abroad. To single out one stellar example, I was fascinated by his article and slide show from last fall on Masdar, the sustainable (one hopes) city Foster & Partners is designing in Abu Dhabi. (http://tinyurl.com/26yexuc) I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the general-interest press who would have done that report (or, to be fair, whose editors would have OK-ed such a report). But I’m very grateful to have read it.

  2. Norman Oder says:

    Both Ouroussoff and Muschamp, alas, did a terrible job writing about Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

    Given that the project is being developed by a firm that partnered with the New York Times Company on the Times Tower, you’d think Times critics might be careful in covering the Brooklyn project exactingly. That was not to be.

    Here are some of my critiques:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2006/06/rereading-muschamp-on-ay-and-gehry.html
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2006/06/rereading-ouroussoff-on-ay-and-gehry.html
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2009/09/nyt-critic-ouroussoff-gives-two-cheers.html
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2011/02/ay-down-memory-hole-nyt-critic.html

  3. patrick says:

    If they do replace Ouroussoff, here’s hoping that they find someone with authority, as either an architecture or designer… or some kind of expert. Most journalists assigned to architecture treat it as some type of zany profession, where starchitects wear zany clothes and do zany things. They tend to think that people only care about architecture if they post eye catching photos and talk about things nobody cares about. Of course there are exceptions, but many follow this pattern. No wonder sales are plummeting. The only design articles i read come from some type of expert, who actually knows how a building is built or has some type of intimate experience with design.
    Of course, the replacement should be a good writer. But good writing comes from experience, as I said. If they find some hack, it’s better they don’t replace him at all. Ouroussoff seemed like a Gehry groupie, but at least he was sincere. Of course this isn’t good enough. Trying to “speak to the public” isn’t an excuse for nonsense writing that hurts the profession and the built world. Yes, i take this seriously, obviously!

  4. Patrick says:

    an architecture or design expert, that is. sorry for the poor grammar.

  5. Curtis says:

    What a relief! Ever since his screed (August ’09) in which he lamented the lack of new “heroic” architects (read: a new wave of self-promoting starchitects to replace the dwindling ranks of Gwathmey, Hejduk, Graves, Eisenman and Meier) I’ve, alas, had to write Nicolai off as a – ahem – blowhard.
    A new, less-blowhard writer with some understanding of New York, for the New York Times could not be more warmly anticipated.
    Curtis B Wayne, Architect

  6. Sergio Zeballos says:

    I am glad to see him go. When he wrote for the LA Times he focused mostly on the work of the stars: Gehry, Moss, Mayne. I did not follow his writing for the NY Times, so I can not say he did the same thing there, but judging from Curtis’ comments, it appears that he did not change his focus. The up and coming architects with the small practices and big ideas did not interest Ouroussoff. I suspect that writing about them was too close to the struggling street architects, too pedestrian. I think, In his mind, writing about the design of a cool storefront or a house by a young architect pulled him away from the limelight of the shiny stararchitects. An architecture critic must look at the profession broadly and Mr. Ouroussoff was as star-struck as the next Hollywood groupie.

  7. B.R. says:

    The NYTimes Architecture Critic’s seat is an important voice across the USA, easily accessible for many who are just learning to be consumers of architecture culture.

    Nick was terrible in this way. I am glad to see him go. Regularly timed regular old articles published twice or once a week would be a god send for those of us who are not working at SHoP or OMA-AMO-NYC or whatever they are calling it.

    New York needs a New York critic. Even those of us who are outside of NYC can see that after Nick O’s tenure.

    Goodbye and goodnight sweet prince. You are a legend in your own mind.

  8. B.R. says:

    BTW: Maybe its time for a woman’s voice in this role.

  9. P says:

    Ada Louise Huxtable was a woman. While she was probably the best, it was a different time. Now male and female journalists seem to cater to the lowest common denominator, become overly critical, become starchitect groupies, or don’t really care. My bet is that they new person doesn’t resemble an architecture critic at all, but something different for the current times. There isn’t really anything interesting to say about starchitects anymore.

  10. Curtis says:

    Amen to P’s remarks. Starchitecture is totally un-interesting. You might find my comments, voiced yesterday on Burning Down the House at HeritageRadioNetwork.com of interest.

  11. Evelyn Yaari says:

    I loved Nicolai Ouroussoff’s unflinching review of the Todd Williams/Billie Tsien structure intended to house the Barnes art collection. Yes, it does project guilt and so it should. It is the product of decades of soul-less maneuverings to “steal the Barnes – fair and square”. Or, as Mr. Ouroussoff put it in an earlier piece about the architect selection process in a reference to the authentic Barnes, “dismantling it is a crime.”

  12. Leonard says:

    The world of archi-stars needs its zealous archi-critics who, rather than doing their job (being critical), pass on sound bites and press releases handed to them by both architects and clients. The articles on the Middle East are clear examples: very little can be found which is not already part of the official narrative spun by global offices and investors. I hope that while writing his history of architecture he will enjoy a degree of freedom and critical insight which he was not able to infuse in his NYT articles.

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