Why does architecture need a critic? Intention is never outcome, and a building’s meaning is never fixed. As the stage for all of our lives, its subtle impacts can’t be overlooked. The Michigan Daily sat down virtually with Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic at the New York Times, to talk preservation and affordable housing ahead of his virtual visit to Taubman College Monday night as this year’s Raoul Wallenberg Lecturer. 

Starting off with the question of preservation — What is its value? What does it safeguard? In discussing a piece he wrote about the Strand Bookstore last year, Kimmelman said, “It’s not just the building itself — the container — but what it contains that is actually the repository of the community’s identity and memory.”

Now, Kimmelman isn’t discounting the look of a building —  that’s obviously important. He brings up the issue, rather, because current preservation practice is centered around just that — cosmetics. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, founded in 1963, is, in his words, an “architectural bulwark” against alterations to its city’s historic facades. It lays no claim, however, to interiors nor the institutions that occupy them. 

On second thought, this makes sense. A government agency shouldn’t be playing favorites in the private sector. But Kimmelman points out that it’s not unprecedented nor nontraditional to the way our government functions on the level of the individual: 

“It’s really dangerous territory when the city begins to favor some kinds of private businesses over another, but we have to do it anyway, with tax incentives and other kinds of benefits,” he said.

“Places like San Francisco, where businesses are also threatened by runaway rental costs, have created funds and other mechanisms to provide a handful of businesses the opportunity of getting some assistance,” said Kimmelman. “It’s essentially intended to say to businesses on the cusp of closure, ‘we’ll give you enough to tide you over, but you’re not going to become a public institution.’”

Kimmelman is referring here to San Francisco’s Legacy Businesses Program started in 2015. Through it, businesses open 30 years or longer can apply for grants if they can also prove they’ve made “a significant impact on the history or culture of their neighborhood.” It’s by no means collusion, but it is a bit of favoritism.

Moving on to affordable housing, I told Kimmelman about Ann Arbor’s Proposal C on the ballot on election day. Prop. C was a one-mill property tax for the construction of approximately 1,500 units of affordable housing over the course of 20 years, and it passed with a 73% vote. In lieu of these promising results, I asked him if he thought New York City had sufficient rent-controlled and subsidized housing. 

“Well, that’s a short answer: no,” he said. Subsidized housing had been largely in the hands of private developers since the Nixon administration. This has undeniable advantages, but also makes public good dependent on private profit. 

In short, he eventually said, “we can’t continue to be in a situation where we don’t invest in affordable housing for people because the ramifications are enormous on the rest of the economy. Health problems, homelessness problems, problems of policing and crime, mental health problems…” the list goes on. 

Kimmelman has been waving the red flag on issues like these since his first piece under his current role in 2011 called, “In a Bronx Complex, Doing Good Mixes With Looking Good.” In that piece, he wrote about Villa Verde, an unusual public housing project for its distinguished look, amenities like an on-site health clinic, and, correspondingly, a high cost per square foot.

Noble as its aims may have been, such expenditure didn’t come without criticism for the 252-unit complex in a neighborhood with 66,450 people per square mile — almost 40% living below the National Poverty Line.

“If you’re a housing advocate, and there’s such a shortage of housing, that extra money could have gone to more units instead of to better design. So there was some debate as to whether it was an efficient use of funds, I think there’s an argument that it was,” Kimmelman said.

The architects and developers wanted a project that signaled what public housing could be. Kimmelman suggests that it achieved that —  it doesn’t blend into its context, it sits loudly at the foreground. It shows what happens when architects and developers meet community members where they are. As he says in the article, “What is that worth?”

Kimmelman acknowledges in his writing that architecture itself doesn’t solve poverty and unemployment. But it has immeasurable value in uplifting the spirit and instilling a sense of pride in place. This extends far beyond housing: “public space, streets, parks, schools, transportation… they all work together to provide a decent, healthy life for people,” he said.

Kimmelman will be speaking in greater depth on these issues Monday night at 6:00 p.m. with Taubman College Dean Jonathan Massey as well as the college’s Dimensions and Agora student publications. As the Wallenberg lecturer, the conversation will be centered on “architecture as a humane social art.” Registration is free and open to the public via this link.

Daily Arts Writer Ben Vassar can be reached at benvas@umich.edu.