News coverage of protests in the Muslim world over the past year has focused extensively on the role played by social media. Being connected by hand-held devices is a big advantage for those who are trying to oust an oppressive regime.
But the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, so soon after anti-government protests in Egypt, reminds Michael Kimmelman of something else: "We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places."
Kimmelman was named architecture critic of The New York Times after the June departure of Nicolai Ouroussoff, who, according to a Times in-house memo, left to write a book about the architectural and cultural history of the past 100 years. Kimmelman has written in The Times about art for several years, and will apparently now cover architecture as well as art—a combination that some view as an unfortunate downgrading of the newspaper's architectural coverage.
Some are skeptical of Kimmelman's credentials, arguing that The Times ought to have an architecture critic with deep knowledge of the field. But after two successive critics (Ouroussoff and the late Herbert Muschamp) who devoted much of their attention to works of the avant-garde, which often seemed disconnected from more pressing urban issues, it's refreshing to read a critic who sees himself as having a much broader mandate.
I’m interested in urbanism, city planning, housing and social affairs, the environment and health, politics and culture — in all the ways we live, in other words, and not just in how buildings look or who designs them, although those things are inseparable from the rest. The influence on architecture of social scientists and medical experts now investigating how actually to quantify the success and failure of buildings, to establish criteria of proof, an increasingly important word, in terms of, say, the claims of green and healthy sites, seems no less urgent than Zaha Hadid’s or Norman Foster’s latest undertaking.
In his first architecture review, a Sept. 26 piece on Via Verde, a low- and moderate-income housing development rising on what used to be one of the worst stretches of the South Bronx, Kimmelman used his new soapbox to argue that architectural profession, or in any case much of the talk about architecture, "has been fixated for too long on brand-name luxury objects and buildings as sculptures instead of attending to the richer, broader, more urgent vein of public policy and community engagement, in which aesthetics play a part." (To watch a short video in which Kimmelman walks the South Bronx with Amanda Burden, director of city planning, click here.)
On the front of the paper's Oct. 16 Sunday Review, Kimmelman offers historical and philosophical perspective on the Occupy Wall Street movement and its encampment in Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Like Tahrir Square in Cairo, this privately owned public space (operated by Brookfield Properties) is an affirmation, in Kimmelman's view, of the importance of civic spaces.
"In his 'Politics,' Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry," Kimmelman writes. "He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation."
He continues: "Much as it can look at a glance like a refugee camp in the early morning, when the protesters are just emerging from their sleeping bags, Zuccotti Park has in fact become a miniature polis, a little city in the making."
He goes on to lament "the bankruptcy of so much of what in the last couple of generations has passed for public space in America." Many of the supposedly public spaces created by developers, he points out, "are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords."
As it happens, June Williamson, a City College of New York faculty member who has taught a course on "History of Urban Space: Suburbanization and Its Discontents," made much the same point Saturday during a Tactical Urbanism Salon held in Long Island City, Queens. Williamson recounted the hassles that a man faced four years ago in a redeveloped part of Silver Spring, Maryland, while attempting to shoot photos along a street in that project, bearing the name "Downtown Silver Spring."
A security guard told the photographer, Chip Py, that he had no right to take pictures on the street, which Montgomery County had leased for $1 to the developer, Peterson Companies. After the photographer protested and the issue spawned a public controversy, the county ordered that the space be treated as truly public, upholding the freedoms guaranteed in the US Constitution.
Kimmelman contends that outdoor public spaces like the one where protestesters have gathered in Manhattan are places where "consensus emerges urbanistically." By that, he means that "the demonstrators, who have devised their own form of leaderless governance to keep the peace, find unity in community."
"They discover their own numbers—people with similar, if not identical, concerns," Kimmelman says. "The park is where their grievances overlap. It’s literally common ground."
The encampments in New York, Washington, and other cities prove, he says, "that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets."
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