October 22, 2000
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This morning's New York Times devotes the cover of its Arts & Leisure section, as well as two full inside pages, to the newspaper's planning for a new headquarters tower near Times square. The article is worth reading in full for what it says about the Times' self-image.
The article, by the Times architecture critic, begins with the words, "We were getting a lot of mail from readers complaining that I never write about New York buildings." Well, those letter-writers have a point -- most Sundays, the Times publishes a dispatch by its architecture critic from some European city that most readers will likely visit rarely, if at all.
Further down, the critic discloses some of his opinions about architecture. "I have minimal interest in personalities or politics, except as these play out on a symbolic or allegorical plane," the critic writes. "The symbolic level is where architecture itself kicks in. When it does, land use rises above the level of real estate speculation. Buildings earn the space they occupy on other than economic terms."
This approach interprets architecture as something more akin to oil painting than to architecture. In Smartertimes.com's view, architecture is best understood in a more practical way -- and shouldn't be divorced from politics, personality or economics. In fact, the best architecture critics realize this. The author Jane Jacobs, for instance, thought deeply about the economics of cities as well as their structures, and she understands the way the two are inextricable. The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger understands the way that personalities of builders and patrons shape buildings and neighborhoods, and you can tell from his writing that he thinks this is important, not merely on a symbolic or metaphorical level, but to the individuals who use buildings and live in neighborhoods. The Boston Globe's Robert Campbell constantly considers price and value and people and politics when he writes about buildings and plans, instead of sneering at those matters from the lofty realm of a preference for writing about metaphor and symbolism.
If this all sounds a little abstract, well, compare it to these lines from the article in the Arts & Leisure section of today's Times: "One thing we know about the monoculture is that it is protean. Its appearance constantly morphs. This mutability diverts attention from the fact that the underlying economic power relationships remain the same."
To figure out what the critic means, we read on: "My generation was strongly influenced by Robert Venturi's 1966 book, 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.' We came to appreciate the non-straightforward, the hybrid, the slightly deranged. Some of us also came to suspect that pure rationality too often serves to mask a highly irrational will to power."
Okay, so the critic is against power, particularly economic power. So, the critic claims, is the Times: "Yes, the Times is a powerful institution, but of a particular kind. It is not part of so-called 'black car' culture. We take subways. . . . The newsroom itself, as well as its coverage of news, has been powerfully affected by debates over authority that have unfolded in architecture and throughout the culture. The paper has the responsibility to challenge and correct, not blindly affirm, the corporate world's view of itself."
There you have it. Laid out, as plain as day, beneath all the talk about the morphing protean "monoculture," is the Times' self-image: a countercultural, subway-riding, anti-authoritarian vanguard whose motto might well be changed from "All the News that's Fit to Print" to "Fight the Power."
Well, fair enough, if readers and advertisers want to support a newspaper aimed at shattering the "underlying economic power relationships," they are probably better off reading the Times than the Daily Worker, if only slightly better off.
What is amusing, though, is that the countercultural vanguard at the Times is laboring under a pretense. The Times critic notes in passing that the design advisory group he attended that decided on an architect for the new Times tower was "occasionally joined by representatives of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Authority, a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, and of the Economic Development Corporation, a city agency." Left unsaid is the fact that the Times Company needs the help of the city and state if it is to seize by eminent domain the land on which the new tower is to be built. The city and the state must also approve special tax breaks that the Times has demanded as a condition of building the tower. How such a supplicant relationship affects the Times' ability to challenge authority and power, the critic leaves unexplored.
And, as for the Times critic's claim that the newspaper is not part of "so-called 'black car' culture," well, the critic says he was invited to join the architect-selection process at the invitation of Michael Golden, the vice chairman of the Times company.
And, according to "The Trust," a 1999 quasi-authorized biography of the family that owns the Times, young Michael Golden arrived at his family's 277-acre Connecticut estate as a child not by riding the subway, but in the following manner: "Every summer, usually before the Fourth of July, the four young Goldens arrived at Hillandale without their parents, making the trip from Chattanooga by train in the early years and later by plane. In New York they were met by Joseph, the Sulzbergers' personable chauffeur, who took their luggage and ushered them into the family limousine."
Barak and Separation: A story on the front page of this morning's New York Times is based on the following fiction: "For decades the vision of a new Middle East has reigned, a maximum cooperation model. But in the last few weeks, as the violence has settled into a prolonged conflict, the new Middle East has collapsed rather quickly into the old Middle East. And so the ideas of building fences rather than bridges have resurfaced." This is just a misconception. The Forward newspaper's Hillel Halkin filed an Israel Diary column for that newspaper in 1995 about a fence that was being built between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yitzhak Rabin was quoted in October of 1994 as saying, "We cannot keep having this mixture of Jews and Arabs. We have to decide on separation as a philosophy. There has to be a clear border." Ehud Barak was quoted by the Washington Post in March of 1995 as saying, "Separation is the only possible answer." In October of 1995, a Jerusalem Post headline read: "Barak: No Security Without Separation." The notion that separation and fence-building are new ideas that have become dominant only in the past few weeks is just false; they have, unfortunately, been the underlying assumptions of the mainstream of Israel's Labor Party for years.
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