Having recently had the pleasure of reading Alexandra Lange's critique of the New York Times' resident architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff on Design Observer, I realized that I wasn't alone in my unappreciative assessment of his writing. This article has only intensified my antipathy into simmering anger, due to the amount of contempt that it displays toward both the Times' Design section readers and the people affected by the disaster in Haiti, as well as those involved in the reconstruction efforts there.
by Seth Embry
Disregard, for a moment, the middle school-level book report style of writing, as well as the carelessly chosen diction and the way in which he sprinkles a few half-developed ideas and vague references while ignoring their intensely inflammatory significance. Disregard also the brief mention of Steven Holl's project (so brief, in fact, as to appear only as opportunity for the name-dropping of an architectural 'Icon,' capitalized), as well as the ambivalent mention of New Urbanism and dismissive stance toward post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. Finally, forget the seemingly contradictory mention of the infrastructural investments made by "international aid organizations" in the 1970s, left to languish after that period, and the suggestion that the same process (of internationally-driven intervention followed by an immediate turnover of responsibility) should be repeated. After excising these credibility-damaging aspects from the piece, there is a ridiculously marginal amount of substance remaining to validate its inclusion in a publication that has already contained substantially more insightful writing on Haiti's post-earthquake resurgence, especially in describing architectural and urban conditions both before and after the catastrophe.
The final paragraph in his essay is especially cringe-worthy, in its dismissive references to New Orleans and Katrina. In choosing the phrases "swirled around" and "churned out" to describe the positive concepts of "good will" and "plans for the city's recovery," he attempts to evoke cyclonic imagery with all of the smarmy subtlety of a self-impressed schoolboy. I find such conflation nearly as abhorrent as I did the New York Post "The Big Queasy," issued while my father was attempting to maintain a flooded hospital with failing generators in Biloxi throughout Katrina and its wake. The bookending of this paragraph between the banal statements "This will not be an easy task," and "The best plans went nowhere. Let's pray that this doesn't happen in Haiti," seem as though they were stolen from a Catastrophe Solutions template for some sort of 6th Grade social studies Mad Lib.
At best, it appears this is Ouroussoff's attempt to distance himself from the accusation that his general oeuvre primarily targets object/icon worship, the architectural superstars and their most eye-catching or eye-scorching progeny. More upsetting is the prospect that it is written with an assumption that the readers of articles on architecture and design are so poorly versed in these heftier, more relevant articles that his paltry, hasty overview suffices to substitute those (addressing historical difficulties, present post-catastrophic conditions, and the legion of proposals currently underway) in a far more effortless manner. At the very worst, the article is a lackluster page-filler, intended to meet some sort of monthly word count for Ouroussoff to retain his position or salary, whatever that might be defined by. As Lange stated in the title of her article, this simply "isn't good enough."
As a member of the architectural professional community, I understand that I shouldn't expect the level of specificity or detail necessary for an article in an expressly design-oriented publication or professional journal. The greatest aspect of the inclusion of architectural features among the Times' various subjects is the ability to expose a greater audience to architectural achievements and concerns, and I realize that this can mean adapting the language and tone to do so. However, I never see this sort of compositional incoherence in the Science section, or the vagueness of opinion in the Book Review, both rampant in Ouroussoff's architectural segments. When he finally offers some sort of pseudo-concrete statement or 'conclusion,' it tends to be forced, ephemeral, trite, and abrupt, as though written while stuck in traffic on the way to a much more interesting brunch.
The actual details of the planned decentralization of Port-au-Prince deserve comprehensive and descriptive exposure. If the New York Times chooses to return to the subject, it should be orchestrated by someone more capable of providing this than Nicolai Ouroussoff.
Seth Embry is an architectural artist and designer, currently working in Store Design for a major retail company in New York. He studied architecture as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, and intends to apply to graduate architecture programs in the fall.
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