The surprise announcement that Christopher Hawthorne was leaving his post at the Los Angeles Times to become the city’s first chief design officer generated plenty of discussion about the increasingly important role of design in government.
Among architecture writers, however, conversation quickly pivoted to another pressing issue: Who should hold the paper’s job of architecture critic next?
As the shrinking local news industry means publications have fewer resources to cover topics like architecture, the number of full-time local architecture critic positions has dwindled in recent years—at a time when cities are booming.
Especially in Los Angeles, which faces a shortage of news outlets alongside accelerated real estate development, this role is perhaps more relevant than ever.
During his tenure, Hawthorne broadened the focus of the traditional architecture beat to write about issues like transportation planning and housing policy, a trend evocative of architecture criticism in general, said Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture. “In the last couple decades, architecture criticism has gone from emphasis on formal expression—the wow factor—to repudiation of formal expression and preoccupation with the urban realm, grassroots engagement, and issue of identity,” she said.
Many of Hawthorne’s peers hope that LA’s new critic will continue down this path—and look at the city even more holistically, like Hawthorne’s New York Times counterpart Michael Kimmelman, who has incorporated climate change and food justice into his beat.
“It’s not so much adding a new voice to the debate as bringing in someone who can continue to explain how design fits in—and why insisting on the best possible buildings and spaces matters so much in the long run,” said John King, architecture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.
The job of the architecture critic at LA’s paper of record may become even more important as Hawthorne ascends to City Hall to align with these leaders, as the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin noted: “It is equally important that this critic possess the fortitude to hold the powerful—architects, developers, and officials, including Christopher in his new government role—to account.”
Speaking truth to architectural power at the local level becomes critical at a time when a city’s future could be determined by the recruitment of a single corporate headquarters, or, perhaps more relevant in LA’s case, the bid for the Olympics.
At the same time, the Los Angeles Times is undergoing its own major changes—the newsroom unionized but also saw significant layoffs, and the paper was bought by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong—leading many to worry that the position will not be filled at all.
“It is my sincere hope that the LA Times doesn’t use Chris’ departure as an excuse to not have an architecture critic anymore,” lamented San Francisco-based critic Allison Arieff. “Now more than ever we need smart thinkers to help us all make sense of the rapid changes happening in cities today.”
Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, echoed Arieff’s concerns. “I think it’s critically important that the job is not left vacant, and that whomever does take it on is someone who cares about the entire city and also cares deeply about architecture,” he said.
In 2014, when Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Architect counted 13 full-time architecture critics at newspapers. Almost four years later, that number has shrunk to 11: David Brussat left the Providence Journal and has not been replaced, and Robert Campbell hasn't written a story for the Boston Globe since 2017. (Julie Iovine clarified to Curbed that she has been a columnist, not a full-time critic, at the Wall Street Journal since 2007; and, while not a newspaper, Justin Davidson is a locally focused architecture critic on staff at New York Magazine.)
It’s also important to note that, with the exception of Hawthorne’s imminent departure, there has been no turnover in these other critic roles. The voices that have been given the biggest megaphones about how U.S. cities are changing have remained largely the same for over a decade.
Of the American writers who do have full-time positions as architecture critics, at newspapers or for online outlets, very few of them are women or people of color.
Do we even know if the LA Times will replace him? In times of journalistic upheaval and financial pressure architecture criticism is rarely a high priority for management. I agree it would be a catastrophe for L A to leave Chris’s slot open. https://t.co/PlSCb46XYP— Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) March 13, 2018
Even on the current Los Angeles Times masthead, the arts critics are mostly white men.
Many architecture critics are calling for Hawthorne’s replacement to buck the trend.
“It should be a woman,” said Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange. “This may be the last open job for a newspaper architecture critic in America. 2.5 of them are currently women. We need more input from women about the design and planning of cities and here is a prime place for it, not to mention plenty of qualified candidates.”
Indeed, of the potential candidates for the job suggested online and in interviews for this story, a majority were women: Anderton, Arieff, writer and author Karrie Jacobs, Lange, Los Angeles Times arts columnist Carolina A. Miranda, architecture writer Kate Wagner, critic and author Sarah Williams Goldhagen, journalist and critic Mimi Zeiger, as well as the author of this story.
Other writers named included critic Greg Goldin, Lamster, editor and critic Sam Lubell, journalist and author Geoff Manaugh, journalist and podcaster Colin Marshall, and even a call to bring back Hawthorne’s predecessor, Nicolai Ouroussoff.
The sale of the Los Angeles Times will be finalized April 1, and it is unlikely that any hiring decisions will be made until then, according to a source at the paper who asked not to be named. Plus, the paper needs to fill other roles, like national editor, which will likely take precedence over architecture critic, at least for now.
Promoting someone immediately from within the paper seems to be an especially wise decision for both the beat and the city, which is why many critics named Miranda as the clear frontrunner. Hawthorne himself specifically cited Miranda’s distinct voice when asked about who should succeed him.
Miranda is the obvious choice, agreed Jacobs, who was herself a candidate for the Los Angeles Times architecture critic job when Ouroussoff was hired in 1996. “Before taking her current position at the LA Times writing about art, she wrote persuasively about architecture for a variety of publications,” said Jacobs of Miranda. “She has a strong, unique point of view. When she writes a piece about the architecture of porn theaters, I am thrilled to read about the architecture of porn theaters. And I can’t imagine a better fit for Los Angeles at this moment in time than a Latina architecture critic.”