There’s a great description Le Frak City, the housing complex in Corona, Queens, in Gary Shteyngart’s book Super Sad True Love Story. Lenny Abramov, the novel’s hero, compares the balconied, brick buildings to “soot-covered accordions,” and bemoans their “ugly gigantism.” It’s striking because Le Frak City isn’t even a housing project; it was developed in 1962 as a haven for working- and middle-class New Yorkers. But there’s something about exurban housing complexes like this, that pack hundreds of units into enormous, freestanding volumes, that always gives them a whiff of sadness. Via Verdi, the new Bronx housing development for low-income workers that Michael Kimmelman, the new New York Times architecture critic, reviews in his first piece, has this same aspect. And yet Kimmelman doesn’t make note of it.
Kimmelman, who had been an art critic at the paper, states pretty clearly that he’s interested in the “cultural and civic aspect of architecture” more than its indelible, physical qualities. He applauds green design elements like cross-ventilation and ceiling fans. And he applauds “healthy” design elements, like windowed staircases that lure people away from elevators, and a roof garden where residents can grow their own vegetables. But he doesn’t give us a sense of what the architecture is; he doesn’t even tell us what the building is clad with. And he takes the unsophisticated point of view that “… for Via Verde the question was what a housing development on its own could do to shape and change behavior.” This is just as condescending as the rendering on the splash page of the Via Verde website, that shows black residents growing tomatoes and cradling a basket of onions. Kimmelman is writing about a city building that we’d all like to know more about, and he describes the history of the project well. But he is not writing about architecture.