March 1, 2008
Questions for Alexandre Nucinovitski
The Times’s longtime architecture critic breaks his silence and reveals what compelled him to come forward with his allegations, how high up the conspiracy goes, and what (or who) is the “Bilbao-12.”
Some have suggested that your dismissal from the paper was imminent and that your recent indictment of your peers is nothing more than a marketing ploy to promote your upcoming book.
I came close to jumping ship several years ago—right after Architectonica opened its new hotel in Times Square—but they threw us a bone and let us go to town on it, sensing that the public would become overly suspicious if we showered it with praise. Then, two years ago, I was all set to break ranks again, following the universal praise for the Morphosis student dormitory in Toronto, but they preempted me by awarding Mayne the Pritzker, thereby making any attack open to attack. My tipping point came following the opening of the addition to the Denver Art Museum. At first they tried to appease me by granting me a paragraph to vent my frustrations—as long as it was limited to something trivial, like its functionality—but the night before I was to send in my review, I had a nightmare that I was trapped in a maze of Serra sculptures while thousands of people looked down from their office windows and laughed at me.
In your letter of resignation/suicide note you make numerous references to the “Bilbao-12.” Can you ex-plain what this was?
The Bilbao-12 was an “informal” meeting of twelve of the top architecture critics that took place just prior to the opening of the Guggenheim. Due to pending legal actions, I’m unable to reveal any names except to say that the meeting was also attended by a high-ranking deputy from the World Bank, an economic adviser from the UN, and a Washington lobbyist from the aluminum and titanium industries. The case was made for using architecture to revitalize the economies of postindustrial cities by establishing a brotherhood of “superstar” architects who would generate spectacles bolstered by our reviews, creating “architourism,” or what has become known today as the “Bilbao Effect.” I should mention that we were also handed a list of complex words and terminologies that we were encouraged to use in our writings in the hope that they would find their way into the architectural vernacular, thereby confusing the public and allowing the acrobats to pass through board hearings with minimal opposition.
And money changed hands?
At first they were quite discreet—small gifts started showing up wherever we went: Italian leather–bound sketchbooks, gold-tipped Mont Blanc pens, and gift certificates to the MoMA shop. But their plan worked better than anyone expected: even cities like Akron, Ohio, rose from the ashes with “must-see architecture.” Naturally, the value of our cooperation became invaluable. First-class plane tickets to places like Machu Picchu and Bhutan appeared in our mailboxes; vivacious escorts with master’s degrees in architecture—able to recite Learning from Las Vegas while assuming any structural position, from what I was told—greeted us in our hotel lobbies. And finally came the money: special DVD editions of My Architect were hand-delivered to our rooms, and when inserted into the player, a weeping Bangladeshi man was dubbed over to reveal the number of a Swiss bank account.
So how high up does this go?
It’s the entire system: from the part-time copywriters to the highest echelons of government. Most don’t even know they’re a part of it—they just get caught up in the euphoria. You have to understand what’s at stake here. If a new building fails to impress, the economic losses can be staggering—not to mention the backlash that can wipe out political careers.
What do you plan to do next in your life?
I’ve recently been hired by a new foundation in Seattle called ABBA (Arrogant Buildings by Bigheaded Architects) that assists museum directors and other heads of institutions in re-programming leftover space that has absolutely no use.