Critic Muschamp mixed reason, desire

Times Staff Writer

Herbert Muschamp’s writing, like the buildings he favored, reflected a tug of war between reason and desire.

During the first few years of his tenure as architecture critic for the New York Times, reason mostly held the upper hand. After taking over from Paul Goldberger in 1992, Muschamp, who died Tuesday night of lung cancer at 59, produced well-behaved, well-argued essays on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the New York subway system and Camden Yards, the retro baseball stadium in Baltimore.

Reading through his archive this week, I realized I’d forgotten how often in those early years he traveled to Los Angeles. He championed work by Franklin Israel, Eric Owen Moss and Frederick Fisher and closely tracked the development of Frank Gehry’s design for Walt Disney Concert Hall. He filed a memorable dispatch from Richard Meier’s Getty Center as it was under construction, describing it as a “nascent citadel”: “the Acropolis in reverse, a lofty urban landmark on the rise instead of one in ruin.”


He was here when the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994. It bounced him out his bed at the Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica and threatened to bring down the whole building on top of him. He recovered quickly enough to write one of his most memorable opening paragraphs: “Buildings aren’t supposed to murder architecture critics. It’s meant to be the other way around.”

His praise for certain L.A. architects was inseparable from his frustration with the lack of exciting new architecture in New York. His complaints on that subject had the regularity, and the predictability, of a drumbeat. “New York architecture has withdrawn into a solipsistic bubble of falsified history, calcified thought, careerist exploitation, risk-management, sycophancy and social striving,” he wrote.

As he settled into the New York Times post, he tried on a first-person voice for size and found he quite liked it. He wrote more often, and with more evident ease, about gay culture. He described stays at the famed Casa Malaparte on Capri, Italy, where he lived out “a fantasy of plunging headlong into a beauty freak’s paradise,” and at Philippe Starck’s Delano Hotel in Miami, where “the intimacy imposed by the design forced me to realize I was getting more attention from the chairs than from a companion whose gaze seldom strayed from Mr. Starck’s striking full-length mirror.”

In those years, as the balance between reason and desire reached a highly productive equilibrium, Muschamp achieved a rare feat: He became the most readable and the most influential of any American critic covering any field. His writing crackled with life. He was a camp Frank Rich.

In part, he found success because he showed a deep awareness of his own split personality. The architects he found most compelling displayed the same division. He wrote at length about Rem Koolhaas’ attempts to merge grids with spirals, attempts that in Muschamp’s mind conveyed “a spiritual message. The square is a symbol of reason, the spiral a sign of romance. In synthesizing these forms, Mr. Koolhaas shows that clarity and reason are not the enemies of romanticism; they are the essential preconditions for it.”

In another essay on Koolhaas, Muschamp put it slightly differently, as if describing his own evolution as a critic: “Reason is contorted by desire.”


And desire was more fun. In 1997, after the Museum of Modern Art announced a shortlist of firms competing to design its expansion, Muschamp crisply summarized the dilemmas facing the aging institution at the end of the century. Then he closed the piece by saying of the chosen architects and the museum: “I hope they won’t forget that it’s also one of the world’s great spots for dating.”

Later that year, he wrote a piece that quickly became infamous. It was about buying a pair of black vinyl Versace jeans, and it included references to Coleridge, Playboy and the Psychic Friends Network. “When I got home and tried them on,” he wrote, “I looked as if I had tied two black plastic garbage bags around my legs. I stood up straight and sucked in my gut. Garbage bags. What a letdown.”

Was Muschamp getting bored with architecture? It sure seemed that way. Then a building came along a decade ago to revive his flagging interest as well as lift architecture as a whole: Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in the Basque region of Spain. Muschamp praised the design unabashedly, calling it a miracle, “a Lourdes for a crippled culture.”

Many of us saw that piece as the most important piece of architectural criticism written in the last several decades and the moment when the balance in Muschamp’s work tipped for good in the direction of desire -- and self-regard. The Bilbao essay became a template for his new approach: The first third of a Muschamp piece, the part most carefully tended by editors, was tightly argued. The middle third moved into speculative, wide-ranging cultural references, often to icons of gay culture. And then, in the last third, as if the editors had simply given up, the whole thing flew off the rails.

He was soon feeling the need to defend himself. “I am not a disengaged critic,” he announced in 2000. “The cultural dimension of building stirs me emotionally. I have minimal interest in personalities or politics, except as these play out on a symbolic or allegorical plane. Architecture’s practical dimension is one of the things that make it exciting to write about, but the practicalities do not lack outspoken advocates.”

After Sept. 11, however, they did. When at the end of 2002 the planners at the World Trade Center site gave up on an unimaginative rebuilding process that Muschamp and others had ridiculed, and instead arranged an international design competition that drew entries from the stars of the profession, he felt vindicated.


“Thanks entirely to public pressure, our great city has taken a giant step toward reclaiming a place of world leadership in the civil art of building,” he wrote grandly.

The problem was that it wasn’t a step forward. It was a smoke screen. Muschamp was patting himself on the back so vigorously that he failed to point out -- or perhaps to notice -- that the political and economic realities of the rebuilding process hadn’t shifted. Instead, celebrity architecture had been enlisted to distract the public from the fact that the Ground Zero master plan still called for rebuilding 10 million square feet of office space on a parcel of land controlled by New York Gov. George Pataki and the developer Larry Silverstein.

Muschamp had been confronted with the biggest test any American architecture critic had ever faced, and failed it spectacularly. Virtually all critics did, of course. But he was perhaps the only one with the authority to steer the process onto another track.

Before long, some of his pieces began to read like parodies. He wrote again and again about the same small group of architects. His prose style grew floridly predictable. Names, titles, adjectives, linked by commas and followed by a colon: This was the backward, mannered way he arranged his sentences.

Even in his most self-indulgent pieces, however, there was almost always a paragraph or two of pure insight -- writing sharp and unexpected enough to make me reconsider a building or an architect I thought I knew inside and out. And Muschamp always insisted on the importance of standards, in a way that was charmingly and bravely old-fashioned, not to mention seemingly at odds with his increasing subjectivity. He maintained that it was not just possible but crucial to declare that one building is better than another. He asserted that architects could be “qualitatively ranked.”

Those aren’t popular notions these days, but real criticism is impossible if you believe otherwise.