Michael Bierut | Essays

Rest in Peace, Herbert Muschamp

Herbert Muschamp, File Under Architecture, 1974. Photo by David Reinfurt.

Herbert Muschamp used to drive me crazy. Like a lot of people I knew, I found his architectural criticism in the New York Times infuriating. Willfully personal, riddled with non-sequiturs, idiosyncratic to the point of surrealism, a new Muschamp piece in the morning culture pages would inevitably have the emails flying by lunchtime: can you believe what he wrote this time? When he stepped down five years ago, many in the architecture and design community expressed relief. Finally, it was hoped, we'd get some responsible design criticism.

And yet nothing would be the same. I remember reading one of the first major pieces by his successor, first slowly and then skimming ahead with mounting anxiety, realizing wait, you mean there's not going to be a Zuzu Pitts reference? For Muschamp had changed the way we think about buildings, and about cities, and about places, by introducing a new focus on the way we feel about them. It was bold, it was liberating, it was fun, and it was irrevocable.

At the height of his powers in 2002, I wrote a bit of faux-Muschampiana on a private dare. The first preliminary design studies for the World Trade Center site were about to be unveiled; the original master planning firm (anti-starchitects with a reputation for thoughtful contextualism rather than formal acrobatics) was not one of Muschamp's favorites; I thought I could predict how the review would read. It was fun to write. I simply had to work from a mental punchlist of Muschamp tropes: outré movie references, inappropriate sexually-charged metaphors, sweeping incontrovertible declarations, and, of course, the requisite roll call of the moment's hottest names.

I didn't intend it for public consumption, but it somehow snuck out there, and circulated for a time in the pre-bloggified design community. I heard Muschamp had seen it. Someone passed on his response, something like, wasn't he the only one who was truly qualified to write Herbert Muschamp parodies?

He was right, of course. I sense I am not alone to discover, to my surprise, how much I miss his writing, and how affected I was by his death — at 59, far too early — last week. By way of tribute, then, and with strong encouragement to go back and read some of the real thing, I offer my own attempt to channel that unique voice. Rest in peace, Herbert Muschamp.

Just As I Expected, These Plans Suck

A Critical Appraisal
Special to the New York Times

Striding down the row of design proposals for the World Trade Center site, balefully eyeing each inert mien and artificially enhanced plan, I was reminded of the scene in "Showgirls" where the choreographer grimly surveys his topless charges. Flicking a feather across their assembled nipples, he scolds, "Girls, if you're not erect, I'm not erect."

Ladies and gentlemen, I've seen the master plan proposals from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and, to put it mildly, I'm not erect.

My heart sank as I watched John Beyer of the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle attempt to describe these hapless proposals. I was painfully reminded of another much more casual presentation one glorious autumn on Capri. The visionary Rem Koolhaas was holding forth on urban planning, shopping, life, and the smell of freshly cut basil. Wearing beautifully tailored trousers and a tight, cropped black top - need I add it was by Prada? - he gestured energetically as he spoke. With each gesture, his shirt rode up ever so slightly, revealing a tantalizing sliver of tan, taut tummy.

It is this kind of energetic gesture that those of us who care about contemporary architecture hunger for so desperately. Beyer Blinder Belle's work is occasionally competent: certainly their by-the-numbers renovation of Grand Central Terminal pleases the hordes of moronic commuters who stream through it each day, but it will come as no surprise that this recidivist pile of marble is of little interest to the infinitely more important audience of attractive young European architectural students who make pilgrimages to our city each year and can barely choke back their tears of disappointment. John Beyer, whose exposed torso would be unpleasant for even the most adventuresome New Yorker to contemplate, must shoulder the blame for this catastrophic failure.

It is now time to list these names: Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Elizabeth Diller and Ric Scofidio, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Steven Holl, and, of course, Rem Koolhaas. There.

Is a little daring, a little excitement, a little sexiness too much to ask for on this sacred site? Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chairman John Whitehead and New York governor George Pataki would do well to rent a videotape of "All About Eve" and examine Bette Davis's behavior before the big party scene. Her character Margo Channing reaches into a candy dish and hesitates again and again before finally popping a candy into her mouth. This tantalizing motif — impulse, surrender, gratification — is the central one of the twenty-first century. It alone must provide the ideological blueprint for all architectural work being done anywhere in the world, including Lower Manhattan. If this fails to make sense to the theme-park obsessed corporate apologists for big business, so be it.

In the interest of full disclosure, my proposal for the site will be revealed at a time and place of my choosing. Fasten your seatbelts, New York.

Posted in: Architecture, Media, Obituaries

Comments [10]

So I have been told that architecture is so more exciting in most parts of Europe cities than NY. Never been to neither but looking through my Flickr on widgets, and also my extensive research on great looking buildings, I can't wait to be in Tokyo !

The future society needs more passion in their creators of the great, big expensive buildings.
Inspiring piece I must say !
razif oh nas

ZaSu Pitts.

Spot on parody piece. I'm erect!

haha, genius.

I lived for Muschamp's pieces on architecture when I was doing my Interior Design degree at Parsons: always made me think, and laugh, and encourage me to "do better" in every piece I worked on.

Thanks so much for the fab parody -- far too soon, indeed, for those of us in our fifties.
L.M. Cunningham

Great parody, sweet tribute. That said ... Well, this is ungallant of me, his death being so recent and all, but I really think his influence on architecture, criticism, and journalism was bad, bad, double-bad, awful. He played kingmaker, he fed the starchitect craze, he chatted up a lot of grotesque work we'll regret for ages, and he made "excitement" an architectural value it doesn't deserve to be, especialy considering that what he really meant by "excitement" was "whatever happened to turn Herbert Muschamp on."

Well, really, what I think was awful was less him and his p-o-v -- no harm in someone being a radical Frenchie '68-lovin' Warhol-factory over-exhilarated high-on-ego maniac. Such people have something to contribute, sometimes. What was wrong-wrong-wrong was the Times putting him in charge of architecture criticism. As a yapper from the sidelines he might have been alright. As the head judge at the Supreme Court he was a disaster.
Michael Blowhard

Many, many years ago when I lived in New Mexico for what seemed an eternity the East Coast design/architecture world decided that Santa Fe was the place to be. Dutifully, the NY Times sent Mr. Muschamp out to Santa Fe to cover the nonexistent waterfront. When I read his published observation on the State Capital I knew that he was someone who could not be fooled by hype generated by the Chamber of Commerce, the Tourist Bureau or by the Friends Groups organized by the local arts organizations. When Muschamp pronounced Santa Fe an "Adobe Theme Park", he called it right on the money. After I moved to New York I trusted his opinions even when his acerbic comments cut very close to home. Those cutting remarks had a core of accuracy. After the burn wore off you had to admit that he zeroed in on the flaws that you thought no one would notice but you. And he never let up. If he knew you could deliver more he would demand more. His reviews never degenerated into glorified advertisements. He had a way of keeping you honest. This is what criticism should be.

Actually, it's been only three years since Herbert Muschamp's own editor at the New York Times, Jonathan Landman, upon hearing in June 2004 -- presumably from Muschamp himself -- that Muschamp was bowing to the institutional realities (cruelties?) of the Times and of architecture itself, used the pages of the New York Observer to gossip about this delicious turn of events.

How long did Landman wait before spreading the news -- days? minutes? The Times itself -- the "paper of record" -- didn't even bother to take official notice.

Not to thank a writer who, over the course of 12 years, had repaid the paper's original investment in him by becoming the most influential architecture critic in the world -- in the process, attracting a large and devoted audience of readers for whom his essays quickly became required reading.

Not to mark the changing of the guard.

Not even to to congratulate itself for having poached as Muschamp's replacement yet another writer from the Los Angeles Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff.

No, Muschamp just stopped being the architecture critic. And Ouroussoff just started.

In a telling irony, it was Ouroussoff -- the most obvious beneficiary of Herbert Muschamp's "fall" -- who penned Muschamp's Times obituary. Writing with the same gratuitous dispassion that characterized Landman's remarks in 2004, Ouroussoff -- whose own critical and writerly powers hold not a candle to Muschamp's -- dismissed Muschamp's writing as "quirky" and "self-indulgent."

Just as well, Ouroussoff was saying, that Muschamp, as he put it, "left the critic's post" in 2004.

Of course, everyone knows that Herbert Muschamp did not "step down" of his own accord -- that he did not "set the timetable," as Jon Landman told the Observer in 2004.

These words and phrases -- "quirky"; "self-indulgent"; "left"; "stepped down" -- are euphemisms; and they have been repeated over and over and over these last three years as mantras of self-absolution from an architecture and design community that smelled Muschamp's blood early and after that regarded him very little, for the most part, except to watch him twist in the wind or give his dangling body an extra spin.

At any rate, three years of turn-of-the-century Muschamp would have felt like one -- not five. And the fact that it feels like five now is, more than anything else, an indictment of the one who sits very small in Muschamp's very large chair.
John Lumea

The response above points to something rather obvious and unsaid in Beirut's post: that Muschamp, despite being "quirky" and "self-indulgent" was actually a terrific commentator on design in general - and how many of those have we the audience enjoyed?. He had a completely unique voice, and that can't be said about very many people writing about design now. (You could compare him to Pauline Kael, right? And people made fun of her writiing, but did that make her less influential or even fun to read, still?) So instead of running Beirut's tired old parody of Muschamp's voice, it would have been more becoming of Beirut and Design Observer to run a real tribute unsullied by such blatant solipsism.

Herbert said what he thought, and seemingly unfettered by the overarching, overlooking, over-the-shoulder antics of the so called giants, who where they to stab him in the back as he smacked the keyboard. He was what a journalist was meant to be, what we expect.
He offered the opportunity to look beyond the glitter. But usually it seemed, looking for more.
Recent Manhattan banality, WTC7, Hearst at the top of the heap, will run unchallenged, accepted by the sprinkling of gold dust from afar and nearby those who pride conformance with the party line, and too many Manhattans slid down by another.

It's always about you isn't it Michael?

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