Agents provocateurs have a dismal survival rate at the culturally conservative New York Times, but for 12 years, starting in 1992, architecture critic Herbert Muschamp not only survived but prevailed, emerging as one of the most compelling voices on its pages—and anywhere else in the United States, for that matter.
Muschamp was unpredictably wicked and wise, flamboyant and sincere, superficial and penetrating, but when his stars aligned, he transcended the subject. He wrote in real time, forging his thinking as he wrote, discovering his article. Insight after insight, he seemed to bleed his thoughts on the page as he invented paths, straight and tangential, through knotty issues. Never facile—despite the battering pace of his production—he took his readers to rarefied and daring journalistic places, mixing the simple and the abstruse in dense yet highly erudite essays. There was seldom an arc to his reviews, but along his episodic trajectories he laid small and large detonations. Often the dense articles merited two or three readings. He eschewed the optic of the gentleman connoisseur reacting with his refined taste buds and wrote instead as an existentialist of honesty. He cut through sentiment and made a point of challenging received wisdom and sacred cows as he chased truth into uncomfortable zones.
A cultural critic disguised as an architecture critic, Muschamp turned up the heat on the subject and produced burning pages that rescued American architecture criticism from tired subjects and flaccidity. A natural radical with a baroque persona that he never masked, he sometimes emerged as the subject of his pieces. Nonetheless, he always maintained, perhaps disingenuously, that the role of a critic was simply to explain the building.
Besides his magisterial career at the Times, Muschamp wrote as the critic of The New Republic from 1987 to 1992, and he created and headed the architecture and design criticism program at Parsons in New York. In 1974, MIT published File Under Architecture, his precocious and impassioned rant about the disappointing state of the profession; in 1985, MIT brought out Man About Town, in which Muschamp tried to reconcile Frank Lloyd Wright's oppositional identities as a prairie architect working in the city.
Muschamp, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1947, died Oct. 2 at the age of 59, months after learning he had lung cancer. He quit smoking the day he learned about his disease.
FROM “THE SECRET HISTORY OF 2 COLUMBUS CIRCLE,”THE NEW YORK TIMES, JAN. 8, 2006
I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the old, relentlessly mourned Pennsylvania Station was a dismal piece of architecture. A late arrival in the City Beautiful movement, the building tried to augment meager conviction with extreme colonnades. Walking into its cold, cavernous spaces was like arriving in Philadelphia two hours before you had to. But so what if Penn Station wasn't Grand Central? It was a crime to tear down a building that had become so deeply impregnated with New York's emotional life. The yawning interiors had a distinctive atmosphere. Like a vast sponge for intense expectations, the station soaked up the psychic energy of arrival, departure, separation, reunion and waiting that had accumulated over the years along with the soot, water damage and flimsy commercial intrusions. The station met the new arrival with a dare: can you make the big city know that you're alive? There's nothing like debased Beaux-Arts design for throwing out a frigid welcome.
TWO ARCHITECTS REFLECT ON MUSCHAMP Frank Gehry: “Herbert was at ease with an unparalleled range of influences, from Proust to Twyla Tharp, Balanchine to Gabriel Fauré, Seneca to Walter Benjamin. A remarkable mind. We never talked about architecture he wrote about.”
Richard Meier: “Herbert was phenomenal. No one wrote the way he did, with such a perceptive eye and strong opinion. After Ada Louise Huxtable, he brought architecture criticism to a new level. He'll certainly be missed. It would be helpful for the next generation of young architectural historians and writers to look to Herbert for guidance. There's a strong interest now in thoughtful criticism, on the part of the public as well as the profession, in no small part because he helped create it.”