Like the man himself, Hearts of the City: The Selected Writings of Herbert Muschamp (Knopf, $50) is going to offend a lot of people. The book is nearly 900 pages long, the vast bulk of it in the form of 1,500-word articles written during Muschamp’s 12-year stint as The New York Times’ architecture critic. Who deserves 900 pages? How dare he?
Nevertheless, Hearts of the City, edited and with an introduction by Muschamp’s Times successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff, is worth reading for three reasons. First, because it preserves at least some of Muschamp’s writing from The New Republic, some of the sharpest and most morally attuned architectural criticism ever written. (Full disclosure: I also once worked at The New Republic, though we missed each other by a decade.) In one essay, included in the book, Muschamp denounced the then-hot trend of critical theory. “The sad thing about theory,” he wrote, “is that what could have been a valuable tool for analysis ended up instead as just another means of production, a mechanism for grinding out dissertations, pictures, art criticism, careers.”
But through the 1990s, Muschamp’s voice grew less clear, less assertive. He began to slather praise on a klatch of architects—Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel—and virtually ignore the rest. By 2004, when he was eased out of the critic’s desk at the Times, only his diehard friends—the few he hadn’t alienated with his erratic social behavior—were sad to see him go.
Those are the standard criticisms of Muschamp, and those looking for supporting evidence will easily find it in the book. But there is a second reason to read Hearts of the City. Muschamp, the collection illustrates, was only incidentally focused on architecture. His real project was to document the imprint left on late-century urban life by gay culture.
Over the course of his career, Muschamp constructed a reading of 20th century social and art history linking urban gay culture, non-Bauhaus Modernism, Surrealism, and psychoanalysis, one he explicitly outlines in his lengthy essay “The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle,” the “white marble bonbon” of a Manhattan museum that had so often—and with good reason, he argues—been called a “queer building.” The essay comes at the end of the book, and on reading it, one realizes how prevalent these themes are in all of Muschamp’s work. It’s like a magician finally revealing his secrets.
Muschamp believed that gay culture is the dark matter of urban life: Often invisible, it nevertheless holds the whole thing together. Throughout the 20th century, he posits, gay culture aligned itself with “alternative” modernisms, including surrealism and expressionism, in part because they, too, existed in a subaltern state relative to aggressive (but safe) movements like the International Style and Abstract Expressionism. All were at one point labeled and dismissed as “alternative,” even as they provided vital energy to mainstream society: 2 Columbus Circle, he writes, embodied “a willingness to accept the idea that many different approaches to painting, writing, or architecture can flourish at the same time.”
For Muschamp, it is no accident that the end of doctrinaire Modernism in the 1960s coincided with gay America’s emergence from the urban closet—both were made possible by the implosion of the dominant culture. Then, in the same way that an emancipated gay culture began to rebuild urban spaces during the 1970s, alternative Modernisms began to regain momentum in the early work of Peter Eisenman, Gehry, Nouvel, and Koolhaas. Both movements, he writes, pursued “the rebuilding of continuity with past forms that were still viable, above all the form of the urban center itself.” And both were aligned against the dehumanizing effects of corporate capital, expressed in the ’70s and ’80s in the form of massive real-estate speculation, itself closely aligned with business-friendly Postmodernism.
The story of this struggle—between corporatized urban spaces and the new urban flowering seeded by gay urban pioneers, between soulless Postmodernism and the humanistic, socially engaged work of Gehry & Co.—is the story Muschamp wants to tell us, the conventional obligations of the architecture critic be damned. It is a great story, but is it accurate? Have these architects, like urban gay culture, actually made the city better?
Early Muschamp would have said no, for the same reasons he savaged Postmodernism. Later on, though, he was unable to see that no matter how good Gehry or Nouvel might be, their projects are not exempt from the privatization of public space, the impoverishment of civil society, or any of the other social ills Muschamp linked to their stylistic predecessors.
This, then, is the third reason to read Hearts of the City: as the tragic story of a critic who becomes so emotionally invested in a cause that he loses the ability to do his job effectively. Muschamp had his reasons, of course. But as the critic for the nation’s most esteemed newspaper, he had an obligation to maintain an analytical distance, or at least to respect the line between advocacy and sycophancy.