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When the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp died recently from lung cancer, America lost one of its most riveting writers—one of the best critics we’ve ever had, and quite possibly among the worst.

It is difficult to laud a man who once compared a near-naked poster of Anthony Sabato Jr. to “classical sculpture” as one of the greatest critics of his generation. Yet Herbert Muschamp, the former New York Times architecture critic who passed away last month, was exactly that. Then again, anyone who compares Anthony Sabato Jr. to classical sculpture must also rank among the worst critics of his generation. Muschamp was that, too.

Some critics are tried, true, and trustworthy. Through their careers they keep a steady vigilance and, if their skills improve, their voices rarely change. Muschamp’s predecessors at the New York Times architecture critic post, Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger, fall in this category. Over their long careers, their critical perspectives may have sharpened or dulled, but the ways they deploy those perspectives remain constant. Huxtable, now the critic for the Wall Street Journal, is a product of the awakening of civic activism in the 1960s, and takes a controlled yet passionate approach to the question of architecture’s role within the urban fabric. Goldberger, who came of age as a critic in the 1980s, has a dead eye for the establishment center. Writing first at the Times and now the New Yorker, he has always been able to sum up the conventional wisdom in neat, efficient sentences that almost never offend.

“Dilettante,” he once told a friend, was a compliment.Then there is the critic who evolves, and who writes in a personal style that makes that evolution the driving force of their criticism. This is Muschamp. If Huxtable and Goldberger covered buildings because they were considered by others to be important or interesting, Muschamp covered buildings because he himself found them important or interesting. “I am not a disengaged critic,” he once said. “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.” There was no discerning third party—a client, the public—who could tell him what to cover. His aesthetic was his morality.

When Muschamp aligned his own morality with a keen social vision, as he did early in his career as the critic for Artforum and The New Republic, he could be among the most eloquent, forceful critics in print. But as he grew more renowned, moving to the Times post in 1993, his tight linkage of personal morality, aesthetics, and social good became loosened, and soon dissolved completely. By the time he was forced out of his roost in mid-2004, he had become, tragicomically, the thing his younger visage would have most hated to see in the mirror: A man who replaced morality with taste, who saw personal fulfillment as the end goal of all life’s endeavors, and who allowed friendships and professional connections to blindside him to the social value of criticism. He had become, in other words, a hack.

 

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Someday a small press somewhere will do the world a great service and produce a book of Herbert Muschamp’s early criticism. Before coming to the Times, he wrote for The New Republic for almost a decade; before that he spent nearly 15 years as a freelancer, during which time he wrote two books, ran the Parsons graduate program in criticism, and wrote criticism for Artforum. Muschamp, a Pennsylvania native, began his New York life hanging out around Andy Warhol’s Factory and playing the bespoke man about town, taking in art shows, night clubs, and theater, with forceful opinions about each. “Dilettante,” he once told a friend, was a compliment—it implied someone who could move, intellectually, among disciplines, seeing the subtle connections between art forms and ideas.

Muschamp eventually gravitated toward architecture (which Warhol once told him was “really the only thing left”), but he never seemed to have lost the dilettante’s edge. By the time he landed at The New Republic, he had turned that interdisciplinary sensibility toward social issues, and he produced essay after essay of insightful, surprising architectural criticism. He avoided reviewing the architects and architecture that everyone else was talking about. He was one of the first to identify Zaha Hadid as a rising star. He wrote a lengthy essay about Emilio Ambasz (who? Precisely). More importantly, he demanded that his readers—and, presumably, architects and his fellow critics—see architecture within a broader moral and social space. In a 1991 essay, he praised Denise Scott Brown for critiquing the artificial barrier between architecture and urban planning. Taste, he said, will always be an issue in architecture, but the genius of Scott Brown and her collaborator, Robert Venturi, was to ask “how architecture, as a social art, can tell us what we are as a society.”

As readers, we aren’t looking at a building with Muschamp. We are looking at Muschamp, looking at a building—and that makes all the difference.Muschamp was also unafraid of investing his pieces with the personal. As a gay man in 1980s New York, he saw firsthand the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and the public’s failure to respond to this and other problems plaguing urban America. Even worse than the public’s disinterest, in his mind, was the failure of the architectural community to do anything other than design pretty buildings for rich people. In a 1988 essay, he bemoaned how, during the 1980’s real-estate boom, “architects have been coming across as Satan’s decorators, hired flunkies retained to outfit this hell with a bit more dash,” having grown cynical of Modernism’s “responsibility to initiate reform.” And yet, he noted, “suppose you are an architect. If you live in New York, there’s a good chance you know more than one person who is sick with AIDS or has already died. You also know that AIDS is not only a disease but a cultural crisis, a crisis of faith in our power and will to solve problems and even to recognize them. So what are you going to do about it?”

But alongside Muschamp the moral critic came Muschamp the flaneur. Even in his early work, he brought a heavy dose of the subjectively kinesthetic: His reviews tour buildings not by zooming in and out of detail, omnisciently, but rather by moving through, on foot, with Muschamp as the guide. “Threading my way one afternoon through the labs’ vaporous innards, I remembered ‘stinks,’ colloquial for the natural sciences,” he writes in a review of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. “At the Salk, a classicist places himself at the service of the stinks … and in that subservience ennobles both.” As readers, we aren’t looking at a building with Muschamp. We are looking at Muschamp, looking at a building—and that makes all the difference.

 

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Muschamp’s writing at The New Republic brought him to the attention of Goldberger at the Times, who had by then moved to the culture editor post and was looking for a replacement. Early on, Muschamp’s writing didn’t change much. He wrote shorter articles, of course, being now a newspaper critic, and with an increasingly New York focus. He was welcome as an antidote to the anodyne Goldberger; moreover, he took on big game, like the city’s real estate industry. Ensconced at the Times, he seemed to feel that he could, finally, make a difference by speaking truth to power. In 1996, he praised a public-housing project in Berlin by Frank Gehry for its planning and concern for its social use and context. “Thoughtful planning reinforces this stability with schools, shopping and transportation in place before the city accepts bids,” he wrote. “It is a concept worth keeping in mind when contemplating the statistics about the gulf between the rich and poor in America.”

Sabato is, indeed, a handsome man. But in elevating an underwear ad to the plane of great art, Muschamp seemed to be flattening everything cultural into the consumable.But he soon discovered that people loved his voice, but that they could care less about his social views. In late 1990s America, concern about the country’s less fortunate took second place to the society-wide celebration of all that was cool and hip. City living was safe again, and readers demanded a critic who could tell them how to enjoy it. Muschamp took up the challenge. In 1998 he praised the new football stadium at Princeton as the sort of place that “would make a great location for a fashion shoot. But the fashions would have to be of a kind worn by those who understand the beauty of service to an ideal.” The value of a building was no longer rooted to its social function. Now, value lay in its appropriateness as a runway show backdrop.

There are a few obvious explanations to why Muschamp changed. At The New Republic, he was writing lengthy essays on grand historical topics and often long-dead architects; at the Times, he was covering new designs and new buildings, retrospective exhibits and even industry news. Pithiness and short deadlines do not make it easy to render thoughtful judgment. More importantly, Muschamp was now the center of his world, the columnist everyone read to find out what to think about the latest Gehry or Meier. Would it be surprising if it went to his head? By the late 1990s, he had stopped covering all but the most famous architects, and someone had to be especially big to justify bringing Muschamp out of New York. He lorded over the Times newsroom, demanding dibs on stories even when he didn’t ultimately write them.

His topics wandered, too, into decidedly non-architectural matters. In 1997, he wrote about a pair of leather jeans he bought at Century 21: “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.” And he veered toward the bizarre: In 1996, he wrote about a Times Square billboard of an underwear-clad Sabato Jr., calling it “a worthy, if fleeting, addition to the classic tradition of civic sculpture.” Sabato is, indeed, a handsome man. But in elevating an underwear ad to the plane of great art, Muschamp seemed to be flattening everything cultural into the consumable—morality and society had no place in a worldview that judged everything by its ability to deliver instant, though momentary, gratification.

The end began in 2002, when he presided over a Times Magazine special issue on the rebuilding plans for Ground Zero. A design competition was under way, and many people felt that Muschamp’s editorial involvement in picking the architects featured in the issue—many of whom were also in the competition—crossed a line. Then, Muschamp, having backed Daniel Libeskind and savaged his opponent, Rafael Vinoly, proceeded to switch positions and savage Libeskind, praising Vinoly as if nothing had happened.

Perhaps he was deluded with power. But anyone who’s read his forceful early writings will have a hard time imagining the same author giving in to the appeal of important friends and easy praise. The real answer lies elsewhere. Underlying so much of his later writing is a sense of anomie, of cynical detachment that played at kinesthetic joy but was really going through the motions. He didn’t seem to care. At a MoMA conference in April 1999, he mounted the stage, unlit cigarette in hand, and ranted at length. “We’ve seen great movies,” an item in New York magazine reported he said, “but we haven’t seen one fucking building, okay? And if that’s put in the same category of spectacle with Disney, goody!”

Drunk ravings? Perhaps. But more likely the frustrated expectorations of a man who has simply had too much of the glitz and bling of celebrity architecture. Having landed at the center of the critical universe, it’s possible that he soon found that he could not, in fact, change the world. He could make a reputation, as he did in a lengthy appraisal of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, but he couldn’t make people care more about the built environment. People no longer wanted that from their critics, if they ever did; even Huxtable, by that time at the Wall Street Journal, had been relegated to an obscure corner of the paper.

In a 1988 column for The New Republic, Muschamp lashed out at theory-draped styles in postmodern architecture as a cover for the deepening class divide of 1980s yuppie New York:

We have seen, in this same seven years, how flatteringly Postmodernism has camouflaged the mental vacuum of young urban professionalism; how ‘the classical tradition’ has been called forth to validate regressive notions of social privilege; how all these spotlit Corinthian columns, real and simulated marbles, broken pediments, and assorted country squire paraphernalia have been assembled to lend the illusion of weight and substance to transient, cupidinous lives.

So with the subject, so with the writer. Perhaps Muschamp’s desultory turn to the solipsistically superficial was just a reflection of a subconscious sense that he too had become camouflage for “transient, cupidinous lives.”
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen