The Muschamp Chronicles, Part 1

Readers turning to the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section a couple of Sundays ago found on its front page an article  that may have seemed less like a work of journalism than a political speech, since it began with a self-deprecating joke: “We were getting a lot of mail from readers complaining that I never write about New York buildings, so my employers decided to build one.” The author, Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for the Times,  actually writes frequently about New York buildings, mostly to attack them as dull. He was winking at us. Since Times editors don’t allow self-referential shtick into their pages very often, this was the tip-off that something unusual was in the offing.

The subject of the 4,466-word article was straightforward enough–the winner of a competition to build the newspaper’s new Times Square headquarters–but you needed a graduate degree in Times protocol to keep track of all the roles Muschamp played in writing it. First there was Muschamp the critic, reviewing the design proposed by the winning architect, Renzo Piano. Then there was Muschamp the Times employee, who wasn’t in a position to judge his bosses’ decision too severely. There was also Muschamp the Times representative, who had to be gracious to the three losing finalists who had gone to the considerable trouble of entering the contest in the first place. Muschamp juggled the apparently conflicting rhetorical requirements imposed by these roles–the need for tough-mindedness and the need to brown-nose and be generous seemed particularly at odds–by praising Piano strongly but praising one set of finalists (Frank O. Gehry and David Childs) even more strongly, then attacking another finalist (Cesar Pelli) harshly. Muschamp thereby sacrificed a modicum of graciousness to gain the aura of independence.

Don’t get dizzy yet. We have only skimmed the surface of Muschamp’s complicated relationship to this story. Muschamp, it turned out, hadn’t merely observed the competition. He was part of the committee that judged it. This  means that Muschamp’s review also had the status of an official explanation for the choice of Piano. There was still more. Muschamp had news to divulge, and so his last job in this article was that of reporter. Gehry and his New York partner, Childs, of the estimable New York firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, had reportedly been front-runners before they abruptly withdrew, a week or so before the winner was announced. Muschamp was there to shed light on this mystery.

Now, Culturebox would never condemn an essayist for conflicts of interest. Slate has long had a policy of encouraging as many conflicts as possible–as long as they are revealed–on the ground that writers engaged with their subjects often have more compelling things to say. But letting one man enmesh himself in quite so many entanglements is a departure for the normally stern Times. And the article, though brilliant and honest in its way, begged some big questions. Should the nation’s most prominent architecture critic have been allowed so much influence over a process involving so many of his usual subjects? Should he have been assigned to write the article announcing the winner and covering the scandal of one architect’s withdrawal? Why did Gehry pull out, anyway?

Whatever answers journalism professors give to the first two questions, the fact that the Times said yes to both is the most interesting thing about this story. In Muschamp, clearly, the paper has a critic it trusts to a nearly unprecedented degree. Just look at how the Times let Muschamp handle the Gehry debacle. For actual information, you had to turn to Paul Goldberger’s story in The New Yorker, which came out the next day. According to Goldberger, who appears to have interviewed Gehry, the architect stepped aside because he thought that the Times and its real estate development company were behaving more like nervous corporate clients than like committed patrons of architecture.

We don’t know whether Muschamp asked Gehry for his reasons, because the critic didn’t say. Instead, he offered up some speculations that may have been alluding to the scenario Goldberger sketched out, but in such oblique and high-flown language you couldn’t be sure. Gehry, an architect Muschamp knows well and has championed passionately in the past, has said he needs to love and be loved by his clients. Muschamp hypothesized that Gehry felt that his feelings for the Times were not reciprocated. Muschamp understood this sentiment, he said: “I once offered my resignation here for the simple reason that I felt I wasn’t appreciated in proportion to the energy I was putting in.” He had been wrong, Muschamp added, and so was Gehry. Muschamp then began to escalate the intensity of his romantic references–“The Times does not typically wear its heart on its sleeve,” he wrote, implying that it should have in this case–until he concluded with a quote from a poem by W.H.Auden urging readers to seize all fleeting moments of desire, all possible physical contact: “There’s no sex life in the grave.”

So who is this man the Times allowed to deliver such a public and strangely loving tongue-lashing? (Tune in tomorrow for  Part 2 of “The Muschamp Chronicles.”)