The Muschamp Chronicles, Part 2

To read “The Muschamp Chronicles, Part 1,” click here.

Who is Herbert Muschamp? The Times architecture writer is the most obsessively dissected cultural critic in American journalism since Times theater critic Frank (“Butcher of Broadway”) Rich quit writing reviews and went to the op-ed page. Muschamp “is the only Times critic people talk about, people who don’t have any intellectual interest in culture,” says a friend of Culturebox’s who attends a lot of Manhattan dinner parties. “You go out to Southhampton and what other art critic do people talk about?” Another friend of Culturebox’s, an architect, says colleagues debate Muschamp’s articles at her dinner parties with a ferocity and resentment usually reserved for whoever is famous in architecture and design at the moment.

Two things about Muschamp’s criticism occasion most of the comment: his sensibility and his style. Muschamp has powerful preferences and states them baldly. He is an unabashed advocate of the architectural avant-garde, sharing its penchant for expressive irrationalism and intense emotions. Heading Muschamp’s pantheon are Frank O. Gehry, with his big, dreamy, curvilinear museums, and Rem Koolhaas, a designer of enormous neo-modernist complexes who is perhaps better known as a writer and provocateur. Koolhaas and Muschamp have a lot in common. Both men delight in embracing facets of contemporary life most people abhor. Koolhaas celebrates malls, airports, and traffic. Muschamp writes panegyrics to Donald Trump, whose “color, contentiousness, and comedy” titillate Muschamp, and empty public spaces, whose “aura of failure” and “consumptive pallor” he finds moving in a noir sort of way.

A corollary of Muschamp’s lust for the new, the bold, the dark, and the seemingly inexcusable is a disdain for postmodernism, with its fixation on the past, and historic preservationism, which Muschamp argues has devolved into a knee-jerk resistance to experimentation that has prevented New York City builders from, as he puts it, “committing” great architecture. These views, naturally, get him into trouble. They are “about 50 years out of date,” says Vincent Scully, a professor at Yale who is America’s leading architectural historian. “All this worship of invention, this worship of having something that nobody’s ever seen before, it doesn’t seem like it has a great deal to do with architecture.”

It is true that Muschamp sometimes seems to want to turn back the clock to an earlier time. For instance, he has little patience for contextualism. This is a doctrine that dates to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a book which dealt a slow-acting but nonetheless fatal blow to architectural modernism. In it, she lambasted urban renewal and its grand utopian aspirations and lobbied to have cities revert to a modest scale and old-fashioned uses. Muschamp defies an establishment still dominated by her followers when he criticizes the contemporary iteration of this civic credo, the New Urbanism, arguing that what was fresh in the 1960s has hardened into an instinct for the busy, the small, and the trite. (To Muschamp, the work of architect Michael Graves, the efforts of preservationists to scale back the grander trusses on the new Penn Station, and city officials who demand that new projects conform to their surroundings are all lamentable examples of the above.) It would also be fair to say that Muschamp’s affection for gorgeous shapes and big, crowd-drawing buildings is retrograde in its way, reminiscent of the aestheticism, formalism, and hero worship of midcentury modernism.

Muschamp’s writing is “about form and nothing but form,” one architect says, unhappily. “Architecture criticism ought to be about public life,” an architecture critic echoes. Another critic says Muschamp slights politics and economics, both of which are essential to understanding the large social undertaking that underlies every piece of architecture, in order to rant about beauty. Ira Stoll, who runs a Web site  devoted to attacking the Times, agrees that Muschamp “interprets architecture as something more akin to oil painting than to architecture.”

Muschamp’s style arouses as much controversy as his ideas. Fans call it engagé and perspicacious; detractors call it self-dramatizing and flaky. It’s certainly different from anything else you’re likely to read in the Times. Muschamp writes in the quasi-confessional mode, offering up his own feelings and associations as if they were clues to the proper response to a place or idea. Clearly, he believes they are. In a review of a new art museum in Houston by Rafael Moneo, Muschamp starts with reflections on the Texas heat, dwells for a moment on his feelings about air conditioning, moves on to reports (later refuted) about the melting of the polar ice cap, and belatedly turns to the building in question–a Mies van der Rohe-influenced square box. If it was actually a review you were wanting, you’d have done better to look elsewhere. But if you were willing to bear with a sweeping and daring if at moments completely incomprehensible essay on oil companies, culture, and the consciousness-raising possibilities of architecture and art museums, chances are you’d think you were in luck.

Muschamp’s most idiosyncratic and notorious bit of metaphor-making came at the end of his rave write-up of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. After leaving the building, he spotted a woman alone on the corner, and asked himself, “Why can’t a building catch a moment like that?” Then, he realized, “the reason I’d had that thought was that I’d just come from such a building. And that the building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” Startled by this leap in logic? Let Muschamp explain: What they share is that their style “is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive and exhibitionist. It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child. It can’t resist doing a dance with all the voices that say ‘No.’ It wants to take up a lot of space. And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let its dress fly up in the air.”

Is it possible to defend writing this immoderate? And what is it doing in the Times? (Tune in next week for the conclusion of “The Muschamp Chronicles.”)