The Muschamp Chronicles, Part 3

At the end of Part 2 of “The Muschamp Chronicles,” Culturebox asked: Is it possible to defend writing as immoderate as Herbert Muschamp’s?

A quick way out of the box Culturebox has (redundantly) backed herself into is to say that taste in criticism is personal, and stop there. Why analyze a newspaper critic so minutely? Because by dint of his position at the Times, Muschamp could become the most consequential architecture critic of our time. On the strength of his style, some would argue, he already is. That means that, like the art critic Clement Greenberg in his day, Muschamp is poised to shape the public’s understanding of beauty for at least a generation. Plus, Muschamp’s flamboyantly partisan prose forces an interesting issue: What we should value more in popular criticism, provocativeness or fair-mindedness?

Muschamp’s writing is of a piece with the architecture he champions, and grappling with his strengths and weaknesses also gives us a chance to grapple with theirs. His prose is subjective, expansive, and fraught with emotion. Like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Daniel Libeskind, Philippe Starck, Rafael Vinoly, Zaha Hadid, and Thom Mayne–the architects Muschamp focuses on, largely to the exclusion of others–Muschamp prizes intensity of feeling over a sense of balance. Like them, he eschews rationality (though he is not illogical) and strict functionalism, the idea that every physical detail must have its practical use. Muschamp’s obvious ambition is to use his criticism to formulate an architectural poetics, one you’d have to call lyrical in its preoccupation with self. 

One of Muschamp’s most endearing qualities, in fact, is his eagerness to rehabilitate such disparaged varieties of self-regard as vanity and narcissism. This ironic reversal is the point of his paean to Jean Nouvel’s proposed hotel complex on the Brooklyn waterfront. The design, he writes, “with its mirrors, its views, its white glass reflections … refracts into crystalline form New York’s exquisite and infuriating narcissism, a town enthralled by its cinematic panoramas and animated by the yearning of its citizens to star in them.” As it happens, local boards fiercely oppose the development, saying that it ignores the needs of the community. Muschamp deftly turns their own words against them, accusing them of group narcissism–the wrong kind, it would seem, because it is less knowing than Nouvel’s: “The opponents seem to be fighting their own reflection in a mirror.”

To sum up Muschamp’s views with all due reductiveness: Beauty to the point of vanity, ironic self-consciousness, and urban glamour–good; preservation, environmental impact statements, and social concern–bad, or worse, dreary. After decades in which an almost oppressively responsible neighborliness was the prevailing architectural ethos, Muschamp’s insouciance has the often underrated virtue of being surprising. Plus, he makes a good case for it. “Architecture’s practical dimension,” he writes, needs no advocates. “The metaphoric dimension is less easily grasped,” he continues. “The symbolic level is where architecture itself kicks in. … My job is to say: architecture is real.”

Symbolism has its limitations, though. For one thing, Muschamp overlooks anything that doesn’t conform to his vision of the avant-garde. He “has completely missed the boat on green architecture,” says one architect who, like every architect interviewed for this piece, didn’t want to be named. He was referring to a movement that seeks to reconfigure the exploitative relationship between technology and nature. Green architects prize self-effacing and ecologically self-sustaining designs and often eschew the pointed egotistical statements Muschamp likes so much. The Times critic seems to have eyes only for big buildings designed by big-name architects.

The bigger problem, however, lies not so much in what Muschamp covers as in what he says about it. Muschamp often seems to imply that it’s enough for architects to comment wittily on the political and economic structures underlying the creation of their work, rather than, say, work dutifully to alleviate their harsher effects. But the emphasis on consciousness-raising fails to take into account the burden architects bear, whether they want to or not, of creating the brute physical underpinnings of the public domain. For a democratic society to sustain a reasonably unified civil space, architecture, especially the blockbuster kind Muschamp favors, must welcome not only the initiated but also members of the public less well-positioned than he is to chuckle happily at architects’ jokes. Architecture isn’t merely art–though art it is, and that shouldn’t be forgotten–and the most beautiful or amusing or even brilliant solutions to spatial and social problems aren’t always the most livable.

Some people go so far as to sense cynicism in Muschamp’s highbrow views, at least in those he borrows from his theoretical guru, Koolhaas. Koolhaas “is the portrait of cynicism,” says a critic. “His pitch is for a go-with-the-flow urbanism. He takes the generative economic structures that produce most urbanism around the world as a given and opts to surf that wave.” To translate: Koolhaas celebrates, rather than counters, the alienation, coldness, and monumentalism that capitalism has a way of producing in cities. Muschamp once put it this way: “Though [Koolhaas] may embrace monocultural institutions, he insists that architecture is a medium for heightening our awareness of them. It can be used to render rather than disguise their destabilizing effects.” To rephrase this in Marxist terms, Koolhaas likes to heighten the contradictions. (My colleague Jacob Weisberg might say this makes him the Ralph Nader of architecture.)

Personally, I don’t consider this as big an issue for Muschamp the critic as it may be for Koolhaas the architect. Making people think hard about conflicts is what critics get paid to do, and it’s not as though Muschamp acts in bad faith in pursuing his mildly snobbish aesthetic agenda. Does he have a journalistic obligation to be more evenhanded? Under traditional Times standards, one imagines he would have had little choice in the matter. But I doubt that requiring fairer coverage would have yielded better criticism. The best critical writing is fueled by genuine passion, and that Muschamp only writes when he feels something deeply means he usually writes very well.