It was only appropriate that the recent obituary for Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times from 1992 to 2004, was written by his successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff. This is one case, however, where the deceased ought to have written his own obituary—for Ouroussoff’s sober and respectful notice manages to present all the facts of Muschamp’s career but none of the truth. Missing is the sense of the outrageous, at times bordering on hysteria, which characterized Muschamp’s style, both literary and personal, and which ultimately cost him his perch at the Times.
Muschamp’s downfall goes unmentioned in Ouroussoff’s article, which only hints genteelly about his “quirky and, some argued, self-indulgent voice.” It has nothing to say about his disastrous attempt to insert himself into the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero as a kind of architectural impresario, as was shown in a 2004 essay in the New York Observer by Clay Risen. As long as Muschamp merely hobnobbed at night with the architects he praised by day, bemused readers could forgive his naughtiness. But once he started playing the roles of both critic and player, he committed the journalistic equivalent of a war crime: to act as a combatant while claiming the privileges of a neutral observer. In the end, as the Washington Post obituary recognized, he “had been corrupted by the power he wielded.”
Writing in Commentary several years ago, I pondered what it was that distinguished Muschamp’s criticism from that of his peers. Unlike them, he had little patience for the technical or programmatic features of building, such as its
paths of circulation, nuances of siting, or the countless small details of profiles, joints, moldings, reveals, revetments, corners, and all the other members that form the living face of a building. Most of his reviews were devoted instead to putting into words how a building made him feel. And to this task he brought his own signature style, bombarding the reader with allusions to pop culture, especially movies. What Muschamp seems to have discovered was that, by drenching his reviews in pop references, he could attract the sort of audience that did not normally attend to architecture.
In retrospect, one can see that Muschamp’s fall has impoverished the state of architecture criticism. Most architecture critics are the voice of respectable establishment opinion: one thinks of Benjamin Forgey at the Washington Post, Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker, and Robert Campbell at the Boston Globe. Ouroussoff, it is now clear, falls into the same camp. It is not likely that their circle of readers is terribly large, outside of design professionals or those with civic curiosity. It is a pity that there seems to be no room for such an immensely entertaining, if sadly self-destructive, maverick like Muschamp.