Like beachcombers, architecture critics are at the mercy of whatever happens to drift in. They may stare for a decade at an empty horizon, or a typhoon or some other disaster at sea may toss them a sudden bonanza. That is what has happened with architecture since September 11, 2001. For critics, especially for critics based in New York, these have been palmy days. The big questions posed by the rebuilding of Ground Zero remain unanswered: how to reconcile commemoration with commerce, how to adjudicate between the claims of the living and the dead, how to express national events and themes in an architectural culture that is defiantly international.
A strange moment, therefore, for Herbert Muschamp to have relinquished his influential post as architecture critic of the New York Times, a position he held since 1992. This past June, Muschamp announced that he was resigning in order to explore “other options.” Inevitably there have been rumors that he was forced out by the Times, which has been known to demote upward rather than to fire; a lengthy piece by Rachel Donadio in the New York Observer speculated that he had become something of an embarrassment to the newspaper's editors. Whatever the grounds, his job has been assigned to Nicolai Ouroussoff, formerly of the Los Angeles Times.
Not since the 1950's, when Lewis Mumford charted the triumph of modernism from his perch at the New Yorker, has the tenure of a critic been so eventful. Among the big occasions on Muschamp's watch were the openings of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and of the Getty Museum outside Los Angeles; the Millennial Dome in London; the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing; the architectural reunification of Berlin; and a host of consequential projects in New York City.
The most important development may have occurred within the practice of architecture itself. A generation ago, architecture was still a professional field. Apart from a few larger-than-life figures like Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, architects were relatively anonymous figures. Local architects handled most work except for complex projects that might require the specialized knowledge of a large urban firm. The architect's personality, in the sense of an idiosyncratic or deliberately cultivated individuality, was immaterial. But since the 1970's the field has been transformed by a celebrity culture of architects who have cultivated instantly recognizable signature styles: Frank Gehry's fluttering walls, Richard Meier's immaculate white cubes, Daniel Libeskind's fractious crystalline geometries.
The rise of this celebrity culture has been widely and justifiably lamented, but we have only begun to take its full measure. Because of temperament and training, Muschamp, more than any other critic, was splendidly equipped to comment intelligently on its development, to suggest how it happened, and to speculate about what it might mean. But there was a complication: he himself took an active part in promoting this selfsame culture, a fact that has made his own rise and fall of more than merely journalistic interest.
For Muschamp, art and celebrity have always been inseparable. In 1965, while a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he precociously entered the circle of the Pop artist Andy Warhol, who might be regarded as his mentor. After graduation he worked as a window dresser for Design Research, an early innovator in the retailing of designer chic. Later he studied in London at the Architectural Association, an incubator of many of the theoretical movements of the next generation. Upon his return to the U.S., he began teaching criticism at Parsons School of Design in New York and writing for Artforum. In 1988 he was recruited as the New Republic's first official architecture critic.
When, a few years later, Muschamp moved to the New York Times, the tone of its architectural coverage changed overnight. Unlike his sober predecessor, Paul Goldberger, he brought to the paper a jaunty and flippant sensibility in which personality loomed large—the personality of architects and the personality of Muschamp himself. This was a new species of criticism—certainly new for the Times—and one that had no use for the traditional barrier separating the critic from his subject.
Muschamp's advent also came at a particularly receptive moment. The building boom of the previous decade, which had been dominated by the playful historicism of the postmodern movement, had run out its string. In sophisticated circles, postmodernism was now passé, regarded as an unprincipled vehicle for commercial speculation with an unfortunate addiction to red granite stripes. It was not yet clear what would succeed it. One candidate was deconstruction, a highly intellectualized alternative to postmodernism that was then enjoying considerable prestige in schools of architecture.
To his credit, Muschamp viewed the pretensions of deconstruction with bemusement. Instead of losing himself in theory, he preferred to judge buildings on their optical properties and on his intuitive response to them. Faced with pretense and obscurantism, he responded much as Warhol had, with a kind of breezy insouciance.
In fact, Muschamp had little interest in any architectural tendency at all. Instead, he embraced a wildly heterogeneous group of architects, each of whom offered a distinctly individual style. A half-dozen received preferential treatment at his hands: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Peter Eisenman, and Rafael Vinoly. And the Muschamp treatment could be career-making. His 5,000-word paean to “The Miracle in Bilbao,” Gehry's new Guggenheim Museum in Spain, helped make the architect a household name; his promotion of Hadid turned her into an international luminary long before she had anything to show for herself but a portfolio of visionary and quite unbuildable drawings.
Although the work of these architects varied greatly, to Muschamp it had the common quality of integrity—his favorite term of praise. By this he did not mean integrity either in the sense of personal probity or in the sense, associated with the 19th-century critic John Ruskin, of the truthful use of materials and structural systems. For Muschamp, integrity meant the rigor with which a formal idea was carried out and carried through, so that the signature style was visible everywhere. The results should be, as he wrote of a building by Philip Johnson, “invariably self-consistent, pure within their own stylistic idiom.” In a word, uncompromising.
Unlike paintings and sculpture, however, buildings make considerable compromises: with sites, with budgets, with the limitations of materials, and with the requirements of programs and of clients. It is the ingenious resolution of these problems in a unique design, as in an elegant solution to a baffling equation, that demands the most of an architect's skill. For Muschamp, that was clearly too messy; this is no doubt why his chief heroes have been the makers of institutional buildings, and particularly museums: commissions that are free of most of the pressures and accommodations of commercial practice.
In any case, Muschamp spent little time developing the concept of integrity—by, for example, analyzing 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.
Scarcely a building failed to remind Muschamp of a movie he had seen. The bar at New York's renovated Hudson hotel? “Kubrick territory.” The new Broadway hotel? “Think Edward Hopper crossed with Pedro Almodovar.” The Guggenheim in Bilbao? “[A] woman's skirt flying up in the air, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.” The World War II Memorial in Washington? “A digitized backdrop, like the Colosseum in Gladiator.” The new Prada store in New York? “Antonioni is recast as a shopping experience. . . . Miuccia Prada plays Monica Vitti to Rem Koolhaas's Richard Harris.”
Such stream-of-consciousness became the hallmark of the Muschamp style. Its effect is somewhat like a reverie by Walt Whitman as updated by Andy Warhol, with incidents and vignettes replaced by brand names and advertising logos. It also clearly owed much to Tom Wolfe, evidently the source for the distinctive cadence Muschamp employed for his climaxes: an accelerating gallop that outpaces its verbs and ends in a squeal. Thus, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles:
Disney Hall must be assembled within the mind piece by piece as you approach and walk around it. A Surrealist ethos also suffuses the design: the imagineering impulse of Disney as well as of Magritte. Pumpkin into carriage, cabbage into concert hall, bippidi-bobbidi-boo.
The Seattle Public Library:
[A] willful exercise in complex geometry is actually a simple envelope to enclose mass. The interior becomes a greenhouse, the exterior a compressed, five-sided, Rubik's Cube of a skyline. Bling!
The 80 South Street Tower:
We recognize the similarity of the individual glass cubes to International Style office towers of the mid-20th century. But we have never seen one of those towers dance. From certain angles, this building is all hips. Chicka-boom!
Although Muschamp never sought to disguise his personal intimacy with the architects he reviewed—he felt free, for example, to offer anecdotes about what Frank Gehry thought of the library in Muschamp's apartment—not until 2000 did he breach the wall between critic and patron. But in that year he participated in a committee to solicit and evaluate designs for the new headquarters of the New York Times. The winning design by Renzo Piano, a design Muschamp himself helped pick, was then lavishly praised in one of his Times columns.
As if that were not startling enough, Muschamp also launched a lengthy attack on the design submitted by Cesar Pelli, an architect well known for his sleek corporate towers. For Muschamp, Pelli's credentials alone were grounds for rejecting him out of hand. The Times might be a corporation, he wrote, but it was not that sort of corporation:
Yes, the Times is a powerful institution, but of a particular kind. It is not part of so-called “black car” culture. We take subways. . . . The paper has the responsibility to challenge and correct, not blindly affirm, the corporate world's view of itself.
As Marxist class analysis went, this was hardly superior stuff (“we take subways”). And the architectural analysis was even poorer. Muschamp's resounding condemnation was based on nothing more than the symmetry of Pelli's design (it affirmed “classical notions of hierarchy”) and its vague resemblance to an obelisk (“that most ancient authoritarian symbol”).
All this was cover for a lack of thought-through aesthetic criteria. Insofar as Muschamp's judgments of commercial buildings had any discernible rationale, it seemed to derive from another source entirely. As he wrote after September 11, a critic's job, “especially in a relativistic time, is to show that it is possible to distinguish between progressive and retrogressive work.” That distinguishing line, he elaborated, ran “between buildings that promote humanist or Enlightenment virtues (even by questioning them) and those that obstruct or retard the realization of those virtues in public space.”
Leaving aside the question of how one could promote Enlightenment values by working to undermine them, Muschamp's conception of architectural patronage—of who pays the bills, and why—was peculiar indeed. In his ideal scenario, it seemed, every architect had to act as a kind of Shostakovich, embedding within his work cryptic messages of subversion that the client was too thick to recognize, although he was expected to pay for the joke. This was hopelessly naive, as Muschamp surely recognized. It is notable that when he did finally come face-to-face with a powerful developer, in the person of the incorrigibly retrogressive Donald Trump, he immediately displayed a strong tendency toward power worship.1
So long as Muschamp was evaluating progressive museum designs and urging commercial developers to build more “enlightened” buildings, his career seemed relatively assured. There was the occasional erratic column—most notoriously, a rapturous 1996 review of a Calvin Klein underwear ad in Times Square—but he did not stumble badly until September 11 and its architectural aftermath. That story has now been told by his predecessor at the Times, Paul Goldberger, in Up From Zero, a lively account of the rebuilding of Ground Zero.2
Rather than concentrating on the competing designs for the World Trade Center site, Goldberger has written a cautionary case study of architectural patronage and what happens when the lines of authority get crossed. His theme is the muddled and overlapping responsibility of the various players at Ground Zero: on the one hand, the developer Larry Silverstein, the Port Authority, and the city and state—all of them represented in the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)—and, on the other hand, the various victim and survivor groups that have played a forceful but unpredictable role throughout the proceedings.
Goldberger is particularly insightful on Muschamp's own efforts to insert himself into the rebuilding process. During the summer of 2002, in preparation for the first anniversary of the attacks, the critic enlisted a group of his favorite architects to brainstorm for a special issue of the New York Times magazine. His team included Richard Meier and Stephen Holl along with such stalwarts as Hadid, Koolhaas, and Eisenman. But, rather than compel these mavericks to collaborate, Muschamp assigned to each a different site and a different building. Thanks to an ingenious proposal by Frederic Schwarz to submerge nearby West Street in an underground viaduct, creating above it sixteen acres of contiguous real estate, Muschamp had seen that it would be possible to set aside Ground Zero for memorial purposes and still be able to replace the missing office footage and promote innovative architecture elsewhere.
It was a bold initiative, but it was rapidly overtaken by events. Even before Muschamp's portfolio was published, the LMDC announced an architectural competition for the World Trade Center site; there was little interest left over for the sideshow on West Street, and Muschamp was roundly mocked for his intervention in the main event. As Goldberger tells the story, even his former employer, the New Republic, condemned him for “acting as a patron as well as a commentator” and for placing himself “in the indefensible and untenable position of both judge and jury.”
Having lost much of 2002 in organizing his dream team, and having failed to be a player in the first round, Muschamp resumed the role of critic. Again he faltered badly. When the seven finalists were announced in late December, Muschamp weighed in heavily in favor of Daniel Libeskind's proposal. “If you are looking for the marvelous, here's where you will find it,” he wrote. “Mr. Libeskind has fashioned a new set of crystals, brilliantly faceted skyscrapers, forms that recreate the aspiration many architects felt when plate glass was new.”
Six weeks later, after the competitors had been winnowed to Libeskind and Rafael Vinoly's THINK group, Muschamp made an abrupt volte-face. Libeskind's “perfect balance between aggression and desire” of late 2002 now became “a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun . . . an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes.” Muschamp went on to call the design demagogic, militaristic, and—presumably worst of all—nostalgic.
The reason for this sudden turnaround remains unclear. Goldberger speculates that once the contest became two-way, Muschamp went with Vinoly, an architect he had long promoted. But so vehement was his antipathy toward the Libeskind design that it could only be read as a last-minute, full-court press to influence the jury. That the prize then fell to Libeskind anyway became a sign of the critic's waning ability to shape events.
Muschamp's failure to offer useful suggestions for the role of architecture at Ground Zero illuminates the limitations of his approach and taste. This should have been easy to foresee. A coterie of individual architect-celebrities, each of them distinguished by his cultivation of an eye-catching personal style, was not up to the tragic scope of a problem that was at once collective and impersonal. Nor could an architectural ideology predicated on a loose platform of negations—subverting hierarchy, questioning authority, challenging assumptions—muster the confidence necessary for positive affirmations. Having had their “hierarchy” challenged by four passenger-crammed projectiles, Americans rightly had little tolerance for snide gestures from the façade-merchants of armchair radicalism.
In the end, even Muschamp's exuberant appreciation of certain buildings appears a thin and restrictive thing. For all his range of cultural references—not only movies but costume, popular music, and food—his criticism is almost exclusively limited to the one aspect of a building that falls within the compass of fashion: its novelty-value as an image, the graphic impression it makes. Of course, it does not discredit a critic to say that he has a keen eye for the fashionability of a building. In a commercial society, fashionability is a sign of vitality—witness the work of Stanford White, Raymond Hood, or Mies van der Rohe. But whereas a dress or a musical may be encompassed by its novelty, a building has other duties.
One of the most enduringly brilliant analyses of architectural failure is Lewis Mumford's 1959 essay, “What Wright Hath Wrought,” a devastating indictment of the newly opened Guggenheim Museum. Mumford acknowledged that Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece was breathtaking in form, rigorously developed in detail, and had an “indescribable individuality.” And yet he went on to damn every aspect of the building in minute and ruthless detail: materials, fenestration, lighting, circulation, even tonality. Mumford's personal friendship with Wright did not spare the final verdict: “a monumental and ultimately mischievous failure.” One cannot imagine Muschamp ever having written such a piece.
Some buildings are indeed Happenings, spontaneous performances of joyous personal anarchy. But most are not, and they must be judged by other criteria. One such criterion might be called architectural citizenship—the participation of an individual building within the larger community of buildings that surround it, and in a larger sense within the civilization that produced it. Only through such meaningful connections can architecture perform the serious cultural duties that it is sometimes called upon to fulfill: serving as a house of the dead, or as a symbol of nationhood, or as a carrier of civilization itself. Muschamp, by temperament and biography, was unable to judge architecture in such terms. But that is true of our culture of celebrity in general, a culture that he did so much to advance and that, in architecture as in other fields of artistic endeavor, has had so little to contribute to the central dilemmas of our day.
1 In 1995, having at first panned the Trump International Tower and Hotel, designed by Philip Johnson, and then having proposed that the three men meet to discuss his review, the critic ended up not only praising “the color, contentiousness, and comedy Mr. Trump brings to the contemporary urban scene” but gratuitously defending the developer's very public love life (“the behavior some call womanizing is not a radical departure from what we call art”). All in all, not the most stirring example of how to “challenge and correct” the corporate culture.
2 Random House, 274 pp., $24.95.