Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times ‘ architecture critic, is stepping down from his post much as he attained it: surrounded by applause. Twelve years ago, he was called the country’s next great critic; today, his army of detractors is all too happy to see him leave.
The official line at the paper is that the 56-year-old Mr. Muschamp “wants to explore other options,” which may include serving as a “global culture” columnist and writing for the Styles section and the Magazine .
If the transition is self-motivated, it’s also, sources at The Times said, a relief to a new crop of editors unwilling to defend, as their predecessors did, the critic’s iconoclasm and obscurantism, his unapologetic dilettantism and his unabashed socializing within the highest social circles of the creative world he judges in print. It’s a fall from grace that represents the kind of Times -writer morality tale alumni of the paper know all too well. At the height of his career, Mr. Muschamp’s writing was the talk of the New York cultural scene; today, his professional conflicts of interest and very public breakdowns have pushed him to the margins of architectural society. Mr. Muschamp declined to be interviewed for this article, but a source close to him said that he has decided that he had said all he had to say about architecture.
Like those who held his post before him at The Times , Mr. Muschamp sat for years as the de facto arbiter of the architecture world. His constant praise of the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, for example, is widely seen as having been key to her winning the 2004 Pritzker Prize. And while he certainly didn’t make Frank Gehry a critical success, his 6,000-word paean to the architect’s Guggenheim Bilbao made Mr. Gehry a household name and first among equals in the architectural stratosphere.
Nevertheless, many in the architecture world said that Mr. Muschamp also became corrupted by that very same power, using his influence to promote a small coterie of avant-garde architects while deriding or ignoring the rest of the profession. “This is a critic who does not have much objectivity,” said the architect Daniel Libeskind, who, despite a late-round attack from Mr. Muschamp, won the World Trade Center design competition. “He’s someone who cultivates certain friendships. If you’re not part of it, you do not get reviewed.”
Yet even Mr. Muschamp’s enemies will grudgingly admit that he is one of the most intelligent critics out there. And it’s not just his accumulated knowledge of the field of architecture-he is virtually alone in his ability to draw together seemingly divergent cultural threads, reaching into philosophy, fashion and history. “He’s a really keen intellect,” said fellow critic James Russell, “because he knows what’s going on at every aesthetic level better than anyone else writing.”
Mr. Muschamp deployed his intellect and professional influence most effectively in the wake of Sept. 11, when he gathered some of his closest friends-who also happen to be some of the world’s best architects-to brainstorm ideas for the W.T.C. site; the results, published in a special issue of The Times Magazine in September 2002, immediately changed the course of the debate and helped spur the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to restart the design process.
“It was a tremendous civic contribution of Mr. Muschamp to do that,” said Guy Nordenson, a Muschamp ally who worked on the project. “He helped change history.” His demise, then, has an almost Icarus-like quality. It’s hard to think of a critic, whether in architecture or any other field, who has come close to this sort of power.
The Philadelphia-born Mr. Muschamp wasn’t always set on becoming an architecture critic; in college and after, friends said, his interests ran from ballet to modern art. In 1965, as a freshman at Penn, Mr. Muschamp met Andy Warhol at an exhibit of the artist’s work on campus. The two bonded quickly-perhaps it was their mutual Pennsylvania heritage-and soon Mr. Muschamp was making frequent weekend trips to New York, hanging out at the Factory, Warhol’s studio, and imbibing the fervent downtown art scene of the late 60′s.
Mr. Muschamp moved to New York after graduation, where he took a job as a window designer. “Herbert might have been the person who told me that dilettante is not necessarily a put-down, in its root meaning someone who enjoys ,” said his longtime friend Randall Bourscheidt, now president of the nonprofit Alliance for the Arts. “There was that kind of dilettante aspect to our youthful explorations of New York, a delight in things-what we saw and did with Andy, but also what we were seeing on stages and museum walls.”
All the while, Mr. Muschamp was writing, and gravitating to architecture-perhaps at Warhol’s urging (Mr. Muschamp once wrote that the artist told him “architecture is really the only thing left”), perhaps, as Mr. Bourscheidt speculated, because it seemed to link together so many different types of aesthetic experience. In 1974, Mr. Muschamp published his first book, a collection of essays entitled File under Architecture . That year he also won an N.E.A. award for art criticism. In 1978 he moved to London to attend the Architecture Association, a school that has produced such world-class names as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.
When he returned, he published his second book, Man About Town: Frank Lloyd Wright and New York City , which put him on the map as a serious architecture writer. In 1983, Mr. Muschamp began teaching criticism at the Parsons School of Design, and in 1986 founded its graduate program in architecture and design criticism. As a professor, he was both brilliant and difficult. “I would say that half the assignments were gibberish, the other half were fascinating,” one student said. “But you couldn’t do them without access to Herbert’s head. And you wouldn’t know what that was until you were at the table, bleeding.”
But while his professional life was turning up, his personal life was struck by tragedy-his long-time partner, Tucker Ashworth, developed AIDS and died in 1987, according to Mr. Bourscheidt, who was close friends with both men. “They were a beautiful, loving couple,” recalled Mr. Bourscheidt. “It was a great tragedy when Tucker became ill. Herbert had to become the support and nurse him.”
As he lived with the loss of Mr. Ashworth, Mr. Muschamp began to develop a distinctly social point of view. He wrote eloquently about the relationship between architecture and New York’s social problems. In a 1988 essay in The New Republic , he bemoaned how, during the 1980′s real-estate boom, “architects have been coming across as Satan’s decorators, hired flunkies retained to outfit this hell with a bit more dash,” having grown cynical of Modernism’s “responsibility to initiate reform.” And yet, he noted, “suppose you are an architect. If you live in New York, there’s a good chance you know more than one person who is sick with AIDS or has already died. You also know that AIDS is not only a disease but a cultural crisis, a crisis of faith in our power and will to solve problems and even to recognize them. So what are you going to do about it?”
It was this sort of very personal cri de coeur that impressed The New Republic ‘s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, who hired Mr. Muschamp as the magazine’s first full-time architecture critic. And it was at The New Republic that Mr. Muschamp’s work took on its robust, if idiosyncratic, analytical approach, focusing not on a building’s formal qualities-its proportions, the quality of materials-but on buildings as experiences. Readers loved it; Mr. Muschamp’s pieces quickly became homework in architectural circles. It was only a matter of time before the opportunity came to claim the architectural criticism throne of The New York Times .
The architecture beat at The Times had been a showcase for some time: Ada Louise Huxtable, who wrote the paper’s first regular criticism in 1963 (she now writes for The Wall Street Journal ), received the first Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1970, an honor repeated by her successor-and Mr. Muschamp’s predecessor-Paul Goldberger, now the critic for The New Yorker .
At The Times , Mr. Muschamp talked less about “starchitects” and more about the system that made their position possible, at one point calling out the city’s real-estate world for facilitating banal, corporate-friendly architecture in Times Square. He had strong opinions, but they were well-reasoned and clear. “He was welcomed when he first came,” said critic James Russell, “because he was not a fence straddler in the mode of Paul Goldberger.”
But as Mr. Muschamp settled in as architecture’s big macher he gradually began to see architecture within a much different context: fashion, design and stardom, a change that clearly tracked his own shift in milieu-at the top, he was surrounded by glamour and cash. Instead of writing about the role of good design in public-housing projects, he began writing about the role of celebrity in high-end condo projects. Donald Trump, he wrote in 1997, “is top dog in the wave-making business, and wave-making is, if anything, more vital than real estate in the shaping of urban life.”
Return of the Starchitects
As his access to, and veneration by, the profession’s top names grew, his writing became increasingly populated by a short list of big stars: Zaha Hadid, Rafael Viñoly, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. Unlike Huxtable, who purposely maintained a distance between herself and her subjects, Mr. Muschamp inserted himself into the architectural world, paying extended visits to his favorites and throwing dinner parties for them back home.
His turn to the stars was reflected in his criticism; his strong opinions were now often deployed to defend his favorite architects. When Mr. Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design in Cincinnati received flak for its use of cheap materials, Mr. Muschamp came to his friend’s aid, declaring that cutting corners was in fact a brilliant move: “Shrewdly, Eisenman has employed inexpensive materials and fittings: gypsum walls, catalogue lighting fixtures. These help create a provisional, studio atmosphere, as if the building were itself a pinup project, a thesis mocked up to full scale.”
Mr. Muschamp also began to veer into increasingly personal territory, using his Times “Critic’s Notebook” column to write about non-architectural topics. In 1997, he wrote about a pair of leather jeans he bought at Century 21: “When I got home and tried them on,” he wrote, “I looked as if I had tied two black plastic garbage bags around my legs. I stood up straight and sucked in my gut. Garbage bags. What a letdown.” He veered toward the bizarre: In 1996, he wrote about a Times Square billboard of an underwear-clad Antonio Sabato Jr., calling it “a worthy, if fleeting, addition to the classic tradition of civic sculpture.”
As Mr. Muschamp’s work became more personal and obscure, his dominance of all things architectural at The Times became more prominent. He demanded, and usually received, veto power over all other articles on architecture in the newspaper, according to Times insiders. He would declare certain projects, even whole topics, off limits to everyone but himself, even if he never actually covered them. But for all his detractors, Mr. Muschamp was one of the paper’s most talked-about critics, and so editors were loath to knock him down.
Hints of his decline, though, were increasingly apparent. He began telling people that he’d had enough of The Times , and in 1997 he agreed to take a job with The New Yorker , only to back out at the last minute (the job ultimately went to Mr. Goldberger). At least once, the pressure seemed to take him over the edge. At a packed MoMA conference on contemporary architecture in April 1999, Mr. Muschamp mounted the stage, unlit cigarette in hand, and ranted at length (several people close to him said he was intoxicated). “We’ve seen great movies,” an item in New York magazine reported he said, “but we haven’t seen one fucking building, okay? And if that’s put in the same category of spectacle with Disney, goody!”
Mr. Muschamp’s power-and infamy-finally came to fruition in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Mr. Muschamp lives in Tribeca, and had gone out to dinner on Sept. 10 with Frank Gehry, Mr. Gehry’s son, and the designer Issay Miyake. The next morning, like thousands of New Yorkers living downtown, he awoke to sirens and smoke. “I think [Sept. 11] shook him to the rafters,” Mr. Gehry said. “He wouldn’t come out of his apartment for days.”
Angry with the banality with which the rebuilding plans were coming together, Mr. Muschamp quarterbacked a plan for an architectural showcase, a sort of exhibit-in-print in which the practice’s top names would contribute ideas for Ground Zero. The project, which ran as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine , was a great success; though derided by many as having crossed the line between critic and master of ceremonies, Mr. Muschamp can be credited with having moved the debate on Ground Zero to a higher level. “It gave the sense that something better was possible,” said Mr. Nordenson.
But then things turned ugly. At first, Mr. Muschamp had backed Daniel Libeskind’s plan in the Innovative Design Competition, which the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had convened to select a master plan for the site. “If you are looking for the marvelous, here’s where you will find it,” he wrote in December 2002. But when the competition was narrowed to two finalists-Mr. Libeskind and THINK, led by perennial Muschamp favorite and personal friend Rafael Viñoly-the critic switched sides and attacked the Libeskind plan. The design, he now wrote, “looks stunted … an astonishingly tasteless idea.”
Earlier this year, rumors began to circulate that Mr. Muschamp was interfering with an Architectural Record book project of collected Ground Zero plans. Mr. Muschamp accused the editors of falsely telling architects who had participated in his Times Magazine project that they had his approval, and several backed out of the Architectural Record book. In response, the editors prepared a lawsuit against Mr. Muschamp for tortuous interference. “They went back and forth, lawyers bickering, raising clubs, saber rattling,” said one observer of the fracas.
By the end of March, Mr. Muschamp had agreed to back down, and he allowed the Record editors to send out a letter saying he no longer opposed the book. But the damage was done to both the book and Mr. Muschamp’s reputation-only 5 of the 15 architects from the Times project are in the book.
Why, given the precipitous decline in his critical stature, did The Times keep him on for so long? “Herbert’s enduring existence [at The Times ] is one of the great urban legends,” says one person active in architectural circles. “It’s one of the great mysteries of New York, along with why you never see baby pigeons.”
But as the post-Muschamp era begins, the field, though brimming with talent, will now lack the sort of expansive personality that made it interesting beyond the narrow confines of the builders’ world. Many people outside of architecture know of Muschamp; who, outside the field, has heard of Blair Kamin? Which is why his successor, people are beginning to realize, could do a whole lot worse. “The worst thing,” said the critic Mr. Russell, “would be if they got someone bland.”
Follow Clay Risen via RSS.