Everyone has a notorious Herbert story, but certainly the very last one I would want to have to circulate is his obituary. A longtime heavy smoker, Herbert died of a lung cancer on Tuesday, October 2, that was diagnosed earlier this year. He had stepped down from his position as the architecture critic for The New York Times two years before.
Herbert’s contribution to architectural criticism has not been fully measured. His opinions were often hyperbolic; his prose outrageous; the path of his thinking inimitably complex. Unforgettable samplers would have to include his comparing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the “reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe,” and calling Zaha Hadid’s Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.”
Famously, he wrote positively in September 2002 that Daniel Libeskind’s tower proposal for Ground Zero “attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire,” only to switch allegiances five months later. As a newly converted partisan of the proposal by the team THINK, he wrote, “Daniel Libeskind’s project for the World Trade Center site is a startlingly aggressive tour de force, a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun.” A close reading—and no one more deserves a closer re-reading than Herbert—reveals that he has not really contradicted himself here but refined his opinion. To many, his views were inflammatory, even dangerous to architecture. “Whoopee,” he might have said. Has anyone else stirred up so much heated passion about cold bricks?
Before becoming the third architecture critic for the Times in 1992 following Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger, Herbert Muschamp held the same position at The New Republic and Artforum. He also served as director of the graduate program in architecture and design criticism at the Parsons School of Design from 1983 to1992, a role that must have satisfied his desire to impress moldable intellects but hardly indulged his talent for the kind of performance writing that became his hallmark. At the time of his death he reportedly had just finished his memoirs.
I came to know Herbert at The New York Times, when I was an editor inviting him to write for the Sunday magazine’s design pages. Whether it was the glamour days of airline fashion and the Cold War or Donald Trump’s strange allure, he always had something he wanted to push through the clarifying wringer of design and architecture as organizing principles. As a self-defined outsider, a gay man, and as someone far more articulate and widely-read than most anyone he encountered, he believed deeply in the saving power of architectural space. For him, heaven might well be a dim, luxuriantly appointed lobby with library shelves.
Herbert was also maddening; he drove his editors and his friends up the wall only to charm them back down again with twinkling wit and an open generosity that could almost prepare one for the next onslaught. He liked the power that came with being the Times architecture critic, commissioning a then unknown (in the United States) Santiago Calatrava to design a time capsule for the newspaper in 1999, and making sure that, if not Gehry, then Renzo Piano would design the paper’s new headquarters. But he had no favorites; he only championed what was interesting. And what was interesting to him was anything that was compelling and vital and personal. Freud was often lurking in the background of his prose. Herbert once wrote, “the Freudian history is personal, the Marxian history is social, but in both instances a diagnosis is called for. It often seems to me that the architect’s task today is to shape spaces that don’t make the world more diseased than it is.” But it was Herbert himself who wanted to cure the world of unthinking, unengaging architecture and fill it instead with places that would welcome even someone as critical but hopeful as himself.