Hearts of the City: The Selected Writings of Herbert Muschamp
Alfred A. Knopf
Journalists are often novelists at heart. They tell tales of people, cities, places, and buildings that are real enough—sometimes all too real—yet beginning, one way or another, with “once upon a time.” When newspapers ask for a “story,” that’s just what they mean. For critics employed by newspapers, this means thinking in terms of good yarns, casts of theatrical characters, sensations and scandals wrapped with powerful emotions.
For the architecture writer this can mean writing, in some way, stories that might begin like this: “Once upon a time, a shiny building clothed in titanium rose from the rusty docks of Bilbao, a town where the people spoke a language all their own, and where a terrorist once planted a bomb in a giant puppy made of flowers hoping to kill the King of Spain.” Or this: “Once upon a time in America, an architect came to build a 1,776-foot-high tower symbolizing Freedom where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had once stood. Although he stopped short of a Stetson, he sported cowboy boots, and . . .”
When I pored over the 912 pages of the selected writings of Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for The New York Times who died two years ago, I couldn’t help thinking that here was a fine novelist who wove words from the great architectural fabric of New York. Perhaps the finest stretch of writing in the book, published with a gracious introduction by Muschamp’s successor at the Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff, comes at the very end.
This is a partial, very much unfinished memoir of growing up in Cold War Philadelphia in what he makes out to be an intelligent but uptight and slightly out-of-place Jewish family, and how he made the transition to the cosmopolitanism of New York and wrote about architecture. And most of all about his personal relationship to New York viewed through the structures and windows, the architects and clients of its buildings.
Here he is on his childhood home: “The living room was a secret. A forbidden zone. The new slipcovers were not, in fact, the reason why sitting down there was taboo. That was just the cover story. It was used to conceal the inability of family members to hold a conversation. Who knew what other secrets might come tumbling out if they actually sat down and talked? The cause of Mother’s headaches might come up.”
In New York, Muschamp joined free and easy conversations on any number of fresh, exciting ideas in the company of architects. After that Philadelphia childhood, who wouldn’t revel in talks with Frank Gehry, Tod Williams, Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, and Bernard Tschumi who together represented a public exuberance the young Muschamp had longed for without being able to express until he found New York. The city gave him a voice.
Gehry and Co. were architects, according to Muschamp, “trained according to the modern idea that reason and objectivity should be the driving principles of architectural form.” Yet “their work pursued dimensions of urban life that had been left out of this equation. Memory, affect, fantasy, play, irrational pleasure: modern architects had restricted these qualities to the private domain. In the ’90s they burst forth into the street.”
This is the point in the book—the NYT years—when Muschamp’s writing does the same thing. With the ’90s, his writing blossomed. Why? Partly because he met people who challenged him, made him think, but mostly because he learned how to “burst forth into the street,” to connect his own wider love and passions for art, cinema, popular culture, and New York to an ever bigger and wider architectural debate. As his character connected with his criticism, so Muschamp became bolder in argument, and boy-oh-boy, are there some rattling good rows in this book.
Muschamp got hot under the collar over the long-running redevelopment of Columbus Circle, and famously, over Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower. His blistering case against Libeskind led to letters flying between architect and newspaper editor. Whatever your take on the subject, here was the critic in the thick of it. It reminded me of my own battles with Tony Blair’s New Labour government spin-doctors over the absurd Millennium Experience in London—$1.5 billion down the tube.
A critic’s job is to support, encourage, explain, and promote—and to fight when necessary. This requires a certain courage and a convincing writing style. Muschamp had both. Here he is, at his most engaging on the new Bilbao Guggenheim: “What twins the actress and the building in my memory is that both of them stand for an American style of freedom. That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive and exhibitionist. It’s mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child. It can’t resist doing a dance with all the voices that say ‘No’. It wants to take up a lot of space. And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let its dress fly up in the air.”
There are plenty of curators and architects with negative things to say about Gehry’s Gugg, yet Muschamp makes you want to love it as so many people wanted to love Marilyn. And then, here he is on Libeskind’s Freedom Tower: “Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design’s message seems even more loaded. Unintentionally, the plan embodies the Orwellian condition America’s detractors accuse us of embracing: perpetual war for perpetual peace.” Ouch.
This is a book as big, as heavy, and often, hard-hitting as a brick. But it’s also a roller-coaster guide through the architecture of the 20 years between 1987 and 2007, a ride taken with an opinionated, occasionally self-indulgent yet warm, brave, and fully alive companion.