Hearts of the city 23.04.10

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The collected works of Herbert Muschamp, the last heavyweight architecture critic, exhilarate Justin McGuirk

In 1985, the architecture critic of the Village Voice, Michael Sorkin, wrote a column with the beautifully pugnacious title "Why Goldberger is so bad". Sorkin was attacking his opposite number at the New York Times, Paul Goldberger, for being in bed with a clique of developers and postmodernists. Twenty-five years later, on the Design Observer website, one of Goldberger's successors at the NYT is also under assault, under the weaker headline "Why Nicolai Ouroussoff is not good enough". Now, there are two things we can learn from this. One: those who believe architecture criticism is in a state of crisis – which it almost certainly is – may find it reassuring to know that this is a perennial condition. Two: the job of architecture critic at the New York Times is something of a poisoned chalice. Not only is it considered the most powerful critic's position going – the voice of the journal of record, the only column that other columnists will allow themselves to quote – it is also a position that the incumbent will inevitably find himself beaten over the head with.

In 2004, when Herbert Muschamp stepped down as architecture critic of the New York Times, the most gifted critic of his generation had fallen from grace. He had been under a sustained period of attack for cronyism, arrogance, obscurantism and pretentious flights of fancy. Three years later, at the age of 59, he was dead. And so it was with the clarity of distance, and slightly daunted by its weight, that I picked up the 887-page time capsule that is Hearts of the City: The Selected Writings of Herbert Muschamp. Having frogmarched through to the last page – knackered but exhilarated – it is a pleasure to be able to say that his reputation is in no danger. Yes, his detractors had a point, but his flaws are forgivable given the brilliance of his writing.

Hearts of the City begins in 1987, with a series of essay-length pieces from Muschamp's time as the critic of The New Republic. These are deeply researched and ruminative, the kind of stuff you simply don't find in the mainstream press today. The writing picks up pace in 1992 when he becomes the Times' critic, which accounts for the next 15 years and 700-odd pages. What is striking, though, even in his shorter form, is his erudition: the sheer breadth and level of his references is astounding for newspaper writing. You certainly couldn't get away with it in a British paper these days. And though some may have felt Muschamp was too highfalutin for his own good, his cultural literacy – from Walter Benjamin to Armani to The Matrix – is one of the aspects that elevated his columns to serious criticism.

Reading this volume, it is easy to forget that Muschamp was a journalist, filing copy to short deadlines, not always with the desired time to mull things over. Collect 15 years' work from any newspaper critic and you'd get a hefty volume, but what one looks for in a great critic is consistency, both of quality and message. There needs to be an underlying belief system at work, because that is the only thing that gives a critic longevity. Muschamp was one of the very few architecture critics of the last 20 years for whom one can pinpoint what he stood for.

Muschamp will forever be associated with a group of architects who became "starchitects": Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Peter Eisenman, Herzog & de Meuron etc. His fulsome, sometimes soaring praise of this coterie reflected his faith in architecture as an art form. Muschamp believed in beauty as a cultural imperative, and in the autonomy of subjective expression. His support for this new architectural elite came from witnessing a dream being made manifest – the dream of the avant-garde being handed the opportunity to build on Main Street. But his enthusiasm for their work also stemmed from decades' worth of frustration as a New Yorker who was passionate about architecture but rarely got to enjoy it in his hometown.

When Muschamp takes over Goldberger's beat at the Times, there is precious little going on. We are still in the death throes of postmodernism, and well into the book Muschamp is still writing about the buildings of Robert AM Stern, later than is decent. It is striking to see how similar the climate was then to now, and how close the concerns. Architecture is seemingly in crisis, with the profession suffering the effects of recession and having lost its "ethical bearings" in the building boom of the 1980s. New York, which is after all Muschamp's patch, is chiefly notable for its lack of good new buildings. Which is interesting, because one of the criticisms of Ouroussof is that he doesn't focus enough on his home turf – the only good critic, goes the argument, is a local critic. And yet, says Muschamp of being in New York, "People who wanted to see contemporaneity represented in the cityscape had no choice but to get on a plane."

Muschamp was arguably the first global critic. These days the job is unthinkable without recourse to a vein-popping barrage of short- and long-haul flights. Here he is in Italy lunching with Renzo Piano or strolling the streets of Bilbao with Frank Gehry. Such vignettes, however, have the quality of holidays. New York, meanwhile, is his battleground. He challenges a city that is only interested in the architecture of the bottom line. He attacks new zoning laws. He tries to understand Donald Trump, and why he doesn't hire any good architects (the first glimmer of Muschamp the power broker). Time and again he revisits favourite causes: the fate of Columbus Circle, the redesign of MoMA and, most infamously, the redesign of the World Trade Centre. At the height of his power, Muschamp was instrumental in securing a serious design competition for the Ground Zero site, and then embarked on an acrimonious battle with the winner, Daniel Libeskind, over his "kitschy" Freedom Tower. All of this is suffused with passion, profound reasoning and occasionally bile.

But, really, Muschamp's movie only has room for a few stars. His blockbuster beauties are Gehry and Koolhaas, the poet and the genius, representing the twin poles of beauty and reason. Throw in Hadid and you have an orgy of star power. In 2003, her Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati is "the most important American building since the end of the Cold War". In 2004, Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library is "the most exciting new building it has been my honour to review". But all of this is prefigured by a game-changer of a building in 1997, when Muschamp pulls out all the stops for the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Can you imagine any newspaper today printing 5,000 words on a building? That's how much Muschamp writes about the "miracle" in Bilbao, "a Lourdes for a crippled culture". This is what Muschamp has been waiting for all his life, a building that embodies "Subjective Truth". He may have been the last newspaper critic with the power to write what he wanted at the length he prescribed.

Muschamp has a consistent but quirky take on his starchitect friends (and it is worth remembering that they were by now his friends, hence the accusations of cronyism). He thinks they represent a late flowering of Surrealism. What they give form to is a new phase in city making governed by the expression of unrepressed urges, by the creative power of the subconscious. "[P]sychology has largely displaced style as the source of architectural form," he writes. In places this comes across as a tad kooky, but somehow it all hangs together. One of Muschamp's self-assigned themes was culture after the end of the Cold War. And reading his columns it is easy to conclude that the reason why capitalism "beat" communism was because of its wholehearted embrace of the pleasure principle.

Despite the heights that Muschamp reached, there is an argument that architecture criticism was genuinely in trouble even on his watch. Paradoxically, it was partly thanks to Muschamp's advocacy of the starchitects that they became beyond the critic's reach. Architects like Gehry and Hadid stole the critic's thunder, made them more or less irrelevant – in the propagation of their global images of desire, they became too powerful for the critic to rein in. Where Muschamp was a true believer, indeed a proselytiser, subsequent critics merely rolled over in the hopes of getting a tummy rub from the starchitects.

Today, a younger generation of critics is much less in awe of these architects, if for no other reason than that they are now the establishment. That generation is suspicious of their power, their dominance of international competitions, their forms, their personas and their antics.

Muschamp himself became something of a prima donna. As the years go by he gets more and more confident in the power of "I", and his subjectivity assumes the reassurance of scientific methodology. He is happy to engage readers on the validity of his own tastes and views, which is unusually candid – and self-important – for a critic. And with it the writing becomes sometimes more self-conscious in its desire to entertain – at times it's astonishingly stirring, at others it's just hammy. However, he never balked at writing that was deeply personal or that expanded his remit to broader cultural issues. The most obvious case is a piece called The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle, about the affinity between an elegant outsider of a building and the city's gay culture.

Like Ruskin, he reserved the right to contradict himself, but based on the selection here there is only scant evidence of that. Whatever the position, however, he argued with nothing less than pure conviction. "The primary job of the critic who takes after Baudelaire is to cast off fear, the fear of saying the wrong thing, forming the wrong judgment, thinking the wrong thought. Criticism, like research science, is based on the absolute right to be wrong." To some that will read as a neat disclaimer but any aspiring critic ought to find it as fortifying as a swig of rocket fuel.

Hearts of the City ends with a few texts that were meant to become a book by that name. It was intended to be about the Nineties, but the pieces here are highly autobiographical, about the seduction of a young, suburban, Jewish, gay man by the bright lights of the big city. The city that was to be his "surrogate mother". And perhaps only in New York could such a man write with the confidence of an insider; anywhere else, he would have been an outsider. Needless to say, he never finished the book. Ironically, these accumulated fragments amount to less copy than his review of the Bilbao Guggenheim. Perhaps that is apt enough. Certainly the 200 or so columns collected here amount to no shameful legacy.

Hearts of the City, by Herbert Muschamp, Knopf, $50



Justin McGuirk

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Those who believe architecture criticism is in a state of crisis - which it almost certainly is - may find it reassuring to know that this is a perennial condition

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