Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Remembering Muschamp: Part 3

I swear this is the last time I'll mention Herbert Muschamp this month.
(Three eulogies is enough, right? Maybe... maybe not.)

Muschamp was the architecture critic for the New York Times well before I began reading the New York Times on a regular basis, so it goes without saying, I just thought that's how it's always been. It did strike me that the Times seemed to be the only mainstream news source that gave design and architecture the same importance as the other arts, and (on occasion) world news. Often his opinions and use of hyperbole drove me nuts, but his points were so well dressed in engaging prose and intriguing metaphors I couldn't wait to read his next piece. His words got me - and millions of other people - excited about architecture. It wasn't always the positive kind of excitement, but I think he was much more interested in getting people to have an opinion about the built world than getting everyone to agree with his own.

It was only after he stepped down form his position in 2004 that I began to realize what a unique kind of writer he was, and only after reading the countless obituaries over the past two weeks did it become clear what an extraordinary person he was. It's evident now that with all his heart he wanted to change our physical world and make the way we live in it better. He dedicated himself to this end through his position as a critic: one that we can presume proved to be far more effective than if he had pursued a career as a practicing architect or a teacher. New York most likely would not have new buildings by Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Thomas Mayne if not for Muschamp extending his position beyond critic to activist and champion for design. He literally changed the face of New York City and how the people of the city think about architecture and urban life.

I often thought he championed certain people too much. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one sick to death of reading about Gregg Lynn by 2002.) One of my other favorite critics, Michael Sorkin went so far as to compile amusing and insightful statistics about Muchamp's favored subjects. Though I don't think that's entirely fair, as he was just as quick to serve up the sharp critique with the praise, almost no matter who it was.

It's interesting to think that people like Ghery, Koolhaas and Hadid are now household names, but were quite obscure in 1992. Actually, how many architects were household names in 1992 vs. today? Muschamp didn't invent the notion of the "starchitect" or singlehandedly rekindle America's appreciation for the built world at the turn of the millennium. But if there were one personality you could point to - a Warhol for the T-square set - Herbert Muschamp would be my candidate.

Yet another of my favorite writers, Mr. Design Observer Michael Bierut on Muschamp:

Herbert Muschamp used to drive me crazy. Like a lot of people I knew, I found his architectural criticism in the New York Times infuriating. Willfully personal, riddled with non-sequiturs, idiosyncratic to the point of surrealism, a new Muschamp piece in the morning culture pages would inevitably have the emails flying by lunchtime: can you believe what he wrote this time? When he stepped down five years ago, many in the architecture and design community expressed relief. Finally, it was hoped, we'd get some responsible design criticism.

And yet nothing would be the same. I remember reading one of the first major pieces by his successor, first slowly and then skimming ahead with mounting anxiety, realizing wait, you mean there's not going to be a Zuzu Pitts reference? For Muschamp had changed the way we think about buildings, and about cities, and about places, by introducing a new focus on the way we feel about them. It was bold, it was liberating, it was fun, and it was irrevocable.

Muschamp's most ambitious project for the New York Times was a proposal unsolicited by the LMDC, "Big Plan for Ground Zero and Beyond". This feature put him in the role of his life: architectural curator - with all of Lower Manhattan as his gallery. Not perfect by any means, but it was an extraordinary exercise and presented some of the most exciting ideas for New York City ever published. [Click on "The Masters' Plan" on the side bar to see and hear the full proposal.]

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