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.
At the height of his powers in 2002, I wrote a bit of faux-Muschampiana on a private dare. The first preliminary design studies for the World Trade Center site were about to be unveiled; the original master planning firm (anti-starchitects with a reputation for thoughtful contextualism rather than formal acrobatics) was not one of Muschamp's favorites; I thought I could predict how the review would read. It was fun to write. I simply had to work from a mental punchlist of Muschamp tropes: outré movie references, inappropriate sexually-charged metaphors, sweeping incontrovertible declarations, and, of course, the requisite roll call of the moment's hottest names.
I didn't intend it for public consumption, but it somehow snuck out there, and circulated for a time in the pre-bloggified design community. I heard Muschamp had seen it. Someone passed on his response, something like, wasn't he the only one who was truly qualified to write Herbert Muschamp parodies?
He was right, of course. I sense I am not alone to discover, to my surprise, how much I miss his writing, and how affected I was by his death — at 59, far too early — last week. By way of tribute, then, and with strong encouragement to go back and read some of the real thing, I offer my own attempt to channel that unique voice. Rest in peace, Herbert Muschamp.
Just As I Expected, These Plans Suck
A Critical Appraisal
Special to the New York Times
Striding down the row of design proposals for the World Trade Center site, balefully eyeing each inert mien and artificially enhanced plan, I was reminded of the scene in "Showgirls" where the choreographer grimly surveys his topless charges. Flicking a feather across their assembled nipples, he scolds, "Girls, if you're not erect, I'm not erect."
Ladies and gentlemen, I've seen the master plan proposals from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and, to put it mildly, I'm not erect.
My heart sank as I watched John Beyer of the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle attempt to describe these hapless proposals. I was painfully reminded of another much more casual presentation one glorious autumn on Capri. The visionary Rem Koolhaas was holding forth on urban planning, shopping, life, and the smell of freshly cut basil. Wearing beautifully tailored trousers and a tight, cropped black top - need I add it was by Prada? - he gestured energetically as he spoke. With each gesture, his shirt rode up ever so slightly, revealing a tantalizing sliver of tan, taut tummy.
It is this kind of energetic gesture that those of us who care about contemporary architecture hunger for so desperately. Beyer Blinder Belle's work is occasionally competent: certainly their by-the-numbers renovation of Grand Central Terminal pleases the hordes of moronic commuters who stream through it each day, but it will come as no surprise that this recidivist pile of marble is of little interest to the infinitely more important audience of attractive young European architectural students who make pilgrimages to our city each year and can barely choke back their tears of disappointment. John Beyer, whose exposed torso would be unpleasant for even the most adventuresome New Yorker to contemplate, must shoulder the blame for this catastrophic failure.
It is now time to list these names: Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Elizabeth Diller and Ric Scofidio, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Steven Holl, and, of course, Rem Koolhaas. There.
Is a little daring, a little excitement, a little sexiness too much to ask for on this sacred site? Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chairman John Whitehead and New York governor George Pataki would do well to rent a videotape of "All About Eve" and examine Bette Davis's behavior before the big party scene. Her character Margo Channing reaches into a candy dish and hesitates again and again before finally popping a candy into her mouth. This tantalizing motif — impulse, surrender, gratification — is the central one of the twenty-first century. It alone must provide the ideological blueprint for all architectural work being done anywhere in the world, including Lower Manhattan. If this fails to make sense to the theme-park obsessed corporate apologists for big business, so be it.
In the interest of full disclosure, my proposal for the site will be revealed at a time and place of my choosing. Fasten your seatbelts, New York.
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