View Full Version : Libeskind Backers Fight Back

February 13th, 2003, 10:46 PM
New York Observer
Feb 13, 2003

Libeskind Acolytes Barrage The Times Attacking Muschamp

by Sridhar Pappu

Ever since crews began clearing debris from Ground Zero, the
strong and sometimes acerbic writing of The New York Timesí
architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, has helped trigger a citywideóand worldwideódebate over what should stand at the site of New Yorkís greatest civic disaster.

Critics love to provoke, of course, but with the Ground Zero discussion down to a pair of finalists chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, another question is being asked: Is Mr. Muschampólong a lightning rod for * criticismógetting too cozy with his advocacy? Some within the architectural community think so, charging that Mr. Muschamp exhibited a conflict of interest in his read-by-everyone review in the Feb. 6 Times, which promoted the two-tower Ground Zero plan helmed by an architect he knows and has worked withóRafael ViŮoly of the THINK groupówhile aggressively diminishing the other, Daniel Libeskindís single-tower, "bathtub"-preserving design.

As the Daily News reported on Feb. 9, a member of Mr. Libeskindís Berlin office sent out a mass e-mail calling for a grassroots letter campaign to demand Mr. Muschampís ouster. The e-mail called Mr. Muschampís reviewóin which he
skewered *Mr. Libeskindís plan as an "astonishingly tasteless idea"ó"incoherent and almost crazy" and stated that "this time, Muschamp went too far."

"Please get rid of this guy," the e-mail said.

That a member of Mr. Libeskindís team would be so outraged by Mr. Muschampís review is hardly surprising. (Talk about a conflict of interest.) Whatís more, neither Mr. Libeskind nor his wife, Nina, was aware the letter had been sent out, and the e-mailing employee later apologized for his actions and withdrew his call to arms.

But other architecture heavies, unattached to either Ground Zero plan, are also put off. Robert Ivy, the editor of Architectural Record, was among those who saw Mr. *Muschampís dismissal of Mr. Libeskind and his praise of Mr. ViŮoly and THINK as part of what they see as his habit of praising the work of architects he knows at the expense of others. Mr. ViŮoly, Mr. Ivy and others contend, has received years of favorable treatment from Mr. Muschamp, and was included in the group of architects Mr. Muschamp hand-picked for a Sept. 8 Times Magazine article about the Ground Zero redevelopment. (That article itself was controversial, since critics charged it moved Mr. Muschamp from a mere reviewer to an active participant in the lower-Manhattan redevelopment process.)

"We all know the admiration he has for Rafael ViŮoly and his work," said Mr. Ivy, who, in a December editorial in the Architectural Record called for The Times to hire a second architectural critic to broaden the paperís coverage. "ViŮolyís a wonderful architect and done wonderful work, but I think his [Mr. Muschampís] admiration has clouded his perception. This wouldnít be a question if he didnít * * *attack Libeskind in the way he did. He sees it as a clear-cut case when itís not."

In a similar vein, Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architectsí New York chapter, said: "I think the temptation on the part of any critic is to write about the people heís most familiar with. His ideas tend to be very insular and didactic. Iíve said this to him over lunch and itís like hitting a wall. His work would be commendable if it werenít so selfish and didactic."

Mr. Muschamp is unmoved. In an interview with Off the Record, Mr. Muschamp declined to talk about the e-mail from Mr. Libeskindís staffer, but appeared to relish the clamor.

"I like conflict," Mr. Muschamp said. "I made my views on this very clear: One of the reasons itís great to write about architecture is that it promotes conflict."

As for Mr. Libeskind, Mr. Muschamp said: "Iíve said marvelous things about Libeskindís work in the past. I felt the Jewish Museum in Berlin was admirable.Attempting to analyze why one does it and why doesnít do it for me is perhaps the subject for a column itself: Oneís poetry and oneís rhetoric."

Mr. Muschamp described himself as "fairly independent" in his judgment. "But Iím in the discrimination and assessment business," he said. "I feel like thatís what The Times is paying me to do."

Mr. Muschamp has been down this road before. In 2000, Judith Shulevitz called him on the carpet in Slate for his role in helping both to select, and then to appraise the design for, The Timesí new headquarters. But this time, critics argue, thereís more at stake. Mr. Muschampís work directly involves one of the greatest and most debated architectural undertakings in New York City history. At a time when, as`Mr. Ivy pointed out, "you have bartenders asking about Daniel Libeskind," critics think Mr. Muschampís writing has been too abstract and not tied to real questions of urban planning.

Said Mr. Bell: "I wish I could say heís been productive."

Susan S. Szenasy, editor of Metropolis, another architecture magazine, said she felt Mr. Muschamp had missed a great opportunity.

"Heís a real seasoned thinker, and he really could create better understanding," Ms.Szenasy said. "But heís only added to the confusion. Heís only interested in writing about whatever historical architectural reference he can dig up. Does that help us? Does that make clear what exactly weíre talking about? No.

"Weíre confused," Ms. Szenasy continued. "People are going to the THINK plan because when we lose something, we want what we know. Do we really want the towers back? Well, we want something."

But the Times critic sounded nonplusedóand content to ride out the complaints. Asked about what he saw as his role in the World Trade Center story, Mr.Muschamp said: "Iíve never had a vision for the site. The issues here are less architectural than they are educational. I donít think Iím outspoken as a critic. I didnít wake up this morning thinking, ĎWho can I offend today?í

"Judgments need to be made," Mr. Muschamp continued. "There are ideas in certain circles of architecture that hold architecture back, and hold the city back from being like Paris and the other great cites of the world."

Mr. Muschamp added that he was aware he "made people uncomfortable."

"Iím not really frightened," he said. "I donít care what people think of me."

February 13th, 2003, 11:39 PM
Oh! *Snap!

February 14th, 2003, 02:11 AM
Like Libeskind or not, Muschamp was particularly harsh in his latest review. Especially, considering his initial glowing reviews of the Libeskind plan.

February 14th, 2003, 01:33 PM
Muschamp really bugs me. *He is an incredibly irresponsible journalist.

February 14th, 2003, 03:36 PM
I completely agree.

February 14th, 2003, 04:41 PM
Without him there may not have been a Libeskind scheme to criticize. His active campaign was instrumental in making the public realize the importance of architecture and that business as usual was not a fatality in the redevelopment of the WTC site. The reproach of bias is hardly credible since he welcomed Libeskind's participation as the highest possible elevation of the process and initially praised his design. So I'm not too concerned with journalistic deontological issues, his alleged role as judge and party. You can question his about-face and consider him fickle but, as they say, only idiots never change their minds.

The other criticism, that he is too abstract and prone to make historical references, makes no sense. If a critic's eyes were glued to the latest developments he would not be able to shed any light on them. Edwar Wyatt usually covers practical issues in the Times and there is plenty of that in the media in general. Granted, he is sometimes vague and obscure but he is more often clear, incisive and to the point. I have no problem with engaged critique and think his influence has been largely positive for NYC. I find the attention his writing receives surprising - he is constantly quoted. Not a chance that the Times will get rid of one of its star critics anytime soon.

From http://acdouglas.com:

Wednesday, 15 January 2003

That Evil Herbert Muschamp

Fellow culture blogger Michael of 2Blowhards, in furtherance of his campaign against what he terms elitist architects, elitist architecture ("egotecture" ), and the elitist architectural establishment (as used by Michael, the term elitist has much the same connotation as the term child-molester), links to this old post (23 December 2002) by Philip Murphy of The Invisible Hand weblog, wherein Mr. Murphy rails rantingly against most of the recently submitted designs for the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and more particularly against the New York Times's "evil architecture critic," Herbert Muschamp.

And what does Mr. Murphy (and Michael as well) have against Mr. Muschamp?

This, for one thing:

[A]s an elitist, Muschamp has to constantly keep pushing himself into realms were common folk can't follow."

And this for another:

[Muschamp's] contempt for popular tastes in architecture is virulent. Today [23 December 2002] is the third time in a week he has slammed the husband and wife design team of Peterson Littenberg [sic] which he dismissed on Sunday as "followers of the reactionary architect Leon Krier, Prince Charles' architectural adviser."

Curious complaint from Mr. Murphy (who, it seems, uses the term elitist in the same way as does Michael). The Peterson/Littenberg design for Ground Zero deserved a slamming -- in spades. A vapid, unimaginative bit of dross that had no right ending up as a finalist in the competition in the first place, and did so, I'm reliably informed, only because of Peterson/Littenberg's special connection to the competition's sponsors.

Now, I confess I rather prefer the steely, incisive, and aesthetically and historically sharp-eyed commentary of an Ada Louise Huxtable (whose NYT's columns I sorely miss) to the at times esoteric, head-in-the-clouds visionary maunderings of a Herbert Muschamp. But by and large, and more often than not, Mr. Muschamp's head and heart are in the right place, and his informed commentary pretty much spot-on.

What I find grating about Mr. Murphy's attitude (and Michael's as well) is the (at least) implied notion that where public building projects are concerned, popular tastes -- the tastes of The People, the common man -- ought to be consulted in matters aesthetic.

On first hearing, that notion sounds perfectly reasonable. I mean, after all it's the common man who will be paying for those buildings, and who will have to live and work in and with them once they're built. Why shouldn't his aesthetic tastes be consulted, and his wishes incorporated in their design?

For the same reason that not even the most rabid populist would so much as think of suggesting that the opinions of the common man be consulted and incorporated in the actual construction of those buildings, or in, say, the design of a rocket ship to Mars, or in the methods used in the diagnosing and treatment of a lethal new disease. In such cases, we want the opinions of gifted specialists -- trained, qualified, and experienced experts -- to prevail at all times: the most gifted, the best trained, the best qualified, and the most experienced possible. Why? Because they know their stuff and the common man doesn't. Not to put too fine a point on it, in matters such as these the common man is an ignoramus.

Just so in aesthetic matters of public moment. The common man is largely an ignoramus aesthetically, and knows only what he likes. That's OK when the decision involved is, say, what clothing to buy for the big bash next weekend, or what color his next car should be, or what paintings he wants hanging in his living room. But that's where the OK stops -- or ought to. If aesthetic decisions of public moment had in past been left to a consensus of the tastes of the common man, painters would still be painting with spit and vegetable dye on cave walls and on the walls of makeshift hovels. You know, the caves and makeshift hovels in which we'd all still be living and working.

No, the tastes of the common man controlling aesthetic design decisions of public moment just won't do. We need gifted specialists -- trained and qualified experts, the very best possible -- making all such decisions. And we need gifted specialists -- trained and qualified experts, the very best possible -- keeping tabs on those decision makers: encouraging, scolding, and goading them on from their journalistically privileged critical position, and offering trenchant, sharp-eyed and informed public commentary on their doings in and for the public interest.

You know. Experts like Herbert Muschamp.

February 14th, 2003, 04:57 PM
I don't think the Times will get rid of him, either. *But I have followed his column for years, and I'll stand by what I said. *His enthusiasm for the architectural avant-garde, and his constant agitation on its behalf have clouded his judgement. *His writing, moreover, often seems barely edited as it rambles and makes grand proclamations without concern for supporting arguments. *A good dose of humility would do him well, as would a college writing course.

February 14th, 2003, 05:14 PM
His relentless promotion of the "avant-garde" is his main virtue and shows that his judgement is essentially sound.

February 14th, 2003, 11:04 PM
There's nothing wrong with promoting the avant-garde per se. *I don't like the way he's going about it.

February 15th, 2003, 02:36 AM
The man wishes he was on the brainy side.
He's not.

February 15th, 2003, 05:46 AM
Oh. Case closed, then.

February 16th, 2003, 05:02 AM
Why ?
Do you think you can deprive us of that little pleasure ?
I need some more :
Muschamp is didactical.