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Thread: Herbert Muschamp has died.

  1. #1

    Default Herbert Muschamp has died.

    Herbert Muschamp, Architecture Critic, Dies at 59


    Published: October 3, 2007

    Herbert Muschamp, a writer for The New York Times whose wildly ranging, often deeply personal reviews made him one of the most influential architecture critics of his generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 59 and lived in Manhattan.

    The cause was lung cancer, said Michael Ward Stout, his lawyer.

    As the architecture critic for The Times from 1992 to 2004, Mr. Muschamp seized on a moment when the repetitive battles between Modernists and Post-Modernists had given way to a surge of exuberance that put architecture back in the public spotlight. His openness to new talent was reflected in the architects he singled out, from Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel, now major figures on the world stage, to younger architects like Greg Lynn, Lindy Roy and Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto.

    A frequent champion of architects who were also known for their theoretical writings, Mr. Muschamp seemed as interested in the ideas that pushed architecture forward as he was in the successes and failures of buildings themselves. He was also known for weaving together seemingly unrelated themes in an arch, self-deprecating way that helped break down the image of the critic as an all-knowing figure who wrote from atop a pedestal.

    In a typically sprawling 1997 review of the newly opened, titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Mr. Gehry, Mr. Muschamp evoked the ghost of Marilyn Monroe to convey the headiness of the design.

    “After my first visit to the building, I went back to the hotel to write notes. It was early evening and starting to rain. I took a break to look out the window and saw a woman standing alone outside a bar across the street. She was wearing a long, white dress with matching white pumps, and she carried a pearlescent handbag. Was her date late? Had she been stood up?

    “When I looked back a bit later, she was gone. And I asked myself, Why can’t a building capture a moment like that? Then I realized that the reason I’d had that thought was that I’d just come from such a building. And that the building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

    He went on: “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 is 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.”

    Mr. Muschamp’s reviews could also be devastating, and maddening to readers who took exception to his quirky — and, some argued, self-indulgent — voice. “Herbert’s criticism was full of passion — too much for some readers,” said Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The Times who hired Mr. Muschamp. “But that passion lit up his writing and the world of architecture. One of his great themes was that New York deserved real architecture, for our times — not what developers often try to pass off.”

    Herbert Mitchell Muschamp was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 28, 1947, the son of a business executive. He fell in love with New York in the mid-1960’s while visiting the city as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon afterward he became a regular at Warhol’s decadently carefree Factory, sometimes crashing at the artist’s house on weekends. He dropped out after his second year to study architecture at the Parsons School of Design, then a year later he headed to London to study architectural history and theory at the Architectural Association.

    Mr. Muschamp returned to Parsons as a teacher in 1983, where he eventually became the director of the school’s graduate program in architecture and design criticism. Around the same time he began his career as a critic, writing for magazines like Vogue, House and Garden and Art Forum. He was appointed architecture critic at The New Republic in 1987.

    He was named the architecture critic for the Times in 1992, succeeding Paul Goldberger, who had served as the paper’s senior architecture critic since 1981.

    Mr. Muschamp continually returned to analyzing the psychological forces that shape the visual world. Reviewing the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, for example, he described a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau, which had a gas chamber (although it was ultimately not used).

    “The small size of the gas chamber comes as a surprise,” he wrote. “There is nothing to see besides four walls, a floor, a ceiling and the door that leads outside.”

    “It is when you cross the threshold of that door that you grasp the reason for visiting Dachau. You walk out into daylight, but part of you does not leave. The doorway divides you. The part that is free to walk through the door feels disembodied, a weightless ghost. You feel lightheaded, as though you have broken the law, as indeed you have. Your passage through that door has violated the design. The room was not meant to be exited alive.”

    Some of Mr. Muschamp’s fiercest attacks were reserved for the rebuilding efforts at ground zero, arguing that political concerns had trumped the city’s cultural welfare and future.

    In a 2003 appraisal on Daniel Libeskind’s proposed master plan for ground zero, he mocked the architect’s 1,776-foot Freedom Tower and a proposed promenade of heroes as “a manipulative exercise in visual codes.”

    “Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic,” he wrote. “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.”

    In other articles he lambasted the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and he fretted that New York had lost much of its creative momentum and would never fully recover.

    In 2004, he left the critic's post and began writing for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, with his subjects ranging from rhinoplasty to the Venetian empire. ("I spy for dead empires,'' he wrote. "It's my way of coping with the imperial ambitions of the living.'')

    He is survived by a sister, Muriel, of Largo, Fla., and two brothers, Robert, of Wenham, Mass., and George, of Gettysburg, Pa.

    Mr. Muschamp often reflected on the central role that gay men played in New York’s cultural history, specifically the world that he entered as a young gay man escaping the homogeneity of suburban Philadelphia.

    Reminiscing lovingly about Edward Durell Stone’s so-called lollipop building on Columbus Circle — now undergoing an extensive redesign — in a 2006 article in the paper’s Arts & Leisure section, he described his generation’s experience this way:

    “We were the children of white flight, the first generation to grow up in postwar American suburbs. By the time the ’60s rolled around, many of us, the gay ones especially, were eager to make a U-turn and fly back the other way. Whether or not the city was obsolete, we couldn’t imagine our personal futures in any other form. The street and the skyline signified to us what the lawn and the highway signified to our parents: a place to breathe free.”

  2. #2


    I'm sorry that the man died, but I won't miss his work. "Self-indulgent" is a most kind way of describing his prose.

  3. #3 Front_Porch's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Manhattan 90210


    To this non-architect, his writing was absolutely arresting:

    On Ten Columbus Circle in 2004:

    "It is good to see Skidmore, Owings & Merrill back in the business of piling up big chunks of quartz."

    On the Seagram building in 1998:

    "The business of civilization is to hold opposites together."

    ali r.
    {downtown broker}

  4. #4


    He did seem to care and write more about the city's general architectural state than Ouroussoff. Ouroussoff only seems to write when a hot new building comes out, maybe this has something to do with the Times' problems though. You'd think a critic would write about the good and the bad. Where is the architectural outcry about these McSam's?

  5. #5


    I never liked his views, and he always stirred almost a visceral reaction with me, which is to say he was a successful critic. Among the NYTIMES critics Goldberger was my favorite, I just finished his book On The Rise which is nothing more than his architectural reviews from the 1970's and 1980's, great read, I wish the Times would bring him back. Does the NYTIMES even have an architectural section anymore?

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