Aggression is a particle, desire is a wave.” Thus Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for The New York Times, characterizes countervailing forces in the universal ether, metaphors that once again plunge us into this critic’s seductive worldview. Week after week, architects and the cognoscenti read the Times’ architectural criticism—caught up in its language, prejudices, quirks, variable points of view, sometimes brilliant fireworks across the cultural spectrum—responding to a voice that reverberates from coast to coast.
Although the role of architecture critic at the Times may seem inevitable, the position is a recent one. Ada Louise Huxtable introduced regular architectural criticism to the pages of the paper in 1963, winning respect both for the publication and for urban planning and architecture, while earning a Pulitzer Prize—an honor also garnered by her replacement, Paul Goldberger. Forty years later, the approaching anniversary of Huxtable’s contribution prompts us to examine what the paper has accomplished for the field.
The Times’ coverage and reach are unique. While other major newspapers, such as The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, include architectural criticism of worldwide projects in their pages, most stories concern interventions within their own metro regions. The New York Times, however, equally quoted in San Francisco as in Westchester County, assumes an exalted position of influence, aided by staff writers regularly covering architecture in a cacophonous, lively brew of articles: Stories about buildings and cities appear in real estate, urban planning, residential, and cultural beats. We all have our favorites. Yet, uniquely among the other cultural disciplines, architectural criticism sings solo.
Therein lies the rub. Critics are meant to judge and to create adherents and enemies: Journalistic ethics protects them. The paper should elicit a national dialogue. Instead, speaking ex cathedra from the newspaper of record, the current, lone officeholder wields tremendous authority, if not real power, since no one refutes him. Critical stories by other writers rarely surface anywhere in print, prompting rumors of veto power and mythical hegemony. The Times critic is, however, but one person in a vast field, and the stakes are too high for the Mother of the Arts to be limited to a singular perspective. Two eyes cannot suffice.
Unfortunately, the newspaper has missed too much, failing to offer analysis or meaningful coverage of worthwhile projects that deserve our collective attention. Following September 11, which prompted award-winning coverage, many of the newspaper’s resources and its chief critic’s time were engaged in reporting the developments in Lower Manhattan and in cooking up plans to stimulate debate (placing the critic in a problematic role for future analysis); yet other building continued apace, leaving swaths of worthwhile architecture uncovered.
Giving him his due, Muschamp succeeds at his job by consistently engaging us at the highest level. Following in the footsteps of the late Pauline Kael, if not with her rigor, this devotee of pop culture blends intellectual conceits with earthy figures like Anita Eckberg into an unanticipated, flaming cocktail we’re all thirsty for. Who among other contemporary architecture writers would combine psychoanalytic theory with aesthetics? What other writer at a commercial newspaper would dare to assert that “philosophy has abandoned Socrates for Nietzsche,” then describe the leap that architects are taking toward a more intuitive architecture? We walk the streets, heady with the intellectual fumes.
Yet, despite Muschamp’s occasional brilliance and his shaking up of the establishment’s complacency, he remains human and finite. His subjective critical approach, peppered with the personal pronoun “I,” reveals much of his own personality and idiosyncrasies along with his ideas. Long ago we became aware of a shortlist of favorites, architects who fall within his canon of small firms worthy of mention and praise, whom he has described as “among those at the forefront of intersubjective architecture.” A tongue-in-cheek parody circulating on the Internet and mentioned in the Los Angeles Times on November 10 convincingly captures his personal style and obsessive list-making.
While we may quibble over the idiosyncrasies, the newspaper’s omissions have been significant. In New York City, the paper avoided serious discussion of the new vertical campus at Baruch College, for example, an ambitious urban intervention by Kohn Pedersen Fox worthy of thoughtful critique. A host of other projects deserved scrutiny. The list ranges from 4 Times Square by Fox and Fowle and Davis Brody Bond’s South Court of the New York Public Library to the new international terminal at JFK airport by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Perhaps all four were omitted because their architects came from larger “corporate” firms, a designation that routinely draws Muschamp’s fire. But also excluded was a proliferation of smaller work by talented, favored firms, such as the Melrose Community Center by Agrest and Gandelsonas and the Ferry Terminal at Pier 11, Wall Street, by Smith-Miller Hawkinson.
The paper lacked coverage outside the city. For an ambitious national newspaper, where was its commentary on the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava, the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels by José Rafael Moneo in Los Angeles, work by Steven Holl or Daniel Libeskind, or Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Museum in St.Louis? All made important cultural contributions.
“I wasn’t able to cover most of those works,” he explained in print. “The unfolding of events in the politics of New York architecture was a story I couldn’t overlook.” Certainly not, but why should the paper remain aloof to issues beyond those produced by a tightly focused cast of characters? Wouldn’t the city, its people, and all architecture benefit from enumeration and deconstruction of our successes as well as our imperfectly realized ambitions?
Moreover, we never know when to look for the column. Erratic scheduling, which follows no discernable pattern, undercuts a regular readership, producing silent weeks in which architecture simply goes missing. When it does surface, the content appears to be minimally edited, a situation that encourages rambling digressions that often veer far from a thesis. The inevitable response of some readers is to relegate the column, and therefore the field, to the merely capricious. Architecture deserves more attention.
The answer to this dilemma lies in adding a critic to the masthead. For years, more than one individual routinely has covered other cultural beats: art, dance, movies, and music benefit from multiple points of view. Analogously, another talent could write in parallel with Muschamp, counterbalancing aggression with desire, particles with waves—someone to cover the subject when he cannot or isn’t interested, one who will reach outside Muschamp’s territory and complete a column when he does not. The time is right; the subject of design, on everyone’s lips, deserves the commitment.
Symbol, witness, shelter, portal to consciousness, to paraphrase the critic. Who else can help us winnow through the chaff to find the meanings inherent in new projects? We are fortunate to have an architecture critic at The New York Times as insightful and engaging as Herbert Muschamp. However, rather than his single gaze, architectural criticism in this national newspaper should more resemble the multidimensional view of the Hindu goddess Kali, a three-eyed deity simultaneously wielding the heads of her victims and the blessings of continual rebirth in her multiple hands.
The critic outlined the issues well himself: “Actually, all phases of the building art—including zoning, economics, politics, context, history, aesthetics, and ideology—fall within the traditional scope of critical interpretation.” He said it, we need it: Now, great Gray Lady, give us one more pair of eyes.
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