|Photo: © Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux
When Herbert Muschamp died on October 2, at the age of 59, it was as though a planet dropped out of our architectural constellation. From his first book in 1974, File Under Architecture, he was a fixture in our sky of thought—and then, suddenly, after a surprisingly short bout with lung cancer, he was no longer there. Whether you loved or hated his musings, you never put his articles in a pile for tomorrow. The pieces were like Herbert himself: penetrating, maddening, insightful, delightful, capricious—sometimes in the same paragraph. He practiced unpredictability as a tool of intellectual provocation.
His great achievement as a writer was to put the “I” into criticism, revealing from the outset his character and the filter through which he saw. He avoided donning the mask of objectivity, instead practicing full disclosure, inviting the reader into a near stream of consciousness that offered a ride of hairpin turns. He kept his readers company and if you liked the company, you liked the piece. Some did not.
The point was not ego but principle: Herbert established his identity as a matter of intellectual honesty. A critic cannot really write outside his temperament, and with his unapologetically subjective takes he put into practice his own version of gonzo criticism, first for The New Republic in 1987, and then for The New York Times in 1992. He always refreshed those pages, puncturing and exiting the space of the publication to enter the space of the reader, like an actor in an aside. Articles with a balanced introduction, exposition and conclusion weren’t his goal, and he wasn’t linear. He offered rawness instead and he thought laterally, connecting disparate dots into intricate three-dimensional webs.
Confessional, Herbert preferred intimacy to distance. An autodidact without a college degree, he wrote from the inside, embedding himself in the field, eventually moving from being a critic in the audience to becoming an actor on stage. Cumulatively he influenced the story he covered, urging New York to architectural greatness, championing a new set of talents. An iconoclast, he discredited established icons to make way for new ones. He played a pro-active role in a feedback loop of architecture and criticism.
He weighed in on the Edward Durell Stone building on Columbus Circle too late. He produced alternately brilliant and arbitrary opinions on Ground Zero. He went AWOL on New York’s waterfront. Prejudiced, like all critics, he overlooked major buildings by prominent architects because of his tribal affinity to the avant-garde. And in many articles he never quite got around to discussing the building and plan. But he regularly broke through preconceptions and always blew the subject into the fullest, intellectually sustainable bubble. He protected the vulnerable. A culture critic, he opened meaning on apparently off-the-subject subjects ranging from jewelry on Capri, to the melting polar ice caps. He performed his high-wire act without a net. He was never afraid of losing his job.
Famously, and infamously, Herbert once equated Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim to Marilyn Monroe in her billowing white dress. He explained they both had an American sense of generosity and spirit. They were wild. But Herbert was the elephant standing unspotted in his own article, the third point in the trinity. He was the Guggenheim and Marilyn both—intuitive, exhibitionistic, eccentric, mercurial, fearless, and urgent. Tossed between his angels and demons, he wrote in a fragile and dynamic equilibrium that was stabilized by that most ephemeral quality, radiance.