PRINT February 1992



To the editor:
The vicious and vitriolic attack on John Hejduk in the October 1991 issue of Artforum is, an outrageous abuse of the freedom of the press. It goes well beyond the limits of a critique. The vilification, name-calling, unfounded allegations, and blatant lies bring to mind the worst of the McCarthy period. Mr. Muschamp is a disenchanted liberal with a reactionary agenda.

He uses Mr. Hejduk as a scapegoat for all the ills of architecture and society, precisely the things that John Hejduk has fought against all his life: corruption of architecture’s integrity, pseudoeducation, political irresponsibility, moral duplicity. Mr. Muschamp’s attack is not merely an assassination job on an individual but an attack on the very substance of architecture, imagination, and commitment.

John Hejduk is one of the most distinguished and significant architects of the late 20th century. He is also the single most important educator and universally recognized as such. I live in a city that contains three major projects by John Hejduk—all of which have become landmarks for both residents and visitors alike. Moreover, I was one of his many students and attribute my thoughts and passions for building to his inspired teaching, thinking, and personal example.

The accusations brought by Mr. Muschamp (who the hell is he anyway?) against John Hejduk are meant to discredit an individual with an international reputation. Mr. Muschamp has collapsed into a world where criticism no longer functions because it has been overtaken by personal animosity, jealousy, and vindictiveness. His self-appointed crusade on behalf of the “middle ground, social responsibility, and the real world” are the pathetic clichés of a would-be totalitarian.

Mr. Muschamp’s concluding definition that “architecture is a dualistic art” should be extended to cover his own shameful duplicity and to relegate him to the junk heap of architectural criticism. He has discredited himself and your magazine.
—Daniel Libeskind

Herbert Muschamp writes: “Hejduk, the guru—the Mike Milken—of paper architecture, has made a career of standing aloof from conventional practice.” Also: “A special torture should be devised for John Hejduk.” If the writer doesn’t call this ad hominem, he may think of another fallacy: the appeal to force, also name-calling, mudslinging.

It’s hard to respond to such a cheapening of discourse. I take it the author thinks it ironic or metaphoric. Anyone to whom I have shown this “review” has found the language a shocking misrepresentation of John Hejduk. Calling for heads on spikes is the language of the tabloid or persecution.

Most of the article is based on a spurious vulgar-sociological analogy. Hejduk’s analytic, poetic, and subtle work of three or more decades is likened to the amoral corruption in financial markets of the unproductive but greedy ’80s. His architecture, social housing, drawings, and meditations on the city are all accused of being indifferent to the real and productive of brutal gentrification. This is actually a simplistic reworking of a variety of crude arguments throughout the century against experiment in form and in favor of some truncated view of “the real.” Analytic art, however, is not antisocial daydreaming, and the accusation is dangerous and corrupting.

Muschamp quotes me on Hejduk’s use of angels, but he has no sense of the social force of the sacred there. Like those who find no social meaning in the fables of Kafka, Muschamp derides an angelology filled with multiple humors and horrors. This angelology has, if Muschamp were a better reader, communitarian meanings that should concern him.

You would never know from this article of Hejduk’s many volumes (including a complex text on the Holocaust), his social housing for Berlin, or his functional renovation of the Foundation Building at Cooper Union, the last surely one of most radiant working structures in our city. His drawings are praised as if decorative, and surely Muschamp knows these wild essays are not a phenomenon of the last decade nor made for some “career.” They are often precisely social critiques of the empty culture Hejduk deplores. To compare this poet of pessimism and imagination to a financial manipulator is bizarre and unimaginative.

In Central Europe, where Hejduk and I collaborated on a social structure in memory of the political suicide Jan Palach, architects understood these multiple social meanings and applauded Hejduk’s complex mastery. How sad that Muschamp gives the uninitiated reader no sense of the density of this architect’s works. Hejduk doesn’t draw just angels but cities and inhabitants of all kinds, and degradations like the one in question: “a time of crucified angels.” Reductive political criticism frightens those who have truly experienced it, in Prague.

In Prague, and in America, where so many students have learned from him, Hejduk is admired for his poignant freedoms and the paradoxical rigor of his visions. Really, the job of criticism of John Hejduk’s work is a significant task. It remains to be done.

I teach Cooper Union students poetry as a critical and tectonic art, and I note, as an old activist, that students may protest what they dislike in the city precisely because of what they have learned from John Hejduk and other critical poets of the city: Rimbaud, Pasternak, Frank O’Hara. John Hejduk’s thoughtful architecture and pedagogy are two of the ingredients that save our city from mere real estate and greed.
—David Shapiro
New York

Herbert Muschamp replies:
My column dealt with the transformation of paper architecture in the 1980s from a subversive act to a privileged commodity. These letters do not address that subject. They do, however, raise a related issue, which I would like to address in reply: the issue of the role of criticism in connection with this development.

The subjects of my architectural criticism are the creative process, the social contract, and their interaction. In the 1980s I often wrote supportively of architects operating outside traditional practice, not only because their work was artistically valuable but because it held out the promise of negotiating a more democratic social contract for architecture by advancing the field’s independence from the privileged few who can afford to build. Theoretical projects can still contribute to this goal, and I will continue to write about them.

At the same time, I feel a responsibility as a critic to recognize that by the end of the 1980s, what had started out as a challenge to the status quo had become an accepted form of practice within it. It is no longer possible to believe that paper architecture is inherently critical or subversive; criticism must also take into account the extent to which it has become a form of salon art. My column was an attack on the walls of the salon, not on the architects within them, except insofar as some architects have become attached to those walls and dependent on criticism to prop them up.

The architectural profession has seldom shown much tolerance toward dissenting views. Architects have long expected and received self-abasing treatment from writers. Nothing I wrote in my column goes beyond the boundaries of accepted practice in criticism of art, books, dance, music, film, or theater, but periodicals covering these fields are seldom subject to the degree of control imposed by architects on the architectural press. I am disappointed but not surprised, therefore, to have my work characterized as tabloid sensationalism.

The new twist in this story is that some architects and their cheerleaders have come to believe that their work is criticism, and for that reason should remain eternally immune from it. They want their critics to reassure them that the salon is really some kind of guerrilla encampment, an attitude that tends to confirm the premise of my column: these architects now feel entitled to the same deference long expected by traditional practitioners. Since Artforum has always supported experimental work (and experimental writing about it), perhaps some readers were shocked to discover that there’s a difference between critical support and canned applause. In any case, the use of writers as PR tools to promote a self-styled “critical architecture,” and the willingness of writers to be used as such, remain pressing problems for those who feel that criticism should aim toward an ideal of independence. I am not looking to architects or their boosters to provide the solution.