PRINT May 1995


WRITING AN INTRODUCTION to an essay by an architecture critic who has written, to this point, rather kindly of my work, and who at some point will inevitably have a reason to do otherwise, presents a rather precarious position.

The world we live in is a place where a lot of buildings are made, but very few eke out the merits to be called “architecture.” When they do, it is the job of the architecture critic to tell people, from some intelligent vantage or viewpoint, what they are looking at. The critic presents a context for the work, and a passion for both its successes and its failures, and does so with an understanding befitting a trusted partner.

Herbert Muschamp shoulders that responsibility and then some. He became the New York Times architecture critic a couple of years ago, following in the footsteps of two formidable giants in the field: Ada Louise Huxtable, who still has a powerful presence in the architectural community, and Paul Goldberger, who has taken a more diverse journalistic path (including architecture) since appointing Muschamp to his former position. Herbert hit the deck running. From the beginning, he established a style different from his predecessors’, and one distinctly his own: as a writer, he’s willing to allow some of his own agony and angst in the preparation of his arguments to show through. This and the level of seriousness and commitment he brings to his work are comforting to me as a reader and as a maker of architecture, for they reveal a creative process like what I go through in creating buildings.

Herbert is a perceptive and articulate observer of the art of architecture, and he has a passionate sense of the social and urban concerns that inform the field at its best. Not given to superficial or trivial discussion, he does not pander to the winds of style and fashion but probes deeply into architecture’s relationship to cultural, economic, and political conditions while at the same time reveling in the medium’s sensual power. His brilliance in articulating the complex web of factors and aspirations that inform architectural work makes his columns accessible and interesting to a large audience; they have become a significant agent in refocusing the perception of the built environment in the national cultural debate.

Frank Gehry

I AM GRATEFUL for this homecoming to Artforum, which is the magazine that gave me my first chance to practice journalism. That was in 1984, when Ingrid Sischy, then Artforum’s editor, started the monthly columns section, and invited me to contribute a column on architecture. Ingrid could be tough. I called her “my trainer,” partly because her editing sessions could leave me sore, but also because she taught me a lot. The first time we met to discuss the column, for example, Ingrid shocked me by asking, “Don’t you think writing books is a kind of death wish?”

Well! I’d written two books by that time, and was proud of them. But it was like Ingrid to use a shock tactic to get a message across, and this time the message was: journalism moves at the speed of life. So it’s a very unjournalistic thing that I’m about to do: look backward over the past three years and trace a few arcs along the learning curve that began in June of 1992, when I took the job of architecture critic at the New York Times.

Writing for the Times is a kid’s outsized fantasy of what he might do when he grows up. I mean, the reality of it is outsized and fantastic. It’s the Times. And it occupies this immense Gothic château in the city’s heart. The atmosphere, the tradition, the power of the institution—all these can bring out the scared 12-year-old in anyone. But for a writer, that château can also be an enchanted palace.

It’s a place dedicated to storytelling. Have you filed your story yet? When are you filing your story? That was a great story yesterday. Do you have a moment to go over your story? I used to write essays. Now I write stories. That’s probably the best way to sum up the way my writing has changed since I began at the Times. Essays have the deliberation, detachment, and polish of a literary form. They have some aspiration to permanence; you can imagine them collected between hard covers, sitting on a shelf. Stories—newspaper stories—are more informal, more gut-driven. They’re more oral than literary. (I usually talk them aloud as I write them.) Stories exist in the moment; yesterday’s story is old news.

It’s scary to write on gut. What if you don’t have a gut to go on? The fear is not just that there’s too little time to revise and polish, it’s that perhaps there’s been nothing there but polish all these years. Maybe when all that gloss is taken away, your hollowness will be unmistakably revealed. Since the Times is widely and closely read, this fear can become acute. The first time I did a cover story for the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section, I was appalled when I walked past the newsstand on Saturday night and saw a stack of papers with my story facing out. It was like seeing a wanted poster with my face on it. I felt guilty—of half-baked thoughts, faulty logic, clunky language, the hubris of supposing I had anything to say that belonged on a front page.

But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I had another story to get out. And eventually I learned that this is one of the advantages of writing for a daily: the stories are nearly as ephemeral as the thoughts that pass through your head when you’re walking down the street. Whether it’s a good story or a bad one, it’s gone in 24 hours. Or, looked at another way, it’s a brief episode in one long continuous story. When you’re trying to do justice to an important subject but you only have 1,100 or 1,200 words, what you’re mostly conscious of is the stuff you have to leave out. And that stuff can get the ball rolling for a future column.

The Times was the first newspaper in the world to hire a full-time architecture critic. Only three people, including myself, have held the job. The Sunday “Architecture View” column remains the only critical coverage of the field offered with consistent frequency to a general readership. The job, in other words, is sacred, and it can be inhibiting to inhabit something sacred. One fears soiling it, fears thinking of it too much as an “it,” an existing model to which, swayed by the eminence of the institution, one feels obliged to tailor one’s ideas.

If that was ever the case with my Times columns, though, I had no one to blame but myself. Again and again, when I was interviewed for the job, editors had said the same thing: don’t censor yourself. We hire people because they have fresh voices; some of them freeze up when they get here. It was Max Frankel, then the paper’s executive editor, who most helped me to overcome this inhibition. At one point before I was hired, I asked Max if I could occasionally write for other publications. Max agreed, then added, “But if you have something to say, and you don’t say it here, you’re crazy.”

This was the best thing he could have said. Up to that point, I’d been allowing myself to fear that the job wasn’t really about whether or not I had anything to say, it was about trying to figure out what an institution like the Times ought to say. By his assumption that what I would say in the column was what I had to say, though, Max was telling me to be myself.

Having something to say is more than a matter of content. It’s also a matter of voice. Content itself is partly a matter of voice; people are often quicker to pick up on an idea when it is implicit in diction than when it is explicitly spelled out. Experimenting with voice is one of this job’s greatest pleasures. A voice is really voices, a gathering of dictions and attitudes that coexist, not always harmoniously, like multiple personalities, or perhaps temperaments or humors. I have names for some of mine: Wanda (sanguine), Mona (choleric), Theresa (phlegmatic), and Droopsy (melancholic).

What may have been missing from my stories in the first couple of years, though, was the benignly driven voice of Eros, at once selfish and self-effacing. Perhaps the superego took the upper hand. I don’t think my early stories lacked passion, mood, sensuousness, a sense of play; what they lacked was the charge that flows from the primitive desire to make something beautiful for someone you love. Unromantic though it may seem, I half suspect that I had to cook up a romance to move my writing forward. Too many readers were writing in to praise my writing’s “ethical core.” Not that I wanted my work to lack a moral dimension, but I wanted its core to be emotional.

Though my subject is architecture, and my columns are often reviews of individual buildings, my larger framework is the city, and my bond to the city is sentimental. Sybil Moholy-Nagy called the city “the matrix of man.” I think of it as the great mother substitute. An ancient idea: think of Rome and its great seal, the she-wolf suckling the twins. For me, more prosaically, the first city was downtown Philadelphia, which I began to explore as a suburban boy of 12, tapping into the city’s power to nurture a child’s sense of possibility. I started writing, in part, to give that sense some palpable form, to bring the city into my life before I was old enough actually to live there.

When George Balanchine said that “everything a man does he does for his ideal woman,” he was talking about the fascination of the unattainable—it’s the subject of many of his ballets—and I think that the city I write about is ideal and unattainable in a similar way. When I was younger, I wrote about the city because it wasn’t mine, and perhaps my real subject wasn’t so much the city as it was my yearning for it, or for the sense of completion or fulfillment that it represented. Maybe that is still my subject, only now the city is as much mine as it is ever going to be, and the yearning can be that much harder to sustain. But the city seen through the eyes of a lover is unattainable, in the sense that the beloved is ultimately unattainable. Even when you are with the person, you can never fully inhabit their outlook, though that outlook may be what drew you to them.

Still, that outlook can stimulate you to bring out what’s good about your own view. It can heighten your perception and increase your sense of drama or beauty or urgency or empathy. Then you can make a picture of that heightened view of things—in my case, using words. Needless to say, this doesn’t preclude the use of analytic tools. Balanchine was precisely analytic in his understanding of musical scores and dancers’ bodies. This gave his ballets their rigor. But Balanchine placed his mastery of music and physique at the service of the elusive object of his desire. And this gave his ballets their beauty.

My impulse to treat architecture emotionally may come from personal experience, but it corresponds to what has been going on in architecture itself. I’m not injecting something foreign; I’m looking for the words to describe ideas that have been floating around architecture for some time, particularly since the decline of the Modern movement. Emotional content is not a new theme in architecture, but for much of this century it was downplayed. The Modern movement crystallized around the concept of the New Objectivity. Post-Modernism opened the door to a richer emotional content, especially the retrieval of memory, but then cloaked it beneath the dubious authority of historical style. Post-Modernism made classicism respectable again, but who wants a respectable classicism? Why not an indecent classicism, like that described by Eleanor Clark in her chapter on fountains in Rome and a Villa? “You walk close to your dreams,” Clark writes. “Sometimes it seems that these pulsing [Roman] crowds . . . will in another minute all be naked, or will have fish tails or horses’ behinds like the characters of the fountains.” Isn’t that the real reason architects used to go to Rome?

If I have an agenda, it is to peek beneath the mantles of authority with which architecture needlessly cloaks itself, and reveal the fishtails and horses’ behinds. It’s not that I want buildings to look ridiculous (usually it’s the cloaks that are ridiculous); I want them to step up to their civic duty and take a more profound role in the life of the mind. These days, if people think at all of American cities in terms of passion, what often comes to mind are images of street crime and sex shops. Architecture, by contrast, comes across as the great inhibitor, the force that will stamp out red-light districts and keep violence at bay.

Typically, people turn to fiction or movies for more complex insights into connections between urban forms and human emotions. I’m thinking, for instance, of how, in Another Country, James Baldwin contrasts the imagery of New York and Paris in describing the different range of emotional possibilities peculiar to each city. Or how Bret Easton Ellis has traced a mode of passive aggression—a certain upper-middle-class anomie—that has become commonplace since Los Angeles loomed large in the national imagination. I want to write columns that illuminate similar relationships among people, places, and things.

This is a traditional, even conservative agenda. Love as education, the city as a syllabus in the training of the senses: these are ancient Western ideas, hallmarks of classical thought. Recently I’ve been meditating on something Janet Flanner wrote in a letter to her companion, the Italian editor Natalia Denesi Murray, in response to a love letter (not published) that Murray wrote to Planner in 1958. “Always since I have known you I have said that the Italian civilization was maintained through the centuries not only by the art of their landscapes and of their artists’ works, but by the perfecting of their knowledge of the education of passion, and how it has preserved and informed your race, since before the time of Christians back into the classic spirit of body and heart, in your land.”