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That Evil Herbert Muschamp

Posted by acdtest on February 1, 2003

That Evil Herbert Muschamp

everal webloggers, in furtherance of their campaign against what they term elitist architects, elitist architecture, and the elitist architectural establishment (the term elitist as used by these folk has much the same connotation the term child-molester has for just about everyone), railed rantingly some months ago against most of the designs for the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and more particularly against the New York Times‘s “evil architecture critic,” as one of them put it, Herbert Muschamp.

And what do they have against Mr. Muschamp?

This, for one thing:

[A]s an elitist, Muschamp has to constantly keep pushing himself into realms were [sic] common folk can’t follow.”

And this for another:

[Muschamp’s] contempt for popular tastes in architecture is virulent. Today [23 December 2002] is the third time in a week he has slammed the husband and wife design team of Peterson Littenberg [sic] which he dismissed on Sunday as “followers of the reactionary architect Leon Krier, Prince Charles’ architectural adviser.”

Curious complaint, that last. The Peterson/Littenberg design for Ground Zero deserved a slamming — in spades. A vapid, unimaginative bit of dross that had no right ending up as a finalist in the competition in the first place, and did so, I’m reliably informed, only because of Peterson/Littenberg’s special connection to the competition’s sponsors.

Now, I confess I rather prefer the steely, incisive, and aesthetically sharp-eyed commentary of an Ada Louise Huxtable (whose NYT’s columns I sorely miss) to the at times esoteric, head-in-the-clouds visionary maunderings of a Herbert Muschamp. But more often than not, Mr. Muschamp’s head and heart are in the right place, and his informed commentary pretty much spot-on, and squarely against the populist notions of such as the above noted webloggers.

And what sort of architecture are these webloggers and scores like them for? For buildings designed in accordance with the tenets of architecture movements with names such as Traditionalist, New-Traditionalist, New-Classicism, and New Urbanism. And just what are these movements about? These webloggers would say they’re about architecture done by those who “…are more interested in user-centric values (comfiness, neighborhoods, context, tradition, craftsmanship) than they are in showing off their design prowess.” I would say they’re about building being done by those with essentially the same vision as William Levit when he built the first Levittown: Offer the common man what he wants and feels comfortable with at the right price, and he will come — in droves. Buildings built according to the so-called Traditionalist, New Traditionalist, and New Classicism aesthetic are little more than nostalgic, picture-postcard-pretty, gussied-up historical copies; and communities designed according to the aesthetic of the New Urbanism, little more than upscale, prettified Levittowns — Levittown with tasteful historical elevations and “details”. Buildings and communities built according to these aesthetics positively reek of “comfiness”; the comfiness of an old shoe — or an earth-dug grave.

In short, they’re all irredeemably dreadful as architecture; in fact do not even deserve to be called by that name. They’re merely buildings built by builders, not by architects with any aesthetic right to the title.

Architecture (and I’m here talking about single buildings or group of buildings for a single project only, not communities or cityscapes which no individual or single architectural firm ought to have design control of at all except in grid) has always been the most difficult art because of its obligation to utility. But all art is quite useless, said Dear Oscar famously, and Dear Oscar was right about almost everything as Harold Bloom slyly informs us.

All art is quite useless indeed — with architecture the single, and singular, exception. And make no mistake. The one thing — the only thing — that distinguishes genuine architecture from mere building is that genuine architecture is always art first and foremost, and building second. No art, no architecture.

But architecture’s obligation to utility is a most special one; in fact a sacred ethical and professional obligation that must never be glossed or indifferently attended to. The measure, however, of how faithfully an architect has fulfilled that sacred obligation is not the degree to which he gave his client what he (the client) wanted, but rather the degree to which he gave his client what he (the architect) thought he ought to have as an answer to the detailed program of the building supplied him by the client. Any architect worthy of the name knows that in his bones, even though in today’s out-of-control equalitarian climate he’d be loath, not to say reckless, to voice it in just that way, even in private. As the great Mies said, “I will teach people to live in my buildings.”

Just so.

I guess what I really find grating about the attitude of the aforementioned webloggers and others of like mind is the (at least) implied extended notion that where public rather than private building projects are concerned, popular opinion — the opinion of The People, the common man — ought to be consulted in aesthetic matters.

On first hearing, that notion sounds perfectly reasonable. After all it’s the common man who will be paying for those buildings, and who will have to live and work in them once they’re built. Why shouldn’t his aesthetic opinion be consulted, and his aesthetic wishes be incorporated in their design?

For the same reason that not even the most rabid populist would so much as think of suggesting that the opinion of the common man be consulted and incorporated in the actual construction of those buildings, or in, say, the design of a rocket ship to Mars, or in the methods used in the diagnosing and treatment of a lethal new disease. In such cases, we want the opinion of gifted specialists — trained, qualified, and experienced experts — to prevail at all times: the most gifted, the best trained, the best qualified, and the most experienced possible. We want that because these specialists know their stuff and the common man doesn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, in matters such as these the common man is an ignoramus.

Just so in aesthetic matters of public moment. The common man is largely an ignoramus aesthetically, and knows only what he likes. That’s OK when the decision involved is, say, what clothing to buy for the big bash next weekend, or what color his next car should be, or what paintings he wants hanging in his living room. But that’s where the OK stops — or ought to. If aesthetic decisions of public moment had in past been left to a consensus of the opinion of the common man, painters would still be painting with spit and vegetable dye on cave walls and on the walls of makeshift hovels. You know, the very caves and makeshift hovels in which we’d all still be living and working.

No, the opinion of the common man controlling aesthetic design decisions of public moment just won’t do. We need gifted specialists — trained and qualified experts, the very best possible — making all such decisions. And we need gifted specialists — trained and qualified experts, the very best possible — keeping tabs on those decision makers: encouraging, scolding, and goading them on from journalistically privileged critical positions, and offering as well trenchant, sharp-eyed, and informed public commentary in and for the public interest on their doings.

You know. Experts like Herbert Muschamp.

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