A New Low: Or Why the New York Times Needs a New Architecture Critic

New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp descended to a new ethical low on February 6 in his critical appraisal of the two World Trade Center plans chosen as finalists. In the process of extolling the virtues of Think’s “World Cultural Center,” he condemned Daniel Libeskind’s slurry-wall scheme, calling it “an astonishingly tasteless idea.”

Describing the thematic elements in the Libeskind plan (the architect’s likening of the slurry wall to the Constitution; the 1,776-foot tower; the Wedge of Light) Muschamp wrote: “Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design’s message seems even more loaded.”

Then the reasoning got weirder. Muschamp went on to say, “The longer I study Mr. Libeskind’s design, the more it comes to resemble the blandest of all the projects unveiled in the recent design study: the retro vision put forth by the New Urbanist designers Peterson Littenberg.”

This is nonsense, but it isn’t what was truly offensive about the piece. As a critic Muschamp is entitled to his opinions; his subjective pronouncements are just that. My problem with his recent “appraisal” is rooted in the dreary fact that I’m forced by occupation to be a close reader of his work.

On December 19, the day after the unveiling of the nine plans at the Winter Garden in New York City, the Times critic wrote capsule assessments of each plan. Of the Libeskind plan he said: “If you’re looking for the marvelous, here’s where you’ll find it. Daniel Libeskind’s project attains a perfect balance between aggression and desire. It will provoke many viewers to exclaim that, yes, this design is actually better than what was there before.”

He described Think’s latticework tower scheme in a blandly neutral way, giving no clear indication what he thought of it. Contrast the overheated praise for Libeskind with Muschamp’s accompanying description of Think’s World Cultural Center: “With two nods in the direction of Russian Constructivism and another at Louis Kahn, the Think group has imagined two helical matrices that would be the tallest structures in the world and contain buildings by different architects.”

In fact Muschamp didn’t appear to actively jump on Think’s bandwagon until a week and a half ago, when media outlets began reporting that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had narrowed the field to two.

Every critic is entitled to adjust his or her opinions, but the 180-degree nature of Muschamp’s shift on Libeskind, coupled with its timing, less than a month before the final selection, makes it suspect. How can a scheme go from “brilliant” to war-mongering kitsch in less than 50 days?

I think the choice came down to two, and in order to push his 11th hour favorite_and most importantly, I suspect, his role in the process as Public Annointer of so-called “progressive architecture”_Muschamp felt compelled to damn the Libeskind plan in order to promote Think’s. This is appalling dishonesty, and a clear indication that he’s more interested in playing kingmaker than critic. After a history of such ethical lapses, this act should be his last as chief architecture critic of the New York Times.

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