Herbert Muschamp, 59; New York Times Architecture Critic

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

Herbert Muschamp, 59, a powerful New York Times architecture critic whose strong views helped guide the international debate on architectural design for more than decade, died Oct. 2 of lung cancer at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. He lived in New York.

At his best, Mr. Muschamp allowed his readers to see buildings through the prisms of philosophy, history, aesthetics and pop culture. But his reputation was compromised by charges of favoritism and cozy relationships with the architects he covered.

He reached his greatest influence in September 2002, when he supervised a special issue of the New York Times Magazine in which leading architects proposed designs for rebuilding Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At first, Mr. Muschamp (pronounced mew-SHAUMP) championed the proposal of Daniel Libeskind. But when the official design competition came down to Libeskind and Rafael Vinoly, Mr. Muschamp attacked Libeskind's plan as "an astonishingly tasteless idea" and sided with Vinoly, a longtime friend.

The episode symbolized Mr. Muschamp's self-assigned role, in which he acted as provocateur, partisan proponent and tastemaker. His friendships with other prominent architects, including Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, called his integrity into question, and by the end of his 12-year tenure at the Times in 2004, some architects and journalists wondered whether he had been corrupted by the power he wielded.

A New York Observer article said Mr. Muschamp was "stepping down from his post much as he attained it: surrounded by applause. Twelve years ago, he was called the country's next great critic; today, his army of detractors is all too happy to see him leave."

Arriving at the Times by way of academia and Andy Warhol, Mr. Muschamp combined a fierce attachment to the avant-garde with a lofty academic style.

He once described his medicine cabinet -- with Issey Miyake cologne, a Braun electric toothbrush, a Gillette Mach 3 razor and a Right Guard Sport Clear Stick -- as a "morphomaniac microcosm."

In a review of Gehry's celebrated design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Mr. Muschamp called the curvilinear building "the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe."

But his vision of architecture was also informed by a worldly appreciation of culture, both high and low. In 1993, he wrote that James Ingo Freed's U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was "shaped not by architecture but by history. . . . The fissure that bisects the floor is at once a sign of social calamity and an axis of hope, for it points toward the Lincoln Memorial and the idea that government can liberate as well as oppress."

In his less-flattering review of the expanded Reagan National Airport in 1997, Mr. Muschamp said: "The new National Airport is a department store half-heartedly disguised as a transportation terminal. . . . Perfumes, jewelry, stuffed animals, sunglasses: This is not just a new National Airport. It's a new Washington Mall."

Herbert Mitchell Muschamp was born in Philadelphia and met Andy Warhol when he was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. He dropped out and became part of the scene at the Factory, Warhol's studio in New York.

Mr. Muschamp worked as a window dresser and studied at the Parsons School of Design. In 1974, he published his first book on architecture. He moved to London in 1978 to attend the Architecture Association, a school that produced Koolhaas and Hadid, whose work Mr. Muschamp promoted throughout his career.

Returning to New York, Mr. Muschamp wrote a book about Frank Lloyd Wright and began teaching at Parsons. In 1987, he became the New Republic's first architecture critic.

After joining the Times in 1992, he was a mercurial presence, demanding that no article be written on architecture without his approval. He sometimes wrote personal essays, including one about buying a pair of leather pants, and he reportedly delivered a rambling and drunken monologue at an architecture forum.

"At the height of his career, Mr. Muschamp's writing was the talk of the New York cultural scene," reporter Clay Risen wrote in the New York Observer in 2004. "Today, his professional conflicts of interest and very public breakdowns have pushed him to the margins of architectural society."

Mr. Muschamp's partner, Tucker Ashworth, died in 1987.

Survivors include a sister and two brothers.

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