Hearts of the City: A Book Review

Here’s the thing about Herbert Muschamp.

He’s kind of like this smooth nightclub you don’t know whether you want to be a part of. If you go, then everyone knows: you’re “in”. You’re “cool”. You look like you know the things everyone wishes they knew. You acquire a sort of sophisticate air just by associating with him. On the other hand, you don’t like the drinks that much, the conversation is always a little raucous and it’s always a little too smoky.

In Hearts of the City: Selected Writings by Herbert Muschamp, Herbert talks with divine – and annoying – certainty about architecture and architects, culture and culture makers, musicians and matrons and politicos galore. He makes your head spin with history shared, not dry and linear like you learned it in school, but salaciously and at breakneck speed.  His index alone is longer than half his essays and includes callouts to everyone from Gehry to Zsa Zsa Gabor.

In one essay you’re carried from the depths of concentration camps to some aging matron’s anxious salon, and the topic of the essay notwithstanding, it can be a real challenge making sense of his style and structure before you even get to the story he’s trying to tell.  He seems to have been totally  carried away by his own devastating wit, spinning jokes and jibes faster than any outsider can keep up but holding his own attention easily.

Is it pretentious? Is he trying to style himself more of anything than he really is? I don’t think so.  I think he truly was this cockamamie collection of information, a dilettante of context, and his essays on architectural and cultural criticism were one way he captured, distilled, and presented his own energy. The energy that is so ultra-civilized, it is almost a little bit wild.

What makes this particular collection particularly interesting is how the reader can see his writing evolve.  It’s presented in three distinct sections: The New Republic (1987-1992), ArtForum (1995, 1999), and the New York Times (1992-2007).  And in each section, Herbert’s voice evolves so obviously and distinctly that you can almost mark his growth as a writer on each new page.

Working for The New Republic he was alternatingly catty to or cozy with the starchitects he reviewed, and always, always, madly frenetic. He used a hundred words where three would have done. And he never let an opportunity go by to make some low (but admittedly wickedly, wickedly funny) swipe.

When he started writing for the New York Times and ArtForum, however, his style changed precipitously. Suddenly he was clear where he had been cloudy, restrained (okay, a little) where he had been verbose and bombastic. Not exactly laconic, but a far cry from long-winded. Blessed relief, for the reader; and also a glimpse at what he was really trying to get at. Past all his self-conscious cleverness, Herbert truly grasped the poetry of context and was able to communicate it in increasingly triumphant prose.

His final essay, “The Heir Bag”, was published a few months before his death and at 872 words is by far one of the shortest in the collection. It had to do with accessories rather than architecture (a dead-on deadly funny vignette on why Queen Elizabeth’s handbags are more worthy of succession to the throne than any of the royal heirs), but it serves as an appropriate adieu to the man who said so much to say so much.

Like architect Antoni Gaudi, for Herbert Muschamp, the mess is the masterpiece. Quick and canny, he proved over and over and over again that he was the devil in the details. I highly recommend Hearts of the City or any single one of his essays. You’ll be tired out, worked up, worked over, and glad you did.

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