Posted by: shoji | October 4, 2007

Optimism in architecture

Art reflects the times; yet sometimes chronological distance is necessary to see the true reflection.

The NYT printed a memorable obituary today on Herbert Muschamp, their former architecture critic. An excerpt (below) from his review of the Guggenheim Bilbao in September, 1997, is beautiful; lyrics I wish I could write.

I remember reading the print review in my senior year in college. And revisiting it today evoked the same sense of optimism I will forever associate with that time:

The axis between these poles [unity and diversity] is called empathy.

That most divine of all human qualities — empathy — is the source of meaning in Frank Gehry’s designs. His aim is not to found a school, not to create a style. Rather, he is possessed by the gaga 19th-century notion that by exercising their imaginations artists can inspire others to use their own.


Photo: Guggenheim Bilbao from their website.

Herbert Muschamp, 59, Architecture Critic, Dies – New York Times
In a typically sprawling review, of Mr. Gehry’s newly opened, titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997, Mr. Muschamp evoked the ghost of Marilyn Monroe:

“After my first visit to the building, I went back to the hotel to write notes. It was early evening and starting to rain. I took a break to look out the window and saw a woman standing alone outside a bar across the street. She was wearing a long, white dress with matching white pumps, and she carried a pearlescent handbag. Was her date late? Had she been stood up?

“When I looked back a bit later, she was gone. And I asked myself, Why can’t a building capture a moment like that? Then I realized that the reason I’d had that thought was that I’d just come from such a building. And that the building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

He went on: “What twins the actress and the building in my memory is that both of them stand for an American style of freedom. That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive and exhibitionist. It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child. It can’t resist doing a dance with all the voices that say ‘No.’ It wants to take up a lot of space. And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let its dress fly up in the air.”



  1. Slow to respond to this posting– thanks for reminding us to revisit the Muschamp’s poetic review of Frank Gehry’s work.

    Reading it again now struck a new chord with me, as I was privileged enough to have to sit through cardiovascular physiology in a MIT classroom that overlooked the construction site of Gehry’s new work on campus several years ago. Although not as critically acclaimed as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, I can assure you that it wasn’t the lectures from supposedly famous researchers that kept me returning to class those cold Boston winter mornings but, rather, being witness to the gradual transformation of open space into Gehry’s ideas.

    Tonight, as I made a rare return to the MIT campus to hear a lecture, I once again encountered Gehry’s work. I had written down the lecture room as being off Lobby 10, on the second floor. Those familiar with MIT and its bizarre building numbering system would know that this is an easy place to find—almost halfway down the original “infinite corridor”. Finding the large lecture hall relatively easily, I was surprised to find at 5:55 PM (five minutes to the start of the lecture), it only contained one person—an early bird that was there for a 6:30 PM lecture of an engineering course whose name, despite doing some “engineering” as an undergrad, made absolute no sense to me. Gathering that I was in the wrong place, as the lecture I was attending on international health promised not to involve solving any differential equations, I recalled that the name of the lecture hall where I was heading was Stata. After asking a few MIT students for directions to the Stata Lecture Hall (a few didn’t acknowledge my existence as they were very busy buzzing down the infinite corridor on their stereotype-matching scooters, and a few didn’t have a clue where the Stata Lecture Hall was), I finally came across a young man who did. “Oh, BUILDING 32!!” he said. “Of course, so much more obvious than an actual name.” I thought. After giving me instructions to the building, I asked, “And the main lecture hall, it’s on the second floor?” To that, he wrinkled his face. “Oh, I couldn’t say exactly. Building 32 is just WEIRD…. You’ll see when you get there!”

    With that, I have to admit I knew precisely where on campus I was heading. But, I also had to chuckle to myself. In place of Muschamp’s lyric prose, we now have an 18 year-old’s take on Gehry’s work. And, the review is… it’s “just weird”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: