Hearts of the City

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-11-17
  • Publisher: Knopf
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The best work of the late Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic ofThe New York Times,and one of the most outspoken, lively, and influential voices in architectural criticism. Gathered here are pieces fromThe New Republic, The New York Times,andArtforum,as well as fragments of the book left unfinished. Muschamp drew on film, literature, and popular culture to write pieces that were passionate and personal, changing the landscape of architectural criticism in the process. He made it a subject accessible for everyone when, because of the heated debate between modernists and postmodernists, architecture had become part of a larger public dialogue. He reviewed architecture and design shows; he compared Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao to the body of Marilyn Monroe; he waxed poetic about a new design for Manhattan's manhole covers. Early on he championed the work of Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and Santiago Calatrava, and was drawn to the theoretical writings of architects such as Peter Eisenman. Included is his brilliant and poignant six-thousand-word piece about gay culture and Edward Durrell Stone's museum at 2 Columbus Circle. Timely and often prescient,Hearts of the Cityis a dazzling collection of critical writing about the cityscapes that profoundly affect our lives.

Author Biography

Herbert Muschamp is the author of File Under Architecture and Man About Town: Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City. He died in 2007.


This book presents a theory about the contemporary city. I arrived at this theory a few years ago by flipping around an idea proposed by D. W. Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst. Winnicott once observed that artists are people driven by the conflict between a desire to communicate and an even stronger desire to hide. My theory states: A great city is a place driven by the conflict between a desire to expose and an even stronger desire to overlook.

I start with the premise that conflict is the most important cultural product a city puts out. Works of art—books, plays, paintings, dances, songs, or buildings—are effects. They are interesting in themselves, of course, but so is the conflict that Winnicott considered their cause. The modern democratic city is an accumulation of effects, brought about by a constant pileup of conflicts. What binds the effects together—the First Cause of Cities—is the conflict between the desire to overlook and the desire to expose. This conflict is the major source of energy on which cultural production depends. It drives the contemporary city toward a deeper comprehension of its place and time. It is what distinguishes culturally productive social environments, like New York, from suburban shopping malls and other environments designed primarily for consumption.

M. P. Baumgartner, a sociologist who teaches at Rutgers University, coined the termmoral minimalismto describe the prevailing social ethos among suburbanites. The key feature of this ethos is the avoidance of conflict. InThe Morality of the Suburb, Baumgartner writes, “The most basic component of [moral minimalism] is a strong conviction that conflict is a social contaminant, something to be avoided if at all possible and to be ended quickly once begun.”

Barking dogs. Unmowed lawns. Barbecue smoke. Vandalism. Traffic infractions. Zoning violations. Gossip. Clearly, suburban dwellers can’t avoid neighbor squabbles and other conflicts. But within the suburban moral order, such conflicts register as bad things—contaminants, to use Baumgarten’s word. This order reinforces the desire to overlook, even at the expense of social justice or personal dignity. The desire to expose is suppressed. The inner conflict between these two competing desires is avoided.
In the city, this is not possible. The desire to expose is constantly breaking through, however much it threatens to disturb the peace.

I write about architecture, but buildings are not discrete objects floating in space. They are pieces of the city, elements of modern democracy’s greatest project. How they look, how tall they are, how much space they take up, who uses them, what is torn down to make room for them: by raising such questions, buildings are an inexhaustible source of conflict in city life. That conflict is one of the driving forces in American democracy. I’ve wanted to be part of it since I was ten years old.

I was born in 1947. My family lived in a suburban area nine miles from downtown Philadelphia. My father bought the house, a decrepit prerevolutionary stone farmhouse, during the Depression. He was a young man at the time and the house cost a pittance. He devoted much time and labor to restoring it. When he bought the property, the location looked more like open country than a suburb. Fields surrounded the one acre that came with the house. Two of the roads surrounding the house had not been paved. Our property included a stable where my father kept a horse. He also built a picturesque swimming pool with stone sides that was fed by a natural spring.

It was a special place to grow up. Too special, in fact. For one thing, the house was haunted by a secret: unmentionable memories of my father’s first wife and her suicide. Also, it was isolated—not just physically, but psychologically, too. This was a problem that befell many upwardly mobil

Excerpted from Hearts of the City by Herbert Muschamp
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