What do Silly Putty, Superman and Marilyn Monroe have to do with architecture?

Short answer: Nothing.

Long answer:  Herbert Muschamp. In 1997, New York Times architecture critic Muschamp traveled to a then little-known industrial city in northern Spain to see a building. He came back with a 5,000-word swoon, which ended up on the cover of the Times Magazine and remains his best-known review. What makes it so good is the perfect marriage of critic and subject.

When Muschamp took over the critic’s job from Paul Goldberger, a natural explainer, in 1994, many were startled by Muschamp’s flamboyant language and emotional reactions to architecture. In a single review, he talked about “space … as plastic as Silly Putty,” architects who “have invented a form they call Nestor,” and imagining “the hollow cavity of a Jurassic fossil.”

Where are we? Where is the building? What the hell is he talking about? The mood of a building might be characterized with slang, music lyrics, Romantic poetry or film clips. The journey from a museum’s entrance to the galleries, or from a skyscraper lobby up into the crown, could take a paragraph or the entire review, so studded was his prose with digression and reference.

It’s hard to imagine the critics of the previous generation managing the leap from child’s plaything to digital design and then to dinosaurs, but Muschamp makes things flow. There’s a dynamic picture in his head of each building, and he is willing to use any means necessary to communicate that image to his reader. So just imagine his joy when he gets to Frank Gehry’s playful Guggenheim Bilbao. But you don’t need to imagine it. In “Miracle in Bilbao,” he tells you:

Bilbao is a sanctuary of free association. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman. It’s a ship, an artichoke, the miracle of the rose. A first glimpse of the building tells you that the second glimpse is going to be different from the first. A second glimpse tells you that a third is going to be different still. If there is an order to this architecture, it is not one that can be predicted from one or two visual slices of its precisely calculated free-form geometry. But the building’s spirit of freedom is hard to miss.

Is it a bit much? Yes, but less so in Bilbao than in other reviews, where the associations can seem strained, context and politics all but ignored. If you’re not going to go over the top when faced with a swooping, folded, towering, sprawling, shimmering, glowing building made of titanium plates, you might not be capable of over the top. The beauty of Muschamp’s free associations is that they connect architecture to far more relatable cultural touchstones. I can almost see Superman, one arm punching the sky, soaring over the museum. And wouldn’t it be nice if the billows were set to music?

Architecture is not hermetic. Metaphor and association outside the world of buildings let others in on what fans feel when we are inside architecture. That’s why Gehry and Muschamp make such a perfect couple. Gehry courts metaphor. He’s not above a cute nickname. As a critic, Muschamp seizes that freedom and becomes the voice of the building, dispensing with distance.

As he bounces along, Muschamp sticks in all the other genres of the architecture review: the personality profile, the think piece on urbanism, the promenade architecturale. This piece runs three times as long as his average review, and even Muschamp seems to sense that personality only takes you so far. In one paragraph he’s got Richard Florida talking about the role of artists in gentrification; in another, Gehry’s windbreaker is used to indicate his sympathy with the 1960s. And then we get to Marilyn.

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 he looks again, she’s gone. He writes, “The building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” The Guggenheim Bilbao is Marilyn Monroe? This comparison has become iconic of everything that can go wrong with Muschamp’s approach to architecture (garrulousness, obsequity, overreach), but after re-reading this piece and teaching it, I finally caught on. From his first paragraph, Muschamp described the museum as American art. Marilyn was equally American, equally a work of art. She embodied star quality, as the museum does. She was voluptuous, as the museum is. She was attention-getting – that skirt over the grate was no accident – as the museum is. Throughout the review Muschamp has been trying to make the museum into an actor, a player on various world stages of culture and economic development and tourism. He wants it to move as, he argues, art today moves, from airport to downtown to river, from grungy former factory to fancy condominium to museum. He has to find a figure to embody the Guggenheim’s appeal, and he finds it in Marilyn.

Too often architecture is stuck way over in the corner of the culture section, literally and figuratively. It’s on the back page, or folded in under Art, or covered on a very freelance basis. Muschamp is putting architecture at the center of culture, and even more importantly, at the center of pop culture. He writes, “Bilbao has lately become a pilgrimage town. The word is out that miracles still occur, and that a major one has happened here.” This is not homework. It is love.

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, journalist and teacher. She blogs weekly for Design Observer. In 2012, Princeton Architectural Press will publish her next book, “Writing About Architecture.”

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

Image of Alexandra Lange: detail of a photo by Matthew Williams.

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