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A screed against successful space / for Muschamp

October 12, 2010

I rarely do this, a response to a Muschamp reading I did, which came out quite personal. Beltline is mentioned, without too many details.


Herbert Muschamp is, unfortunately for me, totally correct. It doesn’t pay to be the critic of a critic, especially one as good as him: at the heart of it all, is his excellent self-description “as the love child of Lewis Mumfort and Diana Vreeland.” It’s this understanding of the underlying morality of architecture yet hearty love for style that makes all of his essays so eminently readable, and so hard to fault, in my eyes. And so pointless to dissect his writing, in a sense: because he said it first, of course, and better.

So I’ll just note briefly about when I knew I was onto something really special with Muschamp. It’s the last essay of his that I read—we always find it right when we stop looking!—“Public Space or Private, A Compulsion to Fill It,” when he starts talking about the horror vacui, that I get uneasy, that I get alert to the idea that there is something quite special going on, that it’s not just witty repartee to the sidewalk theater that I’m reading. Muschamp talks about empty space and how it is labelled a failure. I, too, have labelled such spaces failures and the bustling spaces successes. I, too, speak the same language. And then! He says it, the daring line: “Why shouldn’t we, too, learn to recognize the value of hollowness?”

I’ve always loved the abandoned space, the place of transition, the derelict, the ugly. My friends do too; I am not alone in this lust for awful. But it when I was doing a book on Atlanta’s forgotten railroad corridor that was soon to be turned into a bustling pedestrian path that it became problematic. The more research I did, the more I walked the tracks and took photos, the more it dawned on me that I sort of liked the forgotten railroad corridor. Sure, I, too wanted to happily bike around Atlanta at unheard of speeds. But where would the kudzu overgrow with such abandon? Where else could one walk in the quiet, along unused tracks? Where would the bums live (they live there in the kudzu, and also in specially-built huts)? What other cities would have this gaping, quiet emptiness running through their heart?

I finished the book, focused on this being the moment of transition, stifled vaguely my sense of loss (though the book came out sad and dark). And then, here in New York City, I felt quite really this longing for emptiness. In Atlanta, I could have easily been attacked as a failed-space tourist; here, attacked by all sides by the successful space, suffocated by the hordes of people, I felt quite viciously the need for urban quiet, for the failed public spaces I could at last enjoy on my own.

Cities should be built to be successful. Plazas should be built to be used. Benches should be built to be enjoyed. And so on, and so on, and so on. Which is why I’m comfortable using these words, failed and successful, when talking about space. But cities are full of failed people, lonely people, people in transition, people who don’t need the lights just now or just yet or just ever. We need those spaces for “sorting out inner and outer worlds.” And indeed, those failed spaces, with their bums and their broken glass, without the threat of successful consumerism hanging over everything, are “democratic space.” Because there will always be people who don’t fit into the model of successful space, who are not truly welcome there. “A city that offers the alternative of unpopular spaces is more accessible than a city that only tolerates popular success.”

Muschamp said it first and less bitterly than I could have: a defense of emptiness, obscurity, failure, bleakness, pallor. I’m not sure if it was morality or style speaking, but I’ll take it.

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