Oct 20 2009

Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger

Ian Volner

web exclusive


This week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg used choice language in describing the state of play at the World Trade Center site. Over and against those who complain that the administration has been sitting on its hands for much of the last eight years, Bloomberg demurred, “Larry [Silverstein, the developer] has everybody by the proverbials—he really does.”

He might have been fielding a question from Paul Goldberger. It was only last month the New Yorker architecture critic appeared on Charlie Rose to wax sage on time, space, and the vagaries of building at Ground Zero. “Everything about this project has gone wrong or been delayed in some way,” he told Rose. “It’s been a nightmare.” There was plenty of blame to go around, said Goldberger; but, convinced as ever of the primacy of architecture, he expressed the innocent hope that right would yet prevail. It was as if he were saying: For the sake of good architecture, can’t we all just get along?

Goldberger’s new book, Why Architecture Matters, brims with this sort of pious peace-making. Form vs. function? Why not both, and something more besides:

No one really remembers Chartres Cathedral because it housed thousands of the faithful efficiently, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater because it gave the Kaufmann family…a weekend retreat.… We remember these works of architecture because they went beyond these mundane achievements.

Goldberg has been churning out pretty statements like that for four decades. As chief architecture writer for the New York Times in the 1970s, Goldberger was our first popular post-modernist critic. Always game to call modernism’s bluff, he put the city and the street before the architect and the masterpiece, and he felt an organic connection with the history of architecture as an ethical constituent of the designer’s and the writer’s work. When, starting in the late ‘90s, the public taste ran again towards glassy gewgaws, Goldberger remained an exponent of moderation in all things, albeit a relatively quiet one. (He is always moderate, even in his censure.)

Why Architecture Matters is not quite a compendium Goldbergeriana, but it belongs essentially to his didactic project. The book announces itself as an architectural companion to Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music; it resembles as well art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (and more recently, Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things) in being a tour of architectural history from the pyramids to Bilbao, in no particular order, interpolated with critical statements and blanket assessments that alternate between the accurately uninformative (“the new is often hard to accept”) and the insupportably general (“architecture is art,” “buildings are created to enclose space”).

None of which is ever awful, actually—Why Architecture Matters is perfectly balanced between a researched history and an improvised analysis of architecture at its very root. It has only two serious faults. The first is that its title is the same as a 2003 book by Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin. The other, also to do with the title, is that there’s no suspense here whatever, as it’s taken for granted that architecture does matter: Goldberger lacks what critic Reyner Banham once called “bloody-mindedness,” the willful disregard for architecture as such that can make architecture writing truly exciting and a generative force for new design. Does architecture matter? Does it matter, say, to a Mike Bloomberg? And why doesn’t Goldberger ever doubt it?

Ian Volner is a writer and critic. He lives in Manhattan

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