You can only understand the built environment through the senses – whether you are being swept up by the organised bustle of New York’s Grand Central Station or stunned by the sensitive monumentalism of the cathedral in Chartres. But if you want to really appreciate architecture and to be aware of its deep impact on our lives, it helps to be guided by the written word.
Pulitzer-prize winner Paul Goldberger is aware of the limitations of capturing architecture through the written word, and that may help explain why his recent book, Why Architecture Matters, is such a lively and readable tour of architecture. Written for the non-specialist it discusses great buildings and wonderful cityscapes, largely but by no means exclusively from an American, specifically a New Yorker’s perspective. It challenges the reader to approach them with something like a citizen’s responsibility to make the world a better place. To guide the interested reader further, it has a helpful glossary of terms and an annotated bibliography.
It draws particularly on the fact that while we can’t pay attention to architecture all the time – today’s built environment is too ubiquitous and overwhelming for us to do that – we are inevitably shaped by it. Published in 2009 the book comes at a time when global architecture could reasonably be judged for giving in to hyperactivity and vulgar excess. But the critics and publics have already had their say and made their complaint. This allows Goldberger to survey the scene with assured and good-humoured hindsight. The result alternates between the relaxed and the excited, a pleasing effect which probably owes a lot to his explicit focus on the good rather than the bad.
Goldberger’s passion for buildings is really a passion for the urban, for the social exchanges that cities make possible. His life’s work as critic at the New York Times and then New Yorker magazine is a celebration of cities, the most precious collective invention of civilization after language as the American urban historian Lewis Mumford put it. Goldberger repeatedly emphasises the view that architecture is above all a contextual art. It is the street as a whole, not the individual building, that produces the delight we feel when we appreciate good architecture.
Throughout Why Architecture Matters he returns to the argument that our built heritage is not composed of individual works of genius, but is a collective project. “Like dancers, architects follow one another’s lead and endeavor not to step on any toes,” he writes. Of course he is talking about good architecture, the kind that produces delight and a strong sense of place. To value what he calls “background” buildings is not to argue that the urban fabric should be monotonous let alone made up of mediocre buildings – though he notes that some of the most enjoyable urban walks are products of ordinariness – but to say that architects and planners must respect each other just as they must recognise the difference between foreground and background. As an example of a failure to achieve this he mentions Beijing, which surely deserves Goldberger’s disapproval. Even when the smog clears, and despite its vaunted Olympic constructions, Beijing has become a confusion of undistinguished as well as undistinguishable large-scale mediocrity as he puts it.
It is somewhat surprising then that one of the most referenced architects in the book is Eero Saarinen, Finnish-born pioneer of flamboyant architecture whom many credit with – or accuse of – initiating the architectural scourge of our times, the iconic landmark building, and the “cacophony of ego” that goes with it. But for Goldberger Saarinen’s experimental TWA terminal at John F Kennedy airport was fit for purpose as well as sensual and comforting and, in its utterly apt evocation of movement and flight, a direct successor of the best of Baroque architecture.
Goldberger offers equally cogent arguments to support some later exemplars of iconic building. He is a fan of Frank Gehry’s hugely successful – in all respects – Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which has sent city fathers all over the world scrambling to reproduce he “Bilbao effect” in their home towns. As Goldberger explains, Gehry certainly wanted the building to stand out, but its way of standing out came “not from indifference to what was around him but from a deep understanding of what was there and how a different kind of building might play off against it”.
Just as there can be no formula for successful architectural commissions, there can be no shortcuts to good critique. Goldberger is master of well argued judgement and nimble language. The book’s one weakness is that it takes a while to get going, wasting pages at the beginning to wax vague about architecture’s need to balance seemingly contradictory goals – beauty versus practicality or conservative classicism versus path-breaking novelty. But its commentary on individual buildings as well as on architecture generally rests on a long, thoughtful and impressive career as one of America’s most respected critics of architecture. It is not surprising then that some of the most engaging parts of the book are personal recollections, for example about how as a child he was inspired to pay attention to his surroundings, ordinary as his New Jersey home was.
In its tour of great architecture – understood both as individual buildings and composite environments – the book provides a mostly comforting image. But in his concluding chapter Goldberger reverts to a distinctly sombre tone. Today’s architecture, he argues, is stamped by a suburban mindset which is rooted in privacy rather than in the public encounters that shape life on a city street. Suburban architecture, now being built well beyond the suburbs themselves, shows indifference if not disrespect for the street. And it is the street, according to Goldberger, which is the building block of urban, that is, civic life. Alas, as the tourist economy rules urban politics, architecture is increasingly being served up in a theme-park like sanitised version that resembles suburban efforts at creating excitement. The results are likely to be friendly and harmless but risk averse and shallow.
As if this retreat from the delights of the street were not bad enough Goldberger adds, then came along so-called communications technology, making further exclusions and indifferences not just possible but likely.
If there is a redeeming lesson in Golberger’s vision, it is that 3000 years of city life is not that easy to demolish. The wonder is still there if we choose to look.