A Conversation With Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic

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>2_paul goldberger_sized.jpg "Architecture," writes Paul Goldberger in his latest book, "begins to matter when it goes beyond protecting us from the elements, when it begins to say something about the world--when it begins to take on the qualities of art." Aptly, the book is titled Why Architecture Matters.

You could say that Goldberger's career has been nothing more than a series of restatements of why architecture matters, but he appears to have done a pretty good job: the architecture critic for The New Yorker since 1997, he is also the former dean of the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York City, the author of numerous books, and the recipient, in 1984, of the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. Why Architecture Matters will be out in paperback later this month. Here, Goldberger discusses the mainstreaming of design, how technology is simultaneously helping and hurting architecture, and "Hey Jude."

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I'm an architecture critic, which is to say a writer and journalist who gets to write about the things he is most interested in.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the design world?

I think the truly transformative development in the world of design over the last generation has been its evolution into the mainstream. We are a much more visual culture than we once were; people care more about design and architecture, and it has become more accessible to them. That doesn't mean everything is suddenly great, and that we're in some kind of design nirvana. A lot of what we do now is lousy, as it always has been. But if you look at the difference between, say, an iPhone and a Princess phone, or a flat-screen television and the faux-French Provincial TV cabinets we grew up seeing, or the difference between IKEA and the furniture stores our parents shopped in, you see how much more sophisticated as works of design the objects people live with today are. And the same is true of at least a lot of our public architecture, with architects like Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, and Daniel Libeskind--to name but a few--building museums, institutional buildings, cultural centers, and more in cities large and small all over the world.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

People often don't understand that critics need not--and should not--write from a particular ideological or stylistic bias. An architecture critic's job isn't to push for a particular style of architecture, but to advocate for the best work across the board, and to be candid in pointing out what fails to achieve its potential.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the architecture world?

We've lived with computer-assisted design for a long time now, but it's having a greater impact in more profound ways. Frank Gehry's new apartment tower in lower Manhattan is sheathed in 10,500 stainless steel panels, nine thousand of which are uniquely shaped, and which were created using digital software. It's a new type of handmade building, you could say, created by technology, which can now be used not to make everything standardized, but to enhance architecture's potential, and make buildings again more elaborate, more special, more emotionally engaging.

What's an architecture or design trend that you wish would go away?

Within all of the rich possibilities digital technology brings to architecture, it also holds forth the false promise that you can forget about drawing. There is nothing like an image created by the human hand, and the greatest mistake is in believing that our increasing reliance on technology means that drawing doesn't matter. I worry about students who think they can become architects without ever touching pencil to paper.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Lots of critics have fallen for the idea that architecture can solve more problems than it really can, and I'm no exception, although I hope I've now gotten beyond the belief that filling the world with inventive buildings by brilliant architects will bring us to the promised land. Yes, it's true that, as I said earlier, ambitious works of architecture are being experienced by more people in more places all the time, and that's all to the good. But more buildings by famous architects don't, in and of themselves, solve our ills. Architects can figure out how to design more imaginative housing, but that doesn't get more housing built. Architects can make better environments for healing, but that doesn't solve the health care crisis, any more than better teaching environments is itself the fix for the crisis in our schools.

Who are three people you'd put in the architecture Hall of Fame?

I'm most attracted to those architects whose work was idiosyncratic, who have created work that broke away from type and exploited space and form in new ways--like Giulio Romano, whose contortions of Italian Renaissance architecture helped to create Mannerism, or the English architects Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Soane, and Edwin Lutyens, all of whom proved that the use of historical form and wild creative imagination were not contradictory.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

After I got over wanting to be a baseball player, and a car designer (which I still wouldn't mind being) I thought about being a more academic architectural historian, which I probably wouldn't have had the patience for, and I thought about being a more wide-ranging journalist, which I ultimately didn't have enough interest in. I'm glad I found a professional sweet spot in between those two things.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Architecture News Now (ArchNewsNow) is a daily digest of links to articles about architecture from publications all over the world. I look at it every day, and I don't know how we ever functioned without it.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Hey Jude." Don't ask me why. I don't know, but it always brings me back to an all-night coffee shop in New Haven, and hearing it at 3 a.m. on the jukebox.


Image: Courtesy of Paul Goldberger

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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