John Donatich
Why Architecture (among other things) Matters

December 21st, 2009 by EVENTS

Two years ago, I had the honor of moderating a panel at Yale University on “Writing About Architecture” that featured, among others, Robert A. M. Stern, Peter Eisenman, and the architecture critic for The New Yorker, Paul Goldberger. The essence of the evening was to get at the question, “What do we talk about when we talk about buildings?

John Ruskin once noted that we want two things from our buildings. First, we want them to shelter us.  Second, we want them to speak to us. If buildings must speak to us, is it the architectural critic’s job to speak FOR us? Is it their job to speak for buildings? Or is it their job to try to host a conversation between buildings and its people?

Who better to consider these questions than Paul Goldberger. At dinner that evening, I asked him if he had ever considered putting some of his ideas down on paper, a kind of primer for lay people who have to look at and live in buildings even when we don’t know how to regard them. He told me that, in fact, the legendary editor Jason Epstein had asked him to do something just like this many years ago but that he had never gotten around to it. I then told him about a new series we were establishing at Yale University Press.

“WHY X MATTERS” is intended to be an open-ended series whose inherent logic calls not for a potted or synthetic history or biography but an argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea — the biography of an enduring and evolving legacy. The editorial tension relies on an almost chemical reaction: Why subject X Matters by writer Y Who Matters on X. The reader should be excited not only by the subject but the subject dissected by the author. The series calls for a range of biography and intellectual history of ideas across many disciplines, each of these categories fitting extremely well within the larger Yale list. We had a hunch that most writers have a pet obsession or grudge buried in their ambitions that they would love to spend 50,000 words exploring.

During our conversation that evening, Paul and I talked about the ways in which good buildings speak to us. They either respect the fact that we are different people in different places or they urge us to consider who we should be in ideal circumstances. They urge us to live lives adequate to our surroundings. Architects have complained as well that beautiful buildings not only do not heighten the character of their inhabitants but have the opposite effect of reaffirming and calling into high relief the shortcomings of those who live in them. So, does writing about architecture have a moral aspect; must it suggest the kinds of elevated lives that might be lived in superior buildings?

Taking architecture that seriously implies that even bad or ugly buildings then have a determining effect on people. If we are asked to live up to the ideals of a great building, are we then asked to live above buildings that wish for less? That where we are has an impact on what we are?

Is it the duty of architectural writing to translate the ways in which buildings speak to us: whether buildings hearken back to classical ideals with an ironic twist or elucidate a feeling about democratic man or a fantasy of the future? Do buildings talk to us about significant things or intimate feelings? How essentially can writing get at these feelings?

What power should personal preference have in writing about architecture? Architectural criticism is more hypothetical than other kinds of art and entertainment criticism. A bad review might keep people away from the box office or discourage them from buying a certain book but a bad review of a building will not keep them from going to an opera or showing up for work, Goldberger writes. If we are stuck with the buildings we have, is it the job of the architectural critic to make the best of what we have or to chide the architects? Should we teach inhabitants how to live in the buildings made for them? Do we age with buildings the way we do with other art forms: a young listener may be moved by Beethoven but prefer Schoenberg later. Also, we can choose to ignore a composer or a painting or an author. But we have to live with or in our buildings. What responsibility does the architect have in reconciling us to our lives in buildings right now?

In the end, though, we have the lives we have no matter how glorious the buildings we inhabit. Imagine how it would be otherwise. Consider the ideas about our lives presented in the touching and pristine white of architectural models with their little woolly bushes and trees and their little scaled people looking so purposeful. There they are captured in a moment of the future, like a diorama of the possible life. It reminds me of our actual vulnerability when our full scaled neurotic selves are moved into buildings, preoccupied and suggestible. Who, then, must the architectural critic be mindful of: the idealized lives imagined in models or the oily lives that pollute the real deal?

Lastly, does the architectural critic have either the capacity or duty to become a critic of or for the state, one who is able to establish a canon of great aesthetics and set the goals of what might become a great national style? Does architecture writing have its Clement Greenberg or T. S. Eliot? Can architectural criticism have an activist role, arguing against the development of wetlands or protecting a region against truly mediocre projects? Alternatively, should architectural criticism have an educational purpose, building aesthetic sophistication in its readers, acclimating them to the beauty and aptness of difficult buildings?

These are the kinds of questions Paul Goldberger discusses in his new book, Why Architecture Matters.

In recent years, several publishers have successfully launched series of short books to address the growing appetite for distilled information, in a world that makes increasingly complex demands on one’s attention: Penguin Lives, Schocken’s Nextbook series, and Yale’s own American Icons, to name just a few.

The series has its genesis in a book I edited when I was Publisher of Basic Books, Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens, which got the tension just right. Orwell’s legacy is both protected and scorned, adopted and discarded by both the right and the left. Hitchens himself is hard to pin down but has definite temperamental sympathies with Orwell, which the book demonstrates.

So, I decided to bring the idea with me to Yale and launched with Why Arendt Matters, by the distinguished scholar, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, about the application of her mentor’s ideas to the post 9/11 world.

Further projects include the just published Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters by Louis Begley, and the forthcoming Why Nothing Matters by Anthony Gottlieb and Why Africa Matters by Wole Soyinka.

John Donatich is the Director of Yale University Press.

Click here for The Front Table‘s review of Why Architecture Matters.

Posted in Editors Speak

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