Why Architecture Matters

December 21st, 2009 by EVENTS

Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger

When I lived in New York, my favorite building was the Seagram Building. “That building,” I would tell people, “is a Mies. The I-beams and bronze tinted windows made it instantly recognizable. It looks like a Chicagoan stuck in New York. It’s out of place and lonely.” People had no idea what I was talking about―it was just another slick skyscraper in a city full of them. But the building understood where I was coming from, it knew. And therein lies the difficulty of writing about architecture. Truly great architecture invites a visceral response. As with writing about food, writing about the architecture that you love is apt to reveal as much about the writer than about the subject.

In that sense, Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters is his architectural autobiography. Since the book is titled Why Architecture Matters, not What Architecture Is, this is a fair, and perhaps even the right approach. After a brief introductory section about what is and isn’t Architecture (he takes an inclusive view here) and why it might be puzzling (architecture to a much greater extent than any other form of art incorporates a practical dimension that cannot be escaped―and so must be judged by other than purely aesthetic criteria). But what makes this book compelling is how Goldberger tells it as the story of the buildings he has loved, and what we can learn about our built environment from them―illustrating such concepts as space, harmony with surroundings, and architectural memory. If philosophy is the spirit of an age expressed in thought, then architecture is the spirit of an age expressed in material.

Goldberger has wide ranging tastes in Architecture. While he is more inclined, with the postmodernists, to say “Less is a bore,” he loves the lyrical grace of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. “Less is more” is a cypher, and it decodes Mies’s buildings. It isn’t, and could never be taken seriously as a code for building. Look carefully at the kind of attention to detail of (say) the Federal Center in Chicago, how it takes so much more attention to detail is required to give “less” its lyrical power. When less isn’t made from more, then admittedly, it is a bore―as an endless stream of lazy modernist boxes has proven.

But what is most revealing about the book is how Goldberger describes describes space, and the way architects can direct it.

We talk about facades in terms of how they look; we talk about spaces in terms of how they feel. Great space - like the Unity Temple by Frank Lloyd Wright or Sir John Soane’s breakfast room or Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or Borromini’s Sant’Ivo Church―makes you feel something in the pit of your stomach. . . . It is a sense of awe and contentment, somehow joined, and you feel as if you had been jolted into a higher level of perception than you normally have.”

Goldberger resists the usual postmodernist trap of giving nostalgia too much room in his account. Proust writes with as much pathos about the Chambray church steeple and the Parisian street scape as he does about the Madeline or Francoise’s repasts to hit a nostalgic note, but he is specifically using them to invoke a time lost. While Goldberger mentions New England farmhouses and red clapboard barns to remind us of the evocative power even of small-scale architecture, and while he admires the New Urbanist spirit of Seaside, he knows well that architecture can’t live in the evoking an irrecoverable past. Nostalgia is always too personal, and threatens to fragment the possibility of meaning. Old buildings are architectural memory made flesh, and give us a collective focal point for our memory, and so give us the possibility of holding meaning in common.

And while he takes a while to work up to it, by the end of the book, Architecture matters because when it is good, even just one building can tie a place together all by itself. The space of a street is created by many buildings, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes not. But one good building can contextualize a whole street, or even a cluster of streets, and pulls people together “Every piece of architecture is an opportunity for real experience.” Architecture gives us that chance to experience something in common, and even at times forces the sort of real life interaction only possible in the right sort of space. Architecture matters because it can bring people together like nothing else.

Reviewed by James Liu

Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger
Yale University Press, 2009
Cloth, 304 pp, $26.00
ISBN-13: 9780300144307

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