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Design for Looking

How to read architecture.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By LIAM JULIAN
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Why Architecture Matters

Design for Looking

by Paul Goldberger
Yale, 304 pp., $26

Building Up and Tearing Down

Reflections on the Age of Architecture
by Paul Goldberger
Monacelli, 320 pp., $35

Architecture is not art as a painting or a sculpture is art. Architecture is art that has to fulfill a functional purpose. A building must keep its occupants warm and dry, and it must stand up. And buildings are not collected in museums. They are found on the streets, imposing themselves on anyone who passes, and so they must strive, more so than paintings or sculptures, to be acceptable and accessible to the public. 

The New Yorker’s architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, in Why Architecture Matters, acknowledges as much: “Architecture is balanced, precisely and precariously, between art and practicality.” He references the Roman polymath Vitruvius, who laid out several fundamental principles of architecture that have since been distilled to three: commodity, firmness, and delight. In other words, architecture should fulfill its purpose and provide comfortable accommodation, it should be constructed solidly and skillfully, and it should be beautiful and pleasing. “Each aspect of architecture coexists,” Goldberger writes, “and every work of architecture must to a greater or lesser degree take them all into account.” 

But just pages after Goldberger enumerates and praises this Vitruvian troika, he dismisses it. The brush-off comes during a discussion of the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, especially Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye.

The Villa Savoye, built in 1929 for the Savoye family, sits outside Paris in Poissy, in a clearing surrounded by dense trees. The house is a rectangular box of plain, white walls set atop thin, white, unornamented pylons. Ribbon windows run along its sides, and on its roof is a terrace surrounded by another nondescript white wall. It has no decoration, is impassive and sterile, and appears oddly fragile and weightless. Alain de Botton nails it: 

It seems that the house may be no more than a temporary visitor and that its roof-top equipment could at any point receive a signal that would lead it to fire its concealed engines and rise slowly over the surrounding trees and historically styled villas on the beginning of a long journey home to a remote galaxy. 

It is debatable whether the Villa Savoye satisfies the Vitruvian principle of delight. Some people find its illusion of levitation, deceptively flimsy façades, cubist manner, contrasts and contradictions, and severe lines and open spaces and pervasive sparseness to be beautiful; others do not. What is incontrovertible, though, is that the Villa Savoye failed to provide its owners either firmness or commodity.

The house’s roof leaked, and it began leaking less than a week after the Savoye family moved in. Roger Savoye, the only child, developed a chest infection that sent him to a French sanatorium for a year. In 1936, Madame Savoye wrote to Le Corbusier, “It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp, and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight.” One year later, she wrote to tell the architect that either he would immediately pay to repair her “uninhabitable” house or she would see him in court.

Goldberger knows the story but is unmoved by it: “The leaky roof is not our problem, and neither is the fact that we might not wish to live in such a building ourselves.” To note that the vaunted Villa Savoye was an uninhabitable habitation is “churlish.” The wet and wheezy Madame Savoye had reason to be put out, certainly, but the leaky roof “didn’t leak on you or me” and “few great houses are uplifting works of art to the people who live in them.” Goldberger writes that great architecture, because it is great art, must challenge, and thus those who live with—live in—such challenging buildings cannot be other than frustrated by them. Such frustration is necessarily bred of proximity to and the ubiquity of “challenge,” but it cannot be allowed to detract from a building’s greatness.

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