The Magazine

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.

First, this reasoning is a real stretch. And second, Goldberger has tripped over Vitruvius, for how can a home be firm and commodious if those who live in it find it unsuitable for living? Goldberger flails, and it’s tough to stay with him as he attempts to regain balance. Does he really mean to equate a leaky roof to the “challenge” of great art? Has he forgotten that he wrote, on the first page of Why Architecture Matters, that “The purpose of this book is to explain what buildings do beyond keeping us out of the rain,” thereby asserting that the primary thing any building must do is keep its occupants out of the rain? One wonders if Goldberger sees the Villa Savoye as a real house or some kind of theoretical house. Is its worth to be judged as architecture, or as architectural idea? (And if the latter, did anyone bother to tell the Savoyes?)

Goldberger repeatedly writes of the “paradox” of architecture, art that must be practical. He repeatedly writes that architecture cannot be judged by only functional or aesthetic or ideological metrics, but that its value is dependent on all three. And yet those rules are out the window when Goldberger, the critic, is placed in a position that (in this book, at least) seems oddly uncomfortable for him: the position of needing to move beyond paeans to architecture to judge actual buildings.

If he believes that certain structures—those that are in some way revolutionary, that demonstrate innovative techniques or materials or ideas—can be evaluated wholly on their theoretical or aesthetic uniqueness, then he should say so. At the very least, he should say nothing at all and let his criteria remain vaporous. Goldberger, however, espouses an opposite philosophy: that architecture’s worth depends on achieving a Vitruvian balance. Then, he flip-flops.

Why Architecture Matters, according to its author, is not a work of history or a guide to styles but a more expansive, meandering appreciation of architecture whose “most important message” is to “encourage [a reader] to look” and trust his eye. For those disposed to such looking there exist better works of history, better guides, and better meandering appreciations, of which Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness and the venerable Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen are two among many. In both of them, the narrative, if not always straight and clear, at least wends pleasurably; it doesn’t in Why Architecture Matters. De Botton’s and Rasmussen’s writing pops. In Why Architecture Matters, Goldberger’s doesn’t.

His stronger book is Building Up and Tearing Down, a collection of his critical essays. Here are found spry sentences and sharp observations, the sharpest of which call to mind the work of Ada Louise Huxtable. For instance, Goldberger writes,

The forty-five-story Westin is the most garish tall building that has gone up in New York in as long as I can remember. It is fascinating, if only because it makes Times Square vulgar in a whole new way, extending up into the sky.

The critique from which that bit comes does not get stuck in the theoretical muck. It describes a building, its history and its architects, and then, paragraph by paragraph, explains where and why the building succeeds and, with far greater alacrity, where and why it doesn’t.

It is important that, in these brief pieces, Goldberger mostly avoids fraternizing with the theorizing that leads him into trouble in Why Architecture Matters. In fact, certain of the essays are outright dismissive of the spoken and written theories of architects; Goldberger has opted to judge their work and not their words. The happy result is pointed writing that is clearer about why architecture matters than his book of that name.

Theory is not unimportant, but architecture is a spatial art, not a verbal one. Too often, those who design buildings and those who write about them allow the ideas to bury the structure. Recall Goldberger’s hope to encourage people to look at the architecture that surrounds them, and to help them to “see.” Building Up and Tearing Down does precisely this, with short essays that are focused and orderly. As Goldberger systematically evaluates architecture—looking at it, standing in it, describing it—he imparts how it is experienced, not how it is explained. One can disagree with his conclusions—he is too gentle, at times, on the star architects, too pleased with trendy designs—
but his critical process here is lucid and instructive.

Liam Julian, a Hoover Institution fellow, is managing editor of Policy Review.


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