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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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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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