About a month ago, I had the chance to meet Paul Goldberger, whose extensive career includes a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism while being architecture critic at The New York Times, position he later held at The New Yorker, and Dean of the Parsons School of Design in New York. He is also author of several books, including “Why Architecture Matters” and the biography of Frank Gehry: “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry”, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf this coming September.
An interesting conversation that brought up issues related with architecture and education, criticism, technology and social media, giving as a result the third installment of the series OSU//Interviews:
I am very interested in the impact that Internet’s immediacy has on the field of Architecture criticism, since published material is not necessarily going anymore through a professional filter and reaches people most of the time without offering a position or an argument on the topics exposed. As a critic who has lived this transition towards Internet based publications, what do you think is the future of Architecture Criticism? Should it stick to traditional methodologies, time frames and formats, or is there a way of using those tools (websites, blogs, twitter, facebook…) to adapt the field to current times?
There is no question that the field is affected by technology. It would be naïve to think otherwise. No world is immune from this, and, in fact, the world of journalism, of which criticism is a minor part, is profoundly affected by technology. But an unfortunate truth is that architecture criticism has always being somewhat marginal to journalism anyway, and the pressures on journalism impact it very greatly. I think the impact comes in many ways, but the fundamental part is because journalism itself is in a time of upheaval, criticism is affected by both the evolution in journalism and by the change within the profession of architecture.
All of that said, I think there is still an important role for traditional essays as works of criticism and I hope that never goes away. In architecture, as in every field, essays do not command the stage, as they once did, because there are so many other outlets, so many other places in which criticism takes place, or commentary, or just dissemination of information without comment, and the process of mediating, of editing, of synthesizing information and making judgment and conclusion is a problem today in so many fields where there are so many voices speaking up.
Is there a place for social media? Of course there is, inevitably. Some of it is silly, and some of it is useful and sensible. And some of it is a way of just increasing the discourse in the culture, which is fundamentally a good thing. If you are a critic, and you write for a general audience, your greatest goal is not to argue with a particular polemical position but to create a greater and more broadly informed and more broadly engaged public, and I think social media can help in that regard. The many silly things said along the way is just the price we pay for bringing more people into the discourse. Is good to remember that social media, particularly Twitter, is often useful as a way of pointing people toward more traditional forms. I myself from time to time encounter essays that I might not have seen and I saw because of a link in twitter, the same way I remind people of things I have written through twitter. So there you have the very positive, unexpected consequences of social media strengthening traditional media by directing more people to it. Sometimes Twitter is useful for another reason as well: some buildings aren’t worth more than 140 characters. Twitter as its best forces you to be very economical.
So the relationship is complicated, is not simply a matter of social media and technology taking away from traditional media, they impact each other in very complex ways. It is more of a living dynamic.
Critics have always had a big role in Architecture history, as the ones in charge of defining movements, trends, groups… Do you think that the situation mentioned in the previous question, by decreasing the presence of the critic, is related to the lack of “–isms” in the field nowadays?
It may seem strange for me to say this, but I truly don’t know. It is very difficult to understand a time when you are in the middle of it. I might even take issue with something you affirm in the question and say that in some ways, are historians who determine movements more than critics, because critics are more commenting on things as they happen whereas historians are looking back with more perspective.
Of course, it is not as simple as that, and we know that criticism and history and scholarship all connect deeply; they are not far apart. There are a lot of factors that are bringing us to the moment we are in right now, but I don’t think that a lot of the periods we thought of as having -isms felt so clearly that way for people in the middle of them at that time. I think it was only with the perspective of time that people looked back and saw which were the important things that came out of that period and the definition is often conferred retroactively on a time. Many of the definitions that are given at times are actually being experienced or often in fact tossed aside later.
When building up the articles for the blog, I use as a tool a series of design strategies in order to look at the city and get information on its current status and evolution. What are the mechanisms, or tools, you use when facing the construction of a critical piece?
Well, my tools are a set of beliefs, knowledge, history and also, since I believe very much in the experiential aspect of architecture, my own experience as I go through a building, which maybe is the central part of it all. But I have to evaluate that experience against my knowledge of history, against issues of context, urbanism, the programmatic requirements of the building itself, the history of the building… I don’t think of them so much as strategies as realm of knowledge, or realms of information that one must bring into any kind of critical judgment.
The building must be situated within both its own physical setting and urban context but it also must be situated within a political history, a cultural history and an economic history. It must be situated within a programmatic judgment and then the experiential view of the building has to be situated within a combination of all of these issues. The job of the critic in part is to synthesize all of that and bring out of it something coherent.
That was in terms of a single building, many critical essays are about broader urban issues or ideas, or planning issues, or political issues, so the extent to which different factors come to bear upon the result varies across depending on the nature of the article itself.
_ Is fairly common to see architects who practice that also write critical texts. In your opinion, should there be boundaries between criticism and practice? And, relate to that but in a more extensive scale, what is, for you, what defines an Architecture critic?
Criticism and practice are two different things. Some people do both, and are good at both, but they are different skills and many of the best people only do one. Just as in film there are some actors, who also direct, and some of them are very good and some of them are better as actors or better as directors.
I think there are two points to make. One of them, as I said, is that these are two different skills, I don’t have a value judgment between them. They are just different. They should be mutually supportive in some way, but the obligation of the critic is not to the architect. The obligation of the critic is to the reader, and the obligation of the architect is not to the critic, but to the user and the client. There is a lot of overlap in those areas but nevertheless the obligations are distinct and different.
When the same person does both, it is like wearing different hats at different times. I don’t think an actor who choses to be a director is necessarily going to be so wise to star in his own film, generally is better to keep those thinks separate. I think an architect who choses to write criticism does it, hopefully, not just to justify his or her work, but because they wish to make other comments.
All of that said, I don’t think necessarily you are a better critic for being an architect, in some ways you may be more compromised through being an architect, and the reason is this: I think an architect to do a really good job should have a very strong passion and commitment in one particular way of solving a problem, since that is your nature as a creative artist, to feel that this is the way it should be done, that is the way I want to do it.
On the other hand, a critic should be open to a wider range of possibilities, and be able to evaluate the relative success or failure of each of them. It is correct that, for example, Frank Gehry wants to design buildings like Frank Gehry, but a critic can’t judge building only on whether they look like that or not, and we could say that of a thousand other architects.
There is very little direct connection in my view between the ability of an architect to comment meaningfully and his or her ability as an architect. Some speak out a great deal, and others do not. I mentioned Frank Gehry a moment ago, and he writes very little; Rem Koolhaas writes a lot, but is there a direct connection always between Rem Koolhaas’s life as a theorist and critic and his life as an architect? They are intimately connected but they are not exactly the same, and I don’t know that you necessarily understand his architecture better by reading his criticism. They are different things. Jean Nouvel is very eloquent in certain things, but again I don’t know how much light does that sheds on his architecture. Zaha Hadid writes very little, she leaves it all to Patrik Schumacher.
I think it’s not possible to suggest a meaningful automatic connection. It is very dependent on the specific of each person and what they choose to say and how they see the world. Architects are only rarely the best interpreters of their own buildings, and that’s true of artists too, writers… there are some novelists who are good critical essayists, but not necessarily about their own work, which is better to leave to others to interpret.
Part of your professional career has been linked to the teaching of architecture in different schools. As an educator, how do you think this change caused by Internet, and the way we produce and consume information impact the way architecture is taught at schools?
I don’t know how much it has to do with the Internet specifically or whether is a matter of digital technology. I do have concerns about architectural students not spending enough time drawing, in some cases spending no time drawing. While CAD systems are an incomparably wonderful and helpful tool, I don’t know that you think the same way when you are designing on one than you think when you are sketching of paper. One does not have to be a reactionary to believe that there is still a role for drawing because drawing is very connected to thinking in a way that working on a digital screen does not always in the same way.
Now, in terms of the Internet more specifically I think there, as with criticism, the problem is not specific to architecture, is a much broader problem in the culture. There is a vast amount of information so much of it not well classified or organized and students are not always given enough explanation as to how it works and what is behind it. Another way to say that is that they don’t spend enough time thinking about history. And that’s true in so many fields not just architecture. I am amazed how sketchy the knowledge of architecture history is amongst students today.
Even the leisurely process of paging through a portfolio, as when you are looking at an old monograph of an architect from a hundred years ago, when students went into a library looking slowly and studying pictures as they turned pages is very different from Google something and looking very fast at an image. There is no question that we live in an age of very superficial understanding. But again, this is not a situation in which architecture suffers alone; this is an issue in the culture.
I do feel sometimes that in architectural education, particularly with undergrad student of architecture, and sometimes with graduate students too, students design too soon. I think they should study more about architecture and more about the world before they actually are set up to design buildings. I am not a believer that you start by being dropped in the water and told to swim, I think you need to know a little bit more about what the water is and what swimming is before you can be told to swim. But is difficult to find the place for it. And I say that as somebody who believes that design is absolutely critical and primary to what architecture is. Nevertheless, I think you have to work your way towards it.
I think we are only beginning to understand the effect of it, because is only now when we have a generation of architects coming in who have no other experience. Until few years ago, architects used CAD but were trained differently. Now, all the architects who were trained before CAD are very senior, or dead, and only now are we going to begin to see how much impact it has.
As part of that career in education, you have held the position of Dean at the Parsons School of Design. In the blog, I have argued about the disconnection that most of the times schools have with social realities, and the lack of interaction with other agents that take part in the process of creating a built environment. When you were Dean, what were your priorities, as well as your preoccupations, towards the students of the school?
As Dean, I was working toward creating a greater sense of coherence between certain disciplines that should be more connected, such as product design, furniture design, interior design and architecture and working towards that unification which is something that was completed by my successor.
I was not as directly engaged with the issue of the curriculum for architecture, which the head of the architecture department dealt with, but, as I explained in the previous question, I was concerned about it, and it remains a concern. I would also add that Parsons has a long tradition of social engagement through programs such as the Design Workshop, in which students actually build a public project together over the summer, and in its studios, which often take socially relevant projects as their themes. This is a tradition I very much believe in and tried to enhance.
I would like to end with a question that is becoming a classic on the interviews. In a time when traditional architectural practices are struggling to survive (specially in Europe, where mid-sized offices are much more common than big corporate ones) a young generation of architects is committed to bringing back collective structures and participatory processes to the filed, in an attempt to reshape the practice of Architecture nowadays. Do you think this is a plausible solution for the future of the practice?
Once again, as we talked about, architecture is not by itself, it is affected by things that are affecting everything in the economy, and everything in the society, in culture… Architecture’s challenges made greater by the fact that it has never been that easy to be an architect, never been that economically rewarding a profession for most people.
It is difficult on many levels, and for a small or mid-sized practice it’s been a big challenge for a long time. I think we’re going to see an enhancement of a fragmentation that we’ve been seeing for a long time, a pushing away of the middle. A very small, bespoke architecture practice that is doing very refined, high-end expensive projects for rich clients will always have a place and can prosper; large firms, too, will always have a place, as there is a movement towards large corporate entities across the economy, and firms that can serve all that will have a role, though it may be a challenging role for architects who care strongly about design.
The problem is in the middle. As we’ve seen the middle disappear, look at retailing for example, expensive stores do very well, cheap places like Walmart do very well, and there used to be a lot of department stores in the middle that struggle now and there is an absence of a mid-prized market in so many areas, and architecture is that way. There is nobody who can afford to hire an architect unless they are either a very rich private client or they are a large corporate entity or a civic or governmental entity. Many institutions are more architecturally ambitious than they once were, which has given us museums and academic buildings and civic buildings that aspire to a level of architectural seriousness, but that has obscured the fact that so much of the private sector is built by non-architects, and is terrible.
This gets us to the bigger challenges that go far beyond within the profession, which is just ‘how are we going to get the buildings we want for society when society can’t pay for them, doesn’t want to pay for them?’
Architecture is caught up in this much bigger problem right now. It is not only a problem within the profession, it is a problem with all the things the profession deals with. Architects can only build what society wants them to build. And society now, for all its interest in architecture with a capital A, isn’t asking architects to build as much of the world as it should be.
Paul Goldberger is now a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair. From 1997 through 2011 he served as the Architecture Critic for The New Yorker, where he wrote the magazine’s celebrated “Sky Line” column. He also holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School in New York City. He was formerly Dean of the Parsons school of design, a division of The New School. He began his career at The New York Times, where in 1984 his architecture criticism was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, the highest award in journalism.
He lectures widely around the country on the subject of architecture, design, historic preservation and cities, and he has taught at both the Yale School of Architecture and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in addition to The New School. His writing has received numerous awards in addition to the Pulitzer, including the President’s Medal of the Municipal Art Society of New York, the medal of the American Institute of Architects and the Medal of Honor of the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation, awarded in recognition of what the Foundation called “the nation’s most balanced, penetrating and poetic analyses of architecture and design.”
He has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees by Pratt Institute, the University of Miami, Kenyon College, the College of Creative Studies and the New York School of Interior Design for his work as a critic and cultural commentator on design. He appears frequently on film and television to discuss art, architecture, and cities, and recently served as host of a PBS program on the architect Benjamin Latrobe. He has also served as a special consultant and advisor on architecture and planning matters to several major cultural and educational institutions, including the Morgan Library in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, the New York Public Library, the Glenstone Foundation and Cornell and Harvard universities.
He is the author of several books, most recently “Why Architecture Matters”, published in 2009 by Yale University Press; “Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture”, a collection of his architecture essays published in 2009 by Monacelli Press, and “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, published in 2010 by Taschen. He is now at work on a full-length biography of the architect Frank Gehry,“Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry”, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf next september 2015.
More in www.paulgoldberger.com