Q&A: Paul Goldberger on Architecture Criticism
Paul Goldberger spends a few moments to reminisce about the “short break” he took from journalism—one that led to the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.
Paul Goldberger, Photo by James Callanan
It’s rare to find someone willing to pay for opinions these days, and rarer still to be known for them. Yet, Paul Goldberger has crafted a career by objectively navigating the subjective. As an arbiter of quality in architecture and design for nearly four decades, he spends a few moments with me to reminisce about the “short break” he took from journalism that led to, among many accolades, the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and, more recently, the Scully Prize.
Andrew Caruso: You’re being recognized this year by the National Building Museum with the Vincent Scully prize. Given your relationship with Scully began when you were a student at Yale, this must be a very meaningful award.
Paul Goldberger: Scully was very much a teacher and mentor to me. Actually my first exposure to him was a high school visit to Yale. I observed one of his classes and was blown away. He was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Yale in the first place and I was lucky to work with him through college and as my thesis adviser.
AC: Do you remember what his class was about that first time you saw him?
PG: I think it was about Lou Kahn, but I’m not completely sure. I must have attended several hundred Scully lectures, so they can blur a little bit. And, I’m afraid high school was a few years ago (Laughs). Architecture had an almost holy aura in that lecture hall. That aura I remember very clearly, even if I’m not completely sure it was about Kahn.
AC: Was writing a passion for you during college?
PG: Yes, writing has always been a passion of mine. I was one of those kids who was the editor of the junior high school newspaper, and so on. For a while I thought I’d pursue a career in journalism, and then I spent a summer in Europe just looking at buildings. I realized that’s what I should be doing. But then I began my career as a journalist and it was only when I realized how much I missed architecture that I began writing about it. Gradually, it was all I was doing.
AC: If you had a chance to do it over again, would you get a design degree and practice?
PG: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel as compelling a drive toward it as I did toward writing. The world had enough second rate architects; it didn’t need another one.
I was never convinced that I would be a good architect, but I knew I was a good writer. I think to be a really good architect you need to have a passionate drive toward one solution. You actually have to have a narrower way of seeing things. To be a good critic, you need a broader worldview, a broader outlook. You need to see a lot of things well and understand them.
I originally started my career in journalism thinking it would be a couple of years and then I would get a design degree or a PhD in architectural history. The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was failing to get a fellowship for graduate study at Cambridge. I ended up taking my second choice, which was a job offer from The New York Times. I thought it would be fun to be in New York for a couple of years and thought I could use a dose of the real world before I returned to academia. I took what I thought would be a short break and began a career as a journalist and writer. I’m still on that break.
AC: What is it about writing that captures you, and why criticism?
PG: Writing and thinking go very closely together. The way my mind works, I don’t really understand something until I’ve written about it. It’s a way to teach myself.
I suppose a critic is a very complex combination of judge and celebrator, and I’ve taken great pleasure in sharing my own pleasure. That’s why I wrote the book Why Architecture Matters, to help non-architects understand how buildings connect to their lives in one way or another. This goes back to Scully, at least indirectly, because if there’s any overarching lesson I learned from him, it was that architecture inevitably is not about itself. It’s about culture and community in the broadest sense. It affects all those things and is affected by them. Trying to both understand that better myself and then communicate it to others is what I’ve wanted to do.
AC: When I look at the Goldberger bookshelf, there is an incredibly broad range of topics. What fuels and filters the topics for which you write books?
PG: I’m interested in a number of things and how they connect to other things. While I love exploring architecture in a purely formal way, I would feel incredibly limited and deprived if that were the only way in which one could discuss it. In the end, I am actually more interested in architecture not as an exploration of form, but as something that connects to a lot of other things.
The very first book I did, City Observed, was about wandering around and looking in New York, combining some history and analysis with personal and emotional responses to buildings. I think about Scully’s implicit lesson: it is important to connect architecture with emotion rather than to deny it.
Of more recent books, the one on the World Trade Center was originally supposed to be titled “Up from Zero: Architecture, Politics and the Rebuilding of New York,” but the publisher wanted to flip the subtitle to be Politics, Architecture and the Rebuilding of New York. ”You’ve written more about that than about architecture,” he said, and I realized it was true. The book was about the importance of this inevitable connection.
For me, it has always been an attempt to connect architecture to other things, and at the same time, not to deny or give short shrift to its extraordinary aesthetic power. If we look only to the connections — to the political, social, and economic aspects of architecture — then we’ve denied what is really its core, “the great moment.”
AC: If we think of how an actor might prepare for a character or role, how do you get into the role of providing balanced criticism? What is your method?
PG: Well I think as a critic you have to get into a number of different heads: the architect’s, the client’s and the user’s. It is very important to understand intentions, but not to let them govern everything you say. A lot of bad architecture has been produced by good intentions.
If I look back over what I’ve written over the years, I like almost all of it, and I stand behind almost all of it. But the very few pieces I question have all been times when I’ve been a little too sympathetic to good intentions when they did not produce a good result. I allowed myself to get into the architect’s head too much.
AC: Which projects might review differently today?
PG: There are a few. I was far too forgiving of the intentions behind the AT&T Building in New York (now the Sony Tower) and a lot of the postmodernism and historicism of the eighties. I was genuinely excited by what it was trying to do, and in those years modernism really had ceased to be a fertile source of ideas.
What post modernism ultimately did, which no one really predicted, was to reenergize modernism. It returned with a renewed sense of energy, commitment to formal creativity, and a real consciousness of urbanism, to which most modern architecture had been quite indifferent. In the end, history will have its way.
AC: Would you describe yourself as an advocate for the built environment?
PG: Yes, an advocate for the built environment and for quality within it. I would like to hope that criticism creates a more visually literate public, and theoretically, a higher demand for good architecture. I think we’ve seen that in the last generation. It is the result of many, many things, and anything I may have done is just a tiny part.
AC: Do you think that architectural criticism can be an advocate for things broader than good design–policy issues or socioeconomic conditions, for example?
PG: Yes, I think it can and should. Good criticism reminds us that these things ultimately cannot be separated from design. Architecture is more than a spray coat of aesthetics put on after something is done. There’s a very deep interconnection between the social connections and the aesthetic intentions of a project. A critic has to be, at least in part, an advocate of the social role in architecture and urbanism.
I think it is important that a critic not be an ideologue, but that does not mean to limit yourself to just writing about aesthetics, because then you are just comparing shapes. That suggests a horribly limited role of architecture. I don’t accept that and don’t think any good critic really accepts that role because it denies the full scope of what architecture is.
AC: There is significant conversation today about quantifying the value of design. How is performance-based design shifting, shaping, challenging, fueling, or befuddling architectural criticism?
PG: I think it has the potential to shift and change a lot, not always positively. I think performance-based design makes perfect sense in terms of sustainability, where we are dealing with quantifiable things. It has begun to have an impact in certain programmatic and functional processes, such as the design of healthcare facilities, where it also has great validity. In a different dimension, there’s a growing field of neuroscience that is trying to understand the ways in which we respond to different kinds of space. All of that is positive and criticism should take it into account.
I worry deeply, however, that performance-based metrics can overwhelm all other things. If in our love of the quantifiable we leave out the immeasurable, then we’re in deep trouble. It is a question of understanding what metrics can and cannot do.
AC: How has the rise of the blogger or citizen reporter changed architectural criticism? In this light, is there a dearth of architectural criticism these days?
PG: There’s definitely no dearth of architectural chatter, that’s for sure. Whether there’s a dearth of architectural criticism is another issue.
I do sometimes worry that thoughtful, real essays are rare today. There are fewer and fewer outlets for them, and that’s a concern. Are we better or worse off for it? It’s a mixed bag. I cannot believe that more people thinking and talking about architecture, even in the form of blogs and Twitter, is a bad thing. It my not be a completely good thing either in that it may have squeezed out meaningful, more thoughtful dialogue.
I also have a concern that we are loosing a thoughtful level of extended analytical writing and criticism for an intelligent lay audience. In other words, if everything is getting pushed to the extremes — either a long academic essay that may be very good but that nobody will read, or blogs and twitter — then we have a real loss.
AC: Who is your audience these days? How has the demographic shifted over the years?
PG: I think it is changing and I’m not entirely sure how. Of course the demographic for everything is changing somewhat. In architecture, as in every field, no publication has the same hegemony it once did. Even The New York Times doesn’t mean what it once did. The New Yorker doesn’t mean what it once did, and so forth. A lot of people remain part of that audience, but they don’t view it in the same way. They don’t view it as having unique authority. There are a lot of younger readers who may read what I write, but also read a million other things and don’t necessarily make all that much of a distinction between them.
AC: Why do you think there is an overwhelming perception that architects and designers cannot write?
PG: (Laughs) Well, it’s true. In some ways it is a different sensibility. A writer analyzes things from a different viewpoint, deconstructing the work of someone else to create his or her work around it. A great architect is producing a form of poetry as he or she solves problems, and using the physical form of architecture to say something that words cannot express. Expressing in words may not be the natural medium for such a person.
There are certainly architects with both sensibilities, but it’s rare: Charles Moore, Bob Stern, Philip Johnson (in fact some might say Johnson was a better writer than architect).
AC: Describe winning the Pulitzer in 1984.
PG: It was a wonderful, pleasant surprise. I was in my office at the Times. Everyone knew that Pulitzers were going to be announced. I think it had leaked out that I was a finalist. Nan Robertson, at the time a writer for Times Magazine and previous Pulitzer winner, came running into my office and had just gotten the news. There was an impromptu party in Abe Rosenthal’s office and we all had more to drink than we should have. The Times has always celebrated Pulitzers in a really nice way.
AC: What was it like to spend the rest of your career in the shadow of the Pulitzer?
PG: You mean, “How come I haven’t won one lately?” (Laughs) There is a nice sense of credibility and legitimacy that it confers. Your views are taken somewhat more seriously and you begin to take yourself more seriously, but I hope never too much so. A Pulitzer is a welcome reminder that you haven’t been fooling yourself… totally (Laughs). But of course it’s dangerous to start believing you know too much because then you stop challenging yourself. It’s one of the reasons I like to teach because students tend to be much more willing to ask challenging questions.
It’s always good to balance self-confidence and insecurity. I think you can’t accomplish much without at least some self-confidence, but if you don’t have at least some degree of insecurity, then you become an arrogant (edited). I still do feel some of both, always with a sense that there’s more to learn and more to discover.
Andrew Caruso, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, CDT, publishes and speaks internationally on issues of talent within the creative industries. His latest column, “Inside the Design Mind,” explores the motivations of today’s design icons and influencers, surfacing key elements of their identity and examining their agency within the community of practice. Andrew can be reached at: inquiries[@andrewcaruso.com.
About Inside the Design Mind: The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. tells the stories of architecture, engineering, and design. The Museum’s Spotlight on Design lectures feature architects and designers of distinction from around the world. Inside the Design Mind, a series from the National Building Museum, is presented in partnership with Metropolis Magazine.
This post is a part of the Inside the Design Mind series.