Architects Are More Necessary Than Ever

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker magazine, where he has written his "Sky Line" column since 1997. 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 is the author of a number of books, including, "Why Architecture Matters" and "Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture and the Rebuilding of New York." In 1984, while working as architecture critic at the New York Times, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Has technology made architects less necessary than they used to be?

Paul Goldberger: I think architects are more necessary than ever because technology can sometimes create the illusion that a building can be created without a creative hand, without a creative idea behind it.  And that’s not true at all.  Where technology has helped, so far, is in the building of extraordinary shapes that architects can imagine.  So, it was once possible to imagine strange and complicated shapes that were almost impossible to build.  Today, technology allows us to build almost anything.  But the computer can’t create those things. It can’t make them up.  An architect has to make them up.  and in fact, if we think about Frank Gehry again, he is in many ways a traditional architect.  I mean, he designs on paper and with models.  And then the computer takes over only later. 

Now there's a younger generation of architects who are using the computer more as a design tool and they’re comfortable with letting the computer tell them what to do a little bit more, rather than merely how to make something their mind has invented.  I don’t know where that's going to take us... I don’t think of myself as old, but I think I’m old enough to not sort of naturally sort of feel that that’s the way to do it. But I’m also, I hope smart enough not to rush to judgment on it.  So, let's see where using the computer as an actual design tool as opposed to an engineering and construction tool, or as a facilitation tool, where all that takes us.  I don’t know yet.  But I do believe that in the same way that computers can be programmed to write music, to paint pictures, to write literature, I don’t know that there will be a time they will equal the creative genius of a human mind.  But they certainly can facilitate that genius.  And that we’re seeing already. 

I think we can get sort of tired of crazy shapes all the time, and we get numb to them.  And if every – as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote many, many years ago, you know "If every building is extraordinary, well then they’re really all ordinary."  So, you know, if the new ordinary just becomes this kind of frantic, frenetic, complicated form, I don’t know that we’ve achieved much. 

The beauty and the drama in any kind of urban environment, any kind of urban setting is in the way in which different things play off against each other.  I mean, if you had a building like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles next door to another Gehry building next door to another, all of the same thing—or equally powerful buildings by other architects—I don’t know that you’d have a particularly appealing urban environment.  But in the same way that a great cathedral in a European city plays off against the everyday buildings that are there and becomes a kind of punctuation mark, if you will, in the cityscape, that’s what we should be doing. 

Is technology going to create a temptation to do too much all the time?  It may, but as I said I think our growing awareness of urbanism, of the idea of the city—which I think is better understood culturally today than it was 20 years ago—I think that sort of helps balance that off and we’re much more aware that the background building can be one of the things that make the city nice to be in.  When you think about Paris, you know, there are great monuments, but then there’s the kind of the ordinary everyday Parisian building that creates the urban fabric.  And that’s one of the reasons it works so well is because the great monuments play off in a really beautiful sort of harmonic balance against the background fabric.

Recorded on June 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman


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