Big Think Interview With Paul Goldberger
Paul Goldberger: Well I think the recession is doing two things. First, it cuts the volume of building hugely. You know, the first thing you give up in bad times is building a new building. I mean, you've got to eat, you’ve got to do certain other essential things, but building a building for most people, for most businesses, most institutions, is an optional thing. And so when times are tough, you give it up. It's both optional and unbelievably expensive. So therefore, it’s the first thing to go. That’s the bad effect, obviously, of the recession.
The good effect, though, is that it can kind of can cleanse a lot of the crap out of the system. I mean, we’ve just come through a period of enormous and, in some ways excessive, prosperity. A lot of what we’ve built has been excessive and more than a little vulgar. So if the recession puts an end to the McMansion, it will have been a social good in some way actually. That’s not to—I don’t mean to be flippant about it, obviously there is more social ill to a recession than social good, but somewhere within all the awful stuff, there’ll be a modest silver lining and that might be that we will begin to understand that, you know, an upper-middle class prosperous family of four does not require 15,000 square feet of living space as a bare minimum, which is the way a lot of the country's been operating in the age of the McMansion.
Question: Has the recession affected certain types of architecture disproportionately?
Paul Goldberger: The recession’s affected architecture at all levels, I think, because there’s not much money to build. Remember, commercial building, nobody builds with their own money. It’s all money that gets lent by financial institutions. And they’re not doing it right now, in this climate. So buildings at all levels have been affected. The government is not building much, commercial developers are not building much. About the only amount of building you do see is some institutional building; academic institutions, cultural institutions, perhaps that had been planning projects for a long time, have raised a lot of the money they need through private philanthropy and are also figuring that, with construction way down this is actually a good time because they can build it at a cheaper price then they might if things come back in a couple of years. So they’re going ahead with a certain number of projects, but an awful lot of stuff is not happening—in that category as well as other categories. So, it’s way down at all levels.
We’re coming out of this period when architecture’s been incredibly ambitious and sometimes too ambitious even. Although far be it from me as an architecture critic to say there’s such a thing as architecture being too ambitious, but in fact, sometimes it has been. It’s tried to hard; it’s sort of acted as if it was going to solve all the world’s ills by a bunch of fancy buildings.
In any case, I think we are pulling back on a lot of that stuff and there, there is both a good and a bad side also. The good side is sometimes things are being done just in a more simple, clear, basic way without a lot of unnecessary frills and fuss. You know, it kind of... maybe we’ll get back to a respect for a kind of modernist purity sometimes. And that's all to the good.
On the other hand, if things are just done more cheaply with crappy, junky materials, that’s not to the good. And I think we’re seeing some of both of those things right now.
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.
Question: How has the "starchitect" phenomenon influenced what has been built in recent years?
Paul Goldberger: Well, the whole "starchitect" phenomenon I think is sort of three parts good, one part bad maybe. I mean, the bad part is simply that the American culture of celebrity was inevitably going to hit architecture and have its way with it. And so we, I think, have taken at least some architects and made them into celebrities about whom we “ooh” and “ahh” rather than really analyze their work and think about it thoughtfully. But that’s a risk in art and music and literature. It happens everywhere to some extent.
The good side of this all is there is this far greater interest in architecture today than there has been at any time, I think in our lifetimes, really. You know, architecture is now part of the general cultural dialogue. When I was starting my career, it wasn’t. You know, it was kind of this little thing off to the side; even though it influenced everybody, everybody dealt with architecture every day of their lives, people didn’t pay that much attention to it generally and didn’t think of it as something that influenced their daily lives. And so they would maybe talk about music, they would talk about art, they’d talk about books—but architecture wasn’t on that radar screen with the others. Now it is, in a very different way.
And so inevitably that’s going to create more interest in more buildings that will get more people engaged and excited. And so the more people see buildings that arouse their passions, whether positively or negatively, the more they kind of want more. And because we are a more visual culture than we used to be—which I think is also basically good, or more good than not good—we are doing more to accentuate that so, of course, the art museum, it’s not an original observation to say that the art museum is kind of the secular cathedral of our time and in so many cities now. The art museum is the physical symbol of the statement this community is making to the world that it has a certain kind of stature, in a very same way that once building a cathedral was that statement to the world. And even if the art museum isn’t the tallest thing in town, it’s often now the most important, the building over which the most care has been lavished, the most attention, the most time, the most money.
And so, all of that is mostly to the good, but in life... in architecture as in life, very few things are 100% good, 100% bad, and you know, there’s no free lunch. We pay a price for that, but it’s still mostly a positive thing.
Question: Which architect has had the biggest influence in the past 10 years?
Paul Goldberger: I think inevitably you’d have to say Frank Gehry has had the most profound effect because he’s the architect who bridges the sort of "serious" world of architecture—those who study architecture academically or practice it or think of it in a critical way within that world—and popular culture. And there are very few examples in history of an architect being that bridge and creating buildings that excited and engaged a very broad segment of the population at the same time that the most serious critics were treating them with respect and viewing him as something important.
And so, Gehry, undoubtedly, has had the greatest effect, greatest impact of any architect, certainly in the last 20-25 years, and is probably the heir in the United States, at least, to the sort of legacy of Louis Kahn as a kind of, you know, philosopher king of architects—somebody who is both very thoughtful and did great buildings that had a profound impact. Although right now, there's a whole generation of other significant architects who have made a big mark on the landscape and will continue to. So, while I agree that Gehry’s the most important right now, he’s far from the freshest face and it’s in no way to say that the story of architecture in the last 20 years begins and ends with him. It neither begins with him, nor ends with him actually. He’s just the figure around whom the phenomenon of our time has kind of coalesced the most clearly.
Question: Can you attach an "ism" to where we are today in architecture? (- Question from Lee Mindel of Shelton Mindel & Associates)
Paul Goldberger: I think we’re in a kind of period of late modernism, renewed modernism in which the modern style, which was mistakenly given up for dead in the '80s with post-modernism, has kind of come back, reinventing itself much more urbane, correcting some of the mistakes of modernism the first time around when it was so anti-urban. And with much more either restraint, in some cases, and clarity and almost sometimes minimalism, and/or a kind of more expressionistic strain. So, we see different strains and I do not think this is a time it can be summarized in any single "ism" anyway. There are too many different things going on. But probably the one that is kind of the most unifying or compelling of the time to the extent that anything can pull a diverse time together, would be this sort of late modernist moment that we're in where really good architects are reinventing the modernist vocabulary.
Question: Is there a particular project or building that encapsulates where architecture is right now?
Paul Goldberger: Where we're at right now, it’s hard to ever encapsulate that with a single building. I mean there was a time, you know, a dozen years ago when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao seem to sort of sum up everything. And it did. It was really the symbolic beginning of a whole age of architecture. An age of intense engagement with architecture and with doing buildings which in some cases were really quite wonderful and brilliant and profound even. In other cases buildings that were just soft of excessive.
Right now we’ve kind of pulled back from that a lot, but we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. There’s a tremendous interest in sustainability today and in environmentalism and in buildings being responsible from a green standpoint, which is all to the good. There’s a greater sense, I think, of the building as part of the larger whole, and less as an individual standalone monument. So we’re more concerned with urbanism; how buildings relate to each other on the street and as part of a community. We’re more concerned, I think, with planning—I'd like to hope. And so we’re not believing that you can keep growing and spreading out forever and ever across the landscape that we’ve got to make our cities denser and tighter in part to preserve the land. I sense a lot of that right now. Much more willingness to begin to consider alternate forms of housing as reflections of alternate forms of living, and alternate family structures and things like that, you know. For a long time, we’ve just assumed that everybody would fit into the same little pigeon-holed box. Either a little suburban house or an apartment in the city, or whatever, that was designed for a very traditional nuclear family. In fact, family structures are different now, and they’re changing and there are more options. And so, why aren't there more housing options at the same time to reflect that?
You hear more people at least talking about that now. And I think if we were not in this difficult recession where it’s tough to build anything, we’d actually see more real stuff happening right now. But with luck, we can use this time to plan, to sort of develop ideas and be ready to do more interesting stuff when the time comes.
Question: How have "green" concepts influenced architecture?
Paul Goldberger: I think the most important thing to say about green architecture right now is that it’s becoming less and less of a big deal, not because we’re not doing it, but because we are doing it. In other words, I’m saying that to make the point that we’re not marginalizing it; it’s becoming so central to the making of architecture that I don’t even know that we have to talk about it so much. And one of the reasons is that we’ve learned how to make traditional—by traditional I don’t mean historical, I just mean regular buildings—in a much more energy-efficient way than we used to. So the question about how will green architecture change the appearance of buildings may end up being answered by saying, "Not very much." But not because green architecture isn’t happening, it’s because we’ve learned to integrate it so well that it doesn’t change the appearance as much as we thought.
I mean, an example might be glass. Years and years ago, when the first serious attempts were made to make buildings more energy-efficient, people used to say, "Well oh, that’s the end of glass buildings because you know, nothing’s worse than glass and that’s that. And we’re going to see lots of masonry buildings again, or lots of this or lots of that." In fact, we now have more glass buildings than ever. And that’s because glass itself has changed and manufacturers have learned how to make glass into what’s almost a different material in that it’s much more energy-efficient than it was before. It has... it performs in a way that is much closer to an opaque material, to stone or something like that. Not literally the same, but closer than it used to be. And so we're seeing plenty of glass buildings after all, but they’re much more energy-responsive, they’re much more green than a generation ago.
So, in a way, it’s kind of like the situation with cars. You know, it’s all well and good to talk about hybrids—and hybrids have been an incredibly positive addition to the roads, let's say. But what's less talked about is how much more efficient conventional engines have become. So, you know, you can buy a hybrid, but you can also buy a BMW, or an Audi that in fact gets almost as good mileage through a much more efficient conventional engine. And we’re seeing that in architecture too. An awful lot of buildings that are just, may look like an older kind of building, but I fact are much more efficient. They don’t necessarily have to be totally different, the way the hybrid is totally different.
And of course, even within the realm of the hybrid, you know, there’s the Prius, which looks different, or then there’s a hybrid engine inside a Toyota Camry that looks the same. So, in architecture too, there's an analogy. The building can express how green it is if the architect and the client wanted to, or it can not express that but still be just a green as the other one.
Question: How have Jane Jacobs' ideas about urbanism affected the way buildings are built?
Paul Goldberger: Jane Jacobs and her ideas about the nature of the city and about the city being an organic living thing, and a thing capable of constant regeneration and the street being so important. Those have almost become the common wisdom today. They’re not considered radical. Quite the contrary, they're considered very mainstream, almost, now. But as with everything, in every silver lining there is a cloud, you could say. You know, there’s a down side to even this very good thing. And that’s that when someone’s ideas become mainstream, there’s always the tendency of people who are not so responsible to exploit them. So we do see real estate developers today talking about, you know, how much their projects enhance street life and presenting 70-story condos as additions to the cityscape, which as the kind the kind of things that Jane Jacobs would have liked, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. They’re not. I thought the ultimate of that was a few years ago when the Jets' project to do a stadium on the west side of Manhattan was being pushed. And one of the arguments made for the design was that it would have, tucked into the bottom, lots of little shops and restaurants and things like that so that when there was not a football game, it would "enliven" the cityscape.
Well, the notion of using Jane Jacobs ideas about enlivening the streetscape to justify an 80,000-seat football stadium in the middle of Manhattan totally turned her notions on their head. And I do think we’re seeing a certain amount of that now. Or things like urban festival marketplaces, Faneuil Hall in Boston and all the progeny of that is a kind of commercial corruption of a lot of what Jane Jacobs was arguing for. But is the glass half empty or is the glass half full? You know, is it... if you compare a festival marketplace kind of urban thing to a real city street with all the energy and intensity and heterogeneity of a true city street, it doesn’t come off so well. If you compare it, however, to a suburban mall, it looks pretty good. So, you know, is the glass half empty or is the glass half full? It’s almost a question of what your temperament is, how you choose to read that. I’d rather read it as a sign that there is a kind of urban impulse in this society, which I think is good even if that urban impulse sometimes plays out in crass commercial ways.
Question: How do you feel about the progress on One World Trade Center?
Paul Goldberger: I'm disappointed in where things are at Ground Zero right now. I think it's sad, on the other hand, I do think the people involved are trying reasonably hard, under the circumstances. But there's really not a great deal of vision there. It begins really right back the morning of September 12th when Governor Pataki, who had the most authority in this situation, made the decision to keep everybody in place who was a player in this situation, the Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center, the developer, Larry Silverstein, who had leased the Twin Towers. And most importantly, to keep the program in place. The program—by program, I mean the functions of the buildings. So, you know, the World Trade Center was 10 million square feet of office space plus some retail and some other commercial space, that’s what was transferred into the new project with the addition of a memorial and some cultural facilities and the, the prescription that it be in a different physical format, obviously, not 210-story towers again, but spread out around the site in a different way.
But you know, we never really looked into completely different uses for the site. We never really thought from point zero, we might say, about what the ideal thing to do there would be. Instead we took a program that goes back to the original World Trade Center in the early '60s, and it was never really that effective or successful for most of its life, and decided to replicate it.
And then came all the complex political things that flowed from that, so it’s taken an inordinately long time, it's cost a huge amount of money, and we still don’t really have anything that I think the world can look at and say, "This is a great achievement that shows us that the United States has come back from this thing in a noble way." The office building that’s going up is sort of okay, but it's not, I don’t think going to be a distinguished or particularly beautiful building. It’s not the... it doesn’t show all that we are capable of in terms of architecture.
Similarly, the other office buildings that have been planned for the site, most of which are on hold now because of the economy, are better than the average piece of junk on Third Avenue, that’s true, but that’s not a very ringing endorsement.
And then for this site that is so critical to the eyes of the world, where we had the opportunity to show the world that we could do something that was bold and visionary, we have really not succeeded at doing that.
I think a great tower would have had a place there. Either a pure tower, just as a symbol, like the Eiffel Tower of the 21st Century, we might say. Or, remembering that the United States is, after all, the birthplace of the skyscraper—a building form that we’ve now given to the world that is now common all around the world—what better place, if we’re looking to show the world that in fact we have not been defeated by this attack, than to come back to this place, in this country, in this time and build the most advanced skyscraper we could possibly imagine. The one that will bring the art of skyscraper design forward yet again.
And instead, we are not doing that. We’re doing a building that is not that different from a lot of commercial buildings built everywhere, and in fact, not as good as many of them. It’s going to be very tall, it’ll have a little more flair to it than the old Twin Towers did, but, you know, it’s not what it might have been.
Recorded on June 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
A conversation with the New Yorker's architecture critic.
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