The rise of celebrity architects has made building design part of the general cultural dialogue. People want to see more buildings that “arouse their passions, whether positively or negatively.”
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.
Recorded on June 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman