Paul Goldberger interviewed by LW. Recorded on September 4th, 2013
LW: There are obviously different modes of writing in architecture, with diverse, sometimes conflicting, goals and approaches intended for different
audiences. What prompted you to become an architectural critic, writing for a larger audience rather than doing architectural research, writing about
architecture in an academic setting?
PG: I have always been very interested in journalism. In fact I spent a small amount of my career as a general journalist. I sometimes say that being an architectural critic was a way for me to avoid making a decision between journalism and architecture. I am interested in having an impact on the world. Speaking to the public and trying to connect the often very disconnected worlds, the profession and the public, is a goal that interests me very much. I am interested in reality, I might say, not to the exclusion of theory. I spent a lot of my life as an academic also, but I do not like a life spent entirely in the academy. It’s too self-referential in a way.
LW: Do you think an education in architecture is necessary for one to become a good architectural critic?
PG: Well, I’d say it is certainly not necessary to be an architect. I think you need some education about architecture however, and mine was architectural history.
There are other ways to study architecture without actually getting a professional degree. In some ways it is almost better not to be an architect because if you are an architect, especially if you are a good architect, you feel a kind of internal, innate passion to do things in one particular way. That’s important in architecture, but is dangerous for a critic to feel—a critic needs to be open to a certain range of different possibilities and to be able to evaluate and analyze things on their own terms. If a critic rejected all work that did not resemble one particular direction, I think he or she would not be a good critic. Whereas an architect has a right to, and sometimes even a responsibility to, have a narrower view. It is part of being an artist in a way, having a way you want to do it.
LW: In the beginning of your career in the seventies and eighties at the New York Times you wrote some articles that exhibit an enthusiasm for postmodern architecture; articles such as “A Postmodern Stage Set” and “Now the Religion is Anti-modernism.”1 You contributed to the discourse and brought it to the attention of the general public. How would you describe the climate in architecture around that period? Did you feel the need to use the platform you had at the New York Times to support this new development?
PG: I felt that there was an enormous amount of change going on in architectural thought. Modernism did feel as if it was running out of energy and architecture was looking for other ways to express form.
In the end postmodernism was a very mixed bag at best, and we might now say, a very fraud digression, which was not apparent at the time. In retrospect, I might have been more tolerant of some of its aspects than I am today. But, you know, one never fully understands a time when one is in the middle of it. I did nevertheless think that it was important and that the attempt to reuse and reinterpret history and to, in effect, reject the rejection of history that had been part of the modernism canon was a valid pursuit. The problem is that it led to an awful lot of terrible buildings that did not stand the test of time, that were polemical rather than seriously good.
LW: So, do you see writing criticism as having formal, material consequences in the built world?
PG: I believe writing criticism does have formal consequences in the built world and should. It is naïve to believe that those consequences are always enormous, direct and absolute. I think very often they are subtle and gradual, but nevertheless they do exist.
LW: In the introduction to your book On the Rise, you wrote that the role of the critic is “to argue for a set of values or standards without trying to shape a city or profession in one’s own image.”2 What are some of the values that you hold? How have they changed since then?
PG: Things evolve. I very much agree that the challenge of being a critic is to have a set of established principles, but not to interpret them in any particular single aesthetic direction. For me, the set of values that we tend to group under the word urbanism is certainly a key principle and key value; that buildings have a responsibility to the whole and not just to their integrity as single objects. Social responsibility is another principle. I believe not only architects as professionals, but also society as a whole, have a responsibility to build well, not only well aesthetically but what is needed. It’s not to say that we always do that. If we were always building what is needed, we would be building more housing, more parks, more schools, instead of more McMansions, office buildings and shopping centers.
LW: Yes, of course.
PG: Another principle that has guided my criticism is that, while accepting creativity is often an individual thing and there is such a thing as individual genius, I believe profoundly that architecture is a collaborative art. Nobody makes a building on his or her own. It is important, as often as it is feasible, to give credits to all who play key roles in a project. That architecture is a profession that should be open to all and that the role of women and minorities in architecture should be supported to the greatest extent possible.
These are not radical ideas, if anything it would seem strange to say the opposite today. Architecture has a civic and social duty as well as an aesthetic responsibility. I think my criticism emerges out of that set of values which is deliberately non-specific.
LW: Alessandra Lange once wrote that your writing style is more historical in comparison to what she identifies as emotional and activist criticism…
PG: Yea, I like Alessandra very much and admire her work, but I don’t entirely agree with that distinction. I think the activist, emotional and historical categories, while they have some validity, are not mutually exclusive, they are not absolute.
PG: I think a good critic should have elements of all three in his or her work. I hope I do, I certainly want to. Perhaps my work has been a little bit more historical, might be a little less activist, but not entirely. I’ve written a lot in the last couple of years on the issue of modernist preservation, which has been very actively engaged in fact, and I have written strong advocacy pieces. Those, in part, emerged out of emotional feelings as well as historical knowledge.
LW: Right, in my mind there are also some articles, when compared to other critics’ assessments, that perhaps appear more historical in some sense, such as the Bilbao piece, “The Politics of Building”3, in which you discuss the Basque and the political context in which the museum was built; that an iconic museum is being used to establish a certain image for the political agenda.
PG: Right, for the Bilbao article there are a couple things that have to be said. First, it is not only about the Basque history, even though it began with that. Certainly it deals with the physical form of the building, but I wrote the article that way for another reason too: I needed to find another way into the building because it had already been written about a fair amount. That building is still remembered, deservedly so, in relation to the very important and extraordinary piece of criticism, Herbert Muschamp’s famous article in the New York Times4, often referred to as the Marilyn Monroe essay that appeared before the building’s completion. It was such a powerful, emotional response to the building that there was not a tremendous amount left for a critic to say in that regard. The last thing in the world I would have ever wanted to have written is a more moderate version of the same piece, which would have served no purpose at all. So I wanted a somewhat different way into the building and there was an interesting aspect of the building: its relation, or lack thereof, to Basque culture that Muschamp had not dealt with at all, and no one else either.
LW: What do you think are the problems, if any, when a critic becomes too sentimental or emotionally involved with the building?
PG: Well, it is perhaps dangerous to become too emotionally involved. But a critic who does not display some emotional connection to a building is probably not doing his or her job very well. I think it’s possible to become too emotionally engaged and in that case all you get is a bunch of gushing or a bunch of vitriol without any real, critical argument being put forth. It becomes unconvincing and becomes just about the critic.
LW: What about the assessment itself? Do you think a piece of criticism has to be either positive or negative or…?
PG: No, in fact many things are not simply good or bad. They are in between. Nothing is worse than equivocal criticism, nothing is worse than an article that says, on the one hand this and on the other hand that; this is sort of good, this is not so good. It all feels very wishy-washy and without any conviction. So, how do you write a piece that appears strong and processing a conviction that nevertheless takes a position and is not at one extreme or another: absolute good and absolute bad? That’s one of the challenges of writing, that’s all I can say. I think the ability to do that separates out good writers from bad writers.
LW: I have in mind a recent piece that you wrote about the Bush Library in Dallas by Robert A.M. Stern5. You seem to be saying something like, it is not the best but it’s okay, it fulfills its duty…
PG: Yes, this is how I felt. There are things about that building that I like better than I expected to. Generally Stern’s work is done with intelligence, even though you feel it is the wrong thing done well. And making a convincing argument that something is the wrong thing done well is difficult to write, but sometimes it is the thing to say. Of course, no building can be fully separated from its program. In the case of the Bush Library it has a particular connection to a program that, you know, many of us understandably are not entirely thrilled about. The Bush presidency was not something most of us admire unequivocally. So any building that takes that on as its program is inevitably going to be under a certain shadow of the program. Part of the challenge of criticism is to acknowledge that, to incorporate that into the overall thinking, but not to let it drive everything you say. If it drove everything that was said in the article, then you would be simply saying nothing more than Bush was a terrible president and therefore it is a terrible building. That is a way decaying the responsibility of an architectural critic. One must still engage the building as a work of architecture and critically examine it, even if you also acknowledge that the program causes some critical examination.
LW: Do you think a critic has to belong to a certain institution, such as a newspaper or a magazine?
PG: Until recently the answer was yes, a critic needed to because one has no other ways to disseminate ideas. But in architecture now, as in every other field, anybody who has a computer has a printing press today. There is a level playing field in a way that it didn’t use to be with a lot of exciting activities, but will there be a well-played game? Not necessarily. So how do we keep the world open for a multiplicity of voices and yet have some credit, authority, knowledge and experience in a certain way because they still count for something.
LW: Then, how could a critic build his or her authority now?
PG: Until recently old media was still establishing authority, and it still does to a certain extent, not as completely as before. We’ll see over the next generation how much authority emerges out of new media and whether there are new voices that establish serious authority without having a connection to traditional media.
LW: You once mentioned that people often asked you how you feel to have the power of being the New York Times critic.6 Do you still get similar questions nowadays? Do people still think that you have a certain power?
PG: People tended to exaggerate the power of the New York Times years ago, maybe they still do.
I don’t think critics have power in the raw sense of power. I do think they have authority. Power and authority are related but they are not identical…
LW: How would you characterize the difference?
PG: The difference is, I think, authority is the ability to be listened to, command, be respected and often be followed. Power is the ability to force. I once read that, at least in politics, power is what rushes in to fill the vacuum when authority fails. I think it’s a good way to look at that.
LW: Yes, fair enough.
PG: In criticism it is not so simple as that, but nevertheless conceptually it is still somewhat valid. Generally critics don’t have quite that amount of power but they do have authority. I think they still do. In my own career, my authority came initially through the New York Times and the New Yorker, but over time it builds into your name. I hate the word brand that everyone uses today; nevertheless there is a certain kind of brand equity that has developed in one’s name that doesn’t need an established institution to maintain authority. But whether people would create authority from scratch without institutions remains to be seen. It’s too early to tell.
LW: What about the critic’s role in promoting or hindering an architect’s career?
PG: Yes, I definitely think that a critic can definitely help or hinter an architect’s career but cannot single-handedly make or break a career.
LW: How, then, do you choose the architects that you write about?
PG: I usually think in terms of buildings and projects but not individual architects. Now I am spending a lot of my time writing books and I am not writing criticism all the time, a lot of it is just what strikes me, what interests me.
LW: You have written a lot of books that arguably belong to different genres: an architectural guide to New York, a journalistic report on the rebuilding of Ground Zero…
PG: Yes, yes, with criticism woven into it but fundamentally a reporting book. That’s correct.
LW: …and you wrote a book called Why Architecture Matters, which could be said to be of the same category as The Architecture of Happiness…
PG: Yes, very much so, it is a similar book to that. We have slightly different ways of approaching it. I like Alain de Botton’s book and I think Why Architecture Matters and it are two different writers attempting to do similar things, obviously I prefer mine, but obviously he is very good.
LW: And now you are writing Frank Gehry’s biography…
PG: Yes, another genre entirely. I think it’s very exciting as a writer to push yourself to new directions and different genres allow that to happen without leaving architecture, which I don’t want to do.
LW: What are the differences in writing all these books of different genres?
PG: Well, for biography I am still learning as I go. It is very difficult because of the overwhelming amount of information and the challenge of turning it into an interesting, readable narrative. Also, the challenge of making sure that the life story does not squeeze out architectural interpretations and ideas. While it is a book about Gehry’s life, it also has to be about his work. Connecting these two things is a challenge.
I like books that have a personal component. Why Architecture Matters is very much about how my eyes work, how my value system works, what means the most to me and why I see things the way I do. I loved doing that book—a labor of love, a testament to what I care about.
1 See Goldberger, Paul. On the Rise : Architecture and Design in a Postmodern Age. New York: Times Books, 1983.
2 Ibid. pp.7
3 Golderberger, Paul. “The Politics of Building” in Building Up and Tearing Down : Reflections on the Age of Architecture. New York: Monacelli Press, 2009.
4 Muschamp, Herbert. “The Miracle In Bilbao,” New York Times. September 7, 1997.
5 Goldberger., Paul “On Not Hating the New George W. Bush Library,” Vanity Fair. May 24, 2013.
6 See Goldberger’s Introduction to On the Rise.