Why Architecture Matters

by Paul Goldberger

Hardcover, 272 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Why Architecture Matters
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Paul Goldberger

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Excerpt: Why Architecture Matters

Why architecture matters


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Paul Goldberger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14430-7

Contents

Introduction..................................................ixone   Meaning, Culture, and Symbol............................1two   Challenge and Comfort...................................41three   Architecture as Object................................65four   Architecture as Space..................................109five   Architecture and Memory................................139six   Buildings and Time......................................171seven   Buildings and the Making of Place.....................212Glossary......................................................237A Note on Bibliography........................................247Acknowledgments...............................................253Illustration Credits..........................................257Index.........................................................259

Chapter One

meaning, culture, and symbol

There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives. WINSTON CHURCHILL

I know that architecture matters very much to me, but I have no desire to claim that it can save the world. Great architecture is not bread on the table, and it is not justice in the courtroom. It affects the quality of life, yes, and often with an astonishing degree of power. But it does not heal the sick, teach the ignorant, or in and of itself sustain life. At its best, it can help to heal and to teach by creating a comfortable and uplifting environment for these things to take place in. This is but one of the ways in which architecture, though it may not sustain life, can give the already sustained life meaning. When we talk about how architecture matters, it is important to understand that the way in which it matters-beyond, of course, the obvious fact of shelter-is the same way in which any kind of art matters: it makes life better.

Paradoxically, it is often the most mundane architecture that means the most to us-the roof over our heads, the random buildings that protect us from the rain and give us places to work and shop and sleep and be entertained. Buildings like these-the vernacular, the standard architectural language-are not the focus of this book, but I will discuss them because I reject the view that a clear line can be drawn between serious architecture and ordinary buildings. "A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is architecture," wrote the art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, but what of it? Both are buildings, both are architecture. Lincoln Cathedral is a vastly more complex and profound work of architecture than the bicycle shed, and it was created with more noble aspirations. But each structure has something to say about the culture that built it, each structure is of at least some interest visually, and each structure evokes certain feelings and emotions. There is much more to say about a great cathedral than about a generic shed, but each helps shape our environment. And the companions of the bicycle shed, the vernacular commercial and residential architecture of the mall and the highway strip and the suburban town of today, have a much greater impact on where we live than a distant cathedral.

Such buildings are not masterpieces, and woe to the politically correct critic who says they are. Yet we ignore them at our peril. McDonald's restaurants? Las Vegas casinos? Mobile homes and suburban tract houses and strip malls and shopping centers and office parks? They can be banal or they can be joyful and witty, but they are rarely transcendent. Yet they tell us much about who we are and about the places we want to make. And often they work well, galling as this is for most architecture critics to admit. Much of the built world in the United States is ugly, but then again, most of nineteenth-century London seemed ugly to Londoners, too. The artlessness of most of our built environment today probably reveals as much about us as the design of Paris or Rome revealed about the cultures that built those cities. What is certain is that it is impossible to think seriously about architecture today and not think about the built environment as a whole. It is all connected and interdependent, from freeways to gardens, from shopping malls to churches and skyscrapers and gas stations. I have no desire to romanticize the landscape that surrounds us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but I know that Pevsner's academic distinction no longer holds up.

Perhaps it never did, though there was surely a time when ordinary, everyday architecture seemed in many ways a simplified, scaled-down edition of great architecture, and the qualitative difference between the two was barely noticeable. Yes, the Georgian row house in London was more modest than the great country estate, but the two were of a kind; they spoke the same language, and even the simple slum houses seemed like stripped-down versions of the great house, bargain-basement offerings from the same catalogue. It is striking that it was such a relatively coherent architectural culture as that of London and other Western European cities that moved Pevsner to make his arbitrary and cold-hearted distinction between Architecture with a capital "A" and mere buildings, since the mere buildings of his experience in the early decades of the past century were far more ambitious as works of architecture than the mere buildings we see today. In eighteenth-century London, Georgian architecture created a language, and out of that language of architectural elements both ordinary buildings and masterpieces could be made. If you were an architect you understood the language well and could write in it; if you were an educated layman, you could recognize and appreciate its details. But if you lacked any knowledge at all, you could still take pleasure in the clarity and the rhythm of the buildings constructed in that language, and you could see the way it created a city of lively beauty.

We need not speak only of London or of Europe. In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century New York, for example, there was a quality to the brownstones that lined the side streets, and to the Georgian- and Renaissance-inspired apartment buildings that later lined the avenues, and even to the cramped and fetid tenements, that also suggested a common architectural language. It was a language of masonry, redolent with ornament and detail, emerging from the belief that every building, no matter how private, showed a public presence-that it had an obligation to the street and to anyone who passed before it, whether or not they had reason to walk through its doors. A language of scale was shared by the buildings that together formed the streets of New York in the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth; though the buildings were often large, they were oriented to the pedestrian and connected to one another as elements along a street-elements of a larger whole, not primarily objects in themselves. This common language reflected a respect for background, for the notion that buildings create an urban fabric, and from that comes the beginning of a civilized environment.

It is odd to think of the decorated cornice on a Ninth Avenue tenement as a gesture of civilization, but in the cityscape of New York at the end of the nineteenth century, it surely was. That cornice engages the eye, connects the building to its neighbors visually, and makes it part of the larger composition of the street. And it suggests that a building has some purpose other than merely keeping its occupants out of the rain-to say that it exists, in however a meager, awkward, even vulgar way, to enrich the city around it. It makes gestures to you and to me, even if we never have any connection to it other than walking by.

That intention, the way in which the tenement was clearly intended to enrich the street and therefore the life of the city, is what makes Pevsner's distinction less than useful today. Is the decorated tenement simply a fancy bicycle shed? Or is it an earthbound echo of Lincoln Cathedral? An improved ape or a damaged angel? The tenement is a practical construction designed to be more than merely practical, and-leaving value judgments aside-that is as good a definition of architecture as I can imagine.

By that standard, of course, virtually every building is architecture, so long as its physical form reflects some degree of civilizing intent. The intent may reveal itself in something as modest as the crude curlicues of the tenement cornice or as intricate and profound as the stonework and stained glass of Chartres or the space of Borromini's extraordinary church of Sant'Ivo in Rome. Architectural intent is not merely a matter of decoration, though it can be; it can emerge from the conscious crafting of space, the deliberate shaping of form, or the juxtaposition of well-considered materials. Art is defined largely by intention, and so is architecture.

Architecture is balanced, precisely and precariously, between art and practicality. These needs do not precede art and they do not follow it; they are not subservient to it and they are not superior to it. Each aspect of architecture coexists, and every work of architecture must to a greater or lesser degree take them all into account. Vitruvius, writing in ancient Rome around 30 BC, set out the three elements of architecture as "commodity, firmness, and delight," and no one has done better than his tripartite definition, for it cogently sums up the architectural paradox: a building must be useful while at the same time it must be the opposite of useful, since art-delight, in Vitruvian parlance-by its very essence has no mundane function. And then, on top of all of that, a building must be constructed according to the laws of engineering, which is to say that it must be built to stand up.

Vitruvius presents these conflicting realities of architecture not as a paradox but as a matter of coexistence; his point is to remind us that a building must simultaneously be useful, well built and visually appealing. Neither does Vitruvius explicitly rank the three elements in order of importance. While it can be pleasing to think of them in ascending significance, this is a subtle footnote to the real message that Vitruvius conveys, which is that they are interdependent. Without firmness and delight, commodity is nothing. But delight needs firmness, not only so the building stands up, but also so its art can reach its greatest heights. The builders of the Pyramids, the Greek temples, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals were all engineers as much as architects; to them these disciplines were one. So, too, with Brunelleschi and his Duomo in Florence, or Michelangelo at St. Peter's. In our time, the disciplines have diverged, and engineers are not architects. But every great structure of modern times, from Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is a product of engineers as much as of architects; without firmness, there will be no delight. All three elements of architecture are essential.

So architecture is art and it is not art; it is art and it is something more, or less, as the case may be. This is its paradox and its glory, and always has been: art and not art, at once. Architecture is not like a painting or a novel or a poem; its role is to provide shelter, and its reality in the physical world makes it unlike anything else that we commonly place in the realm of art. Unlike a symphony, a building must fulfill a certain practical function-giving us a place to work, or to live, or to shop or to worship or to be entertained-and it must stand up. But a building is not at all like other things that we place in the realm of the practical but that may have aesthetic aspirations, such as an airplane, an automobile, or a cooking pot. For we expect a work of architecture, when it succeeds in its aesthetic aims, to be capable of creating a more profound set of feelings than a well-designed toaster.

Sir John Soane's Museum, the architect's extraordinary town-house in London-and one of the greatest works by an architect who was one of the most brilliant and original design forces to have come out of Georgian London-contains a room that can make this clear. It was Soane's breakfast room, and it is fairly small, with a round table set under a low dome that is not a real dome but a canopy, supported by narrow columns at four corners. Where the canopy meets the corners, Soane placed small, round mirrors, so that the occupants of the breakfast table can see one another without looking directly at each other. The yellowish walls are lined with bookcases and paintings, and natural light tumbles in softly beside the canopy, indirectly, from above. Soane liked to create rooms within rooms and spaces that connect in unusual ways with other spaces, and in the break-fast room you can see that he is doing it not just as the early-nineteenth-century's version of razzle-dazzle but to provide a kind of psychic comfort. The dome is protecting, but it is not quite enclosing, a reminder that while we may feel uncommunicative and vulnerable early in the morning, we need to move out of that stage into the world. The breakfast room functions as a kind of halfway house, cozy in a way that other, more formal spaces tend not to be, and soft in the way it introduces us to the day. It is a room of great beauty and serenity, perfectly balanced between openness and enclosure, between public and private. The British architecture critic Ian Nairn was exaggerating only somewhat when he called the breakfast room "probably the deepest penetration of space and of man's position in space, and hence in the world, that any architect has ever created."

In the breakfast room, Soane used architecture to fulfill a routine function and create a powerful, almost transcendent experience at the same time. For me there are other buildings, too, that achieve the extraordinary as they fulfill a function that, in and of itself, is perfectly ordinary. In 1929, when Mies van der Rohe was asked to create a small pavilion to represent Germany at the world exposition in Barcelona, he produced a sublime composition of glass, marble, steel, and concrete, arranged to appear almost as if the elements were flat planes floating in space. The white, flat roof and the walls of green marble with stainless steel columns in front of them combine to have immense sensual power, a tiny exhibit pavilion in which you feel an entire world of continuous, floating space, and one of the first modern buildings anywhere to convey a sense of richness and luxury amid great restraint-a building that in some ways has more in common, at least spiritually, with the spare classical architecture of Japan.

The Great Workroom of the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and finished a decade later, in 1939, had an even more mundane purpose, which was to house clerical employees. Wright created an enormous, altogether spectacular room of light and swirling curves under a translucent ceiling. The room was lined in brick with clerestory windows of translucent Pyrex tubes, and its structure was supported on a forest of slender, tapering columns, each of which was topped by a huge, round disc, like a lily pad of concrete floating in the translucent ceiling. The space looks, even now, like a futurist fantasy; it must have been altogether astonishing in the 1930s. While Wright's specially designed typing chairs and steel worktables were less than functional and the room, though awash in natural light, allowed no views to the exterior-this was Frank Lloyd Wright's world you were in, and not for an instant would he let you forget it-the Johnson Wax building still gave typists a modern cathedral, an ennobling place, in which to work.

Another example, quite different, but worth discussing in more detail, since it is perhaps the building where, at least in the United States, architectural form and symbol come together with a more serene grace than in any other: the original campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, by Thomas Jeerson. Designed when Jeerson was seventy-four, the "academical village," as he liked to call it, consists of two parallel rows of five classical houses, called pavilions, connected by low, colonnaded walkways, which face each other across a wide, magnificently proportioned grassy lawn. At the head of the lawn, presiding over the entire composition, is the Rotunda, a domed structure he based on the Pantheon in Rome.

Each pavilion is designed according to a different classical motif, so that together they constitute a virtual education in classical architecture: the directness and simplicity of the Doric order, the richness of the Corinthian, can here be compared in what amounts to a Jeffersonian fugue of classical variations. As Jefferson conceived it, the Rotunda served as the library, which was a splendid piece of symbolism, for it turned the form used to honor the ancient gods into a temple of the book and then gave that temple pride of place in the composition.

(Continues...)