“It’s all architecture.” So said master designer I.M. Pei some years back, when an interviewer asked him to distinguish between the different styles then prevalent on the American landscape. Pei’s good-humored evasion is true enough. In simplest terms, architecture, as the design and construction of buildings, legitimately includes everything from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to a prefabricated barn outside Dallas and the Shell station at the end of my street. But in the popular imagination, and to most architects and builders as well, architecture is very much more than simple shelter. It is art, and when it is done well, it can inspire the soul.
It is to this conviction that Paul Goldberger addresses his latest book, “Why Architecture Matters” (Yale, $26). In his introduction, Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker since 1997 and prior to that for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer, elaborates that his purpose is to “explain what buildings do beyond keeping us out of the rain.” To do so, he divides his analysis into chapters with titles like “Meaning, Culture, and Symbol,” “Architecture as Object,” “Architecture as Space,” “Buildings and Time” and so on. These categories are general enough, and the architectural masterpieces he writes about significant enough, that many of his examples could comfortably fit into any number of slots. For example, the Parthenon, highlighted in the chapter “Architecture as Object,” could just as easily be included in “Meaning, Culture, and Symbol.” Goldberger’s aim in making these choices isn’t to present definitive judgments but rather to illuminate specific aspects of the craft.
Though average Americans may not think about architecture in the abstract very much, if at all, they certainly deal with it on a daily basis, from their own homes, businesses and offices to their kids’ schools. As Goldberger declares: “To be engaged with architecture is to be engaged with almost everything else as well: culture, society, politics, business, history, family, religion, education. Every building exists to house something, and what it houses is itself part of the pursuit of architecture.” And, he contends, all those houses, businesses, office towers and schools that we thread our way through, around, into and out of say something about us and our culture. Goldberger’s intent is to help the reader to understand this and learn how to read the built environment and the society that produces it based on some of the best that has been constructed down the ages.
Even so, the finest buildings still have to be practical. After all, if they leak, what good are they? Goldberger is surprisingly forgiving on this score. “It is churlish to complain that Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses leak or that Le Corbusier’s weather badly or that Frank Gehry’s are difficult to construct,” he writes, “all of which may be more or less true, but what of it? That leaky roof is not our problem, and neither is the fact that we might not wish to live in such a building ourselves.” Except, of course, when the leaky roof is our problem or we do live in a mediocre building inspired by some flawed original that was praised by the aesthetic community and whose disastrous knockoffs now inconvenience thousands. Goldberger doesn’t dwell much on design failure and its consequences in this volume, but perhaps that is another book.
What he does emphasize are the principles of good design, and the numerous accompanying, clear, black-and-white illustrations, heavily tipped toward more recent decades, help make his points. In architecture, as in perhaps no other field, is the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” so true. Among the buildings illustrated are the Pantheon in Rome, the Lincoln Memorial, Penn Station, the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the Seagram Building in New York. Goldberger’s prose is admirably jargon-free and straightforward but, alas, lacks the sparkle and pepper that Ada Louise Huxtable, his predecessor at The Times, was so famous for. Still, “Why Architecture Matters” is a good introduction to a fascinating subject that should indeed very much matter to everyone.