Book Review: Building Up and Tearing Down

Evaluating how a building looks and how it works as a physical object will always be the core of the architecture critic’s obligation. My point is only to say that if the critic’s responsibility begins with considering the building as an object, it doesn’t end there.” (9)

Imagine my excitement at reading this in Paul Goldberger introduction to his book, Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture. As great and important as such statements are, the question is always whether the pieces that follow the introduction actually do what is promised.

Reflecting on his written work, Goldberger considers the impact of his positive pieces, as well as his negative pieces, which he identifies as his articles about the Westin Hotel in Times Square, the Astor Place condominium by Gwathmey Siegel, and OMA’s Prada store in SoHo. These are enjoyable pieces to read, and show that perhaps Goldberger learned something from Michael Sorkin’s critique of his ambivalent writing style.

Goldberger nicely keeps his promised contextual view of architecture in his piece on the Astor Place Tower. He calls the building an “elf prancing among men” (301) due to its appearance, but also makes the great point that the building, with ample views into its $2 million apartments, signifies the gentrification of this neighborhood. He even places the building in historical context, mentioning the influence of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, and how this building fails to live up to its inspiring predecessors.

In his introduction, Goldberger also articulates what Roger Scruton was aiming to say in his opinion piece in the Times (however ignorantly). Goldberger says,

“No other art makes the claims of social responsibilities that architecture does, and no other art has the arrogance to think it will remake the world. And architect can sometimes be like an emperor, commanding vast resources to carry out what are often, when you get right down to it, just a designer’s dreams.” (8)

A great moment of critique, and a point that we rarely discuss. If only he’d expanded on this, or just stopped his paragraph there. Instead he reveals his continued romanticized view of architecture and is back to weakening his point by adding,

“But he or she is more likely to be a struggling artist, grateful for the chance to redo someone’s kitchen, or a functionary stationed at a computer, producing designs for a doorknob in a skyscraper.“ (8)

So, perhaps he is still the same Paul Goldberger that Michael Sorkin put in the hot seat 25 years ago.  But at least he’s made some improvements and gives us something to think about (even if he won’t).

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