Book review of 'Why Architecture Matters' by Paul Goldberger and 'The Secret Lives of Buildings' by Edward Hollis

By Kirk Savage
Sunday, January 10, 2010


By Paul Goldberger

Yale Univ. 273 pp. $26


From the Ruins of The Parthenon to The Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

By Edward Hollis

Metropolitan. 338 pp. $28

We can live without art, but we can't live without architecture. At the most basic level we need enclosure -- from the rain and the cold and the heat. But we also need safe, healthy places in which to worship, work, learn, rest.

Architectural theorists used to try to distinguish architecture from mere building. The British critic John Ruskin famously identified architecture with decoration or, as he said, whatever was "useless" to the building. Then modernists came along and declared that ornament was a crime and that architecture was nothing more nor less than the perfect expression of its utility. In the past few decades the pendulum has swung back toward an ideal of excess, as celebrity architects follow the money across the globe and build signature works in Dallas or Beijing or Berlin. With new technologies of construction and digital means of design, along with a sufficient budget, these architects can create buildings that look like robots or waves or almost anything, ever increasing the gulf between their rare confections and the mere buildings in which you or I spend most of our lives.

These two decidedly undogmatic books bring us back down to earth, helping us understand architecture as an art of experience and use that is woven into the very fabric of human existence.

Paul Goldberger is America's preeminent public critic of architecture, and his wise, compassionate "Why Architecture Matters" sums up a lifetime spent exploring, reflecting and writing. Some of the most affecting parts of the book are drawn from his deeply personal experience, growing up in the lively streetscape of 1950s Passaic, N.J., sojourning in the architectural wonderland of Yale University, and coming to terms with the construction and destruction of the Twin Towers.

Architecture has always mattered to him. Why to the rest of us? In the early heyday of modernism, architecture mattered because it seemed to promise decent housing, accessible recreation and improved public health for all. With the collapse of so many of these dreams, and devastating critiques of social engineering coming from both left and right, today's technocrats focus instead on energy use. By some estimates, half of all carbon emissions come from the power needed to light, heat and cool buildings. Solving the climate problem therefore requires fundamentally rethinking how we design, construct and use buildings.

However urgent these social and environmental agendas may be, they are not Goldberger's subject. Architecture matters, he argues, because it "is about everything" shaping our felt experience and our sense of place and community at both a conscious and unconscious level. Ultimately, the best architecture expresses the "human aspiration that makes us want to connect to what has come before, to make of it something different and our own, and to speak to those who will follow us."

While the book has a useful glossary of terms at the end, it is not a primer on style or even architecture appreciation. Goldberger does discuss the familiar aesthetic categories of form and space, solid and void, compression and release, in a series of sensitive accounts of some favorite buildings. But as he assembles the building blocks of architectural criticism, he uses them to explore the paradoxes and dilemmas of architecture as well. Buildings are made for one moment in time but soon outlast their original purpose and context, yet they can't be thrown into a closet like an old dress or painting. They are transformed by use and memory and new construction all around them, while preservationists try to hold on to them or some aspect of them. What is the proper balance between conservation and renewal? How do we maintain the architectural values of community against the forces of sprawl, privatization, real estate speculation and, now, digital networking, which is replacing physical encounters in real space with electronic encounters in cyberspace? Goldberger does not prescribe solutions but argues passionately that architecture must continue to define our place in the world in a way that "startles us and comforts us at the same time."

Edward Hollis's "Secret Lives of Buildings" starts from the paradox that all architecture, no matter how monumental or "timeless," is shape-shifting and impermanent. Every building is literally made and remade by its users, in a never-ending process of change in which "each alteration is a 'retelling' of the building as it exists at a particular time." Hollis knows what he is talking about: He has been in professional practice for years retrofitting older buildings for newer clients. He brings together an iconoclastic attitude and a lively writing style to create a kind of counter-history of architecture, one that starts where the original designers left off and narrates the subsequent biography of the "wonderful and chimeric monsters" that buildings are.

Focusing on 13 stories from the ancient world to the present, Hollis weaves together fantasy and fact to turn each building into something akin to a legend passed down and constantly modified through oral tradition. For a dyed-in-the-wool historian like myself, the exercise can be frustrating: Sometimes we can't tell who did what, when. But as we read deeper into the book, the method in the madness emerges. Hollis reveals the poignancy in quixotic efforts to adapt once-imperious buildings to alien faiths or ideologies, or to turn socially engineered utopias into punk-rock playgrounds, or to hold on to past glories as they disappear into rubble or relics or tourist traps. Concluding with a vivid account of the disputed remains of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, now caught in the political stalemate between Jews and Muslims, he suggests that the ancient temple endures as much in the ritual of the Sabbath meal as it does in the reality of old stones. Sometimes, we are led to wonder, the world might be better off with less architecture and more ritual. Place divides us even as it brings us together.

Kirk Savage is the author of "Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape."

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