by Tyler Rudick
For more than 30 years, architecture critic Paul Goldberger has made a successful run of casting public judgment on some of society’s most complicated and expensive building ventures from his desk at both The New York Times and The New Yorker, even earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1984.
In a recent talk at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture, Goldberger lectured on the social and cultural value of architectural criticism, an interesting topic in light of the downed economy and slumbering construction industry.
Although taken almost verbatim from a 2003 speech posted on his website, the lecture tackled a number of issues still very much alive in architectural discourse: the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the preservation movement, and a public obsession with “starchitects” like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.
At points throughout the talk, Goldberger discussed the always-controversial work of Frank Gehry, whose Walt Disney Concert Hall posed an interesting dilemma for the critic when it first opened eight years ago to much fanfare.
“The chorus of ecstatic praise was beginning to seem a little much,” he said. “I didn’t want to contradict it just for the sake of being different, which would have been ridiculous. It would have involved denying how good the building truly is.”
Instead, Goldberger told the crowd, he decided to use the opportunity to address many of most commonly heard tirades against Gehry — the buildings are too similar, they don’t connect to the surroundings, they’re elitist, etc. In speaking out against these criticisms, he said he found the concert hall all the more impressive and relevant, seeing Gehry’s design as a commentary on the collective listening experience.
“The concert hall is basically an old building form, left over from the age when it was the only way in which orchestral music could be delivered. How do you reinvent this building type so that the public experience that it represents will have meaning for an age in which private experiences of music predominates?”
It was one of the most thought-provoking sections of the speech, as numerous audience members nodded their heads. After the speech, Goldberger told the crowd during a Q&A session that he was working on a biography of Gehry, who faces a fresh bout of criticism for his new Eisenhower memorial plan in Washington, DC.
While a discussion on the value of architectural criticism in the 21st century runs the risk of becoming rather dry, Goldberger kept the tone light, mixing some of his bolder statements with moments of self-deprecation.
“If the theater critic of The New York Times doesn’t like a Broadway show, it may well close the next week,” he said, getting some of the biggest chuckles of the evening. “Nobody tears down a building if the architecture critic doesn’t like it.”
Briefly mingling with students and faculty at post-lecture reception, Goldberger mentioned Thomas Phifer’s Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University and Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2010 building for Asia Society Texas as highlights of his Houston trip thus far.