Last week, Paul Goldberger ’72 won the National Building Museum’s 14th annual Vincent Scully Prize — as good as it gets in his field — for his life-long work as an architecture critic, first at The New York Times (where he won a Pulitzer in 1984) and, until last year, at The New Yorker, where he wrote the magazine’s “Sky Line” column. These days, he serves as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and lectures at The New School in New York, where he holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture. Goldberger’s most recent book, “Why Architecture Matters,” was released by Yale University Press in 2009. Goldberger caught up with WEEKEND and riffed on his former pro- fessor, campus buildings and the contemporary constituency for architecture.
Q. You just won the Scully Prize. Congrats! Vincent Scully was a legendary Yale professor, right, and also your teacher? What should my generation know about Scully?
A. Well, he was an extraordinary professor because he managed to connect architecture to all of culture and all of life. He was a very compelling lecturer. His lectures were famous, they were extraordinary things. He filled up the auditorium — he was a very powerful presence — and would talk about architecture in this way that I’d never heard it talked about before, with incredible passion and energy and connection to the rest of culture. He would read from Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell or what have you and make connections between architectural ideas and literature and so forth. So it was very exciting and eye-opening, and I think the greatest impact he had over time was not on people who became architects but on non-architects, in making a greater constituency for architecture: in making people look more, in making people care more, maybe making people better clients. For all I know, a thousand bankers over the years took his class and when they became heads of banks made better buildings. We’ll never know for sure, but I really think so.
Q. When you were a student at Yale, did you appreciate the campus architecture?
A. Yeah, very much. It was one of the things that attracted me to Yale. I first saw some of the modern buildings in magazines, and that got me very excited. And then when I actually arrived, I had the sort of weird experience of discovering that I also liked the Gothic architecture, and all the old stuff, which, if you were serious about architecture in those days, you weren’t supposed to like. And coming to terms with all that was actually one of the interesting things of my years at Yale — just discovering that it was okay to like very different kinds of things. That sometimes buildings got surrounded by a set of ideas that were almost too much, and that made [the two] seem inconsistent — as if they didn’t belong together. In fact, architecture and morality didn’t make a very interesting argument. In the end, I think it’s much more about visual pleasure and about ideas of use and, potentially, aesthetic excitement.
Q. What goes unnoticed about Yale’s architecture?
A. Today, I don’t know that anything goes unnoticed, because, over the last generation, there’s been so much more attention paid to it. Also, so many of the great Yale buildings have been beautifully restored. Yale’s put a huge amount of money into taking care of the great architecture it has. And now a lot of the modern buildings are half a century old, and they’re getting rehabilitated as well as the older ones. The last set of the Rick Levin years have been an amazing time in terms of just taking care of what Yale has. But the thing that is so subtle about those buildings is the way they come together to make a larger place. Yale is an urban campus — it’s not off in some beautiful countryside somewhere. It’s in the middle of a city, and yet those buildings are so powerful and they come together so beautifully to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. That’s what great urban architecture is supposed to do — it’s supposed to come together to make a larger whole. That wasn’t appreciated once. In the ’50s and ’60s, when the modern buildings were being built, every building was kind of a prima donna of its own, and the idea that these buildings should defer to a larger whole to give the place coherence was just not something people got or cared about. I think now they do. I think now people recognize that’s part of the virtue of the Yale buildings.
Q. As an architecture critic, can you ever truly isolate one structure?
A. Well, you can. I think you have to look at buildings in both ways at the same time. I think that’s part of the excitement of architecture: it’s many things at once. Every one of those buildings can and should be looked at as a building unto itself and also as part of a larger whole. And I think the modern buildings, too. The modern buildings are usually more successful as buildings unto themselves and less successful as parts of a larger whole. The older buildings, a lot of them are successful both ways, which is in some way the greater accomplishment.
Q. Does that apply only at Yale?
A. Well, it’s an ideal that applies everywhere. It’s not always achieved. And I’m certainly not going to say older buildings are always better than new ones. In fact, it’s important that architecture continue to invent, and be a living, changing art — like painting and literature and music. Understanding and appreciating and respecting what’s come before is the foundation of invention.
Q. But as an architecture critic you don’t just focus on buildings, do you?
A. No, I’m interested in cities, in city planning, in historic preservation; in design of objects, too. I’m interested in going both bigger than buildings, with urban design, and smaller than buildings, to objects. I’m sitting at my desk looking right now at an iPhone and an Apple computer. Those are amazing objects that show we’ve come an extraordinary distance in terms of the design of consumer objects in the last generation.
Q. Is there a difference between an architecture review and, say, a book review or a theater review?
A. Yes and no. I think an architecture review is less of a consumer guide. With a movie review, part of the function is to tell you: should you or should you not bother to go to the movies to see this? An architecture review is not about buying a building. It’s about: “What role does that building have in the culture? What role does it have in the city? What role is it going to have not only for the people who use it every day, but for the people who pass it and never go in? What’s its presence? What’s its meaning?” It’s not a consumer guide in that sense. Though maybe it is, because maybe the way we consume buildings is by looking at them.
Q. Architecture is at once functional and aesthetic; so are essays. Do you see any similarities between crafting an essay and designing a building?
A. An essay has a certain kind of structure and logic to it. Hopefully, it’s a beautiful piece of writing, so it has some degree of aesthetic accomplishment or quality to it, but it also fulfills a function in that it conveys an idea. So yeah, in that sense, an essay does exist in all those different realms — in some of them, at least.
Q. One last question: did you write for the News?
A. I never did write for the Daily News, no. I wrote for The New Journal, which truly was new when I was there. It started a year or two before I came to Yale, but it was still a pretty new thing. And I just kind of fell in with the people running it, and I was particularly interested in magazine writing, and I’d done a bit of it already. I wasn’t trying to avoid the News; it’s just that I started writing for The New Journal and eventually I became an editor of it. So I never did write for the Daily News. My son, who’s in the class of ’08, did. He was a sports reporter for several years. You got one Goldberger