Goldberger & Goldhagen

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Goldhagen likes U.K. Pavilion, by Thomas Heatherwick, at Shanghai World Expo. (domusweb)

The Nation magazine has a review by Paul Goldberger of a book by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, also a respected architecture critic, called Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. Goldberger’s review, “A Shimmery Cube,” applauds Goldhagen in ways that you might expect when a modernist critic encounters a modernist book.

Goldhagen argues in her book that architecture affects our feelings and our well-being. That’s not a novel insight. Winston Churchill stated that “we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us,” and that was not news either. As Goldberger reports, Goldhagen “tells us that the problem with how we understand architecture ‘is an information deficit. If people underestood just how much design matters, they’d care.'” What neither, in their modernist silo, understands is that people do care about architecture, but because modernist architecture is so alien to most people, they tune it out.

Her solution to the “problem” of modern architecture’s unpopularity with the public is the same as generations of architecture critics, theorists and practitioners. The public just doesn’t understand and requires more time in architectural re-education camps.

“Goldhagen,” writes Goldberger, “believes that she is coming to us with news of recent scientific discoveries that will change the way we think about and experience buildings.” She is wrong. Recent scientific advances are meant not to change the way we humans experience buildings but to explain the way we experience buildings. There’s a difference. We will experience buildings the same whether we have read these scientific studies or not. I imagine that Goldhagen thinks we will find it easier to like what we do not like if we can say we read a study that, in her view, justifies our evolving taste.

Goldhagen’s assertion is aspirational, but she is only interested in scientific advances that she can twist to support her own prejudices. Here is a passage from Goldberger’s review that lets the cat out of the bag:

Most claims that humans respond naturally to certain shapes have really been arguments for traditional building, many of them influenced by the writing of the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. Goldhagen deftly tosses the whole idea aside as “a pastiche of sociology and nostalgia”; she is not writing a screed in favor of traditional building, but rather wants to help us under- stand that comfort does not always correlate with what’s conventional.

Of course, what’s conventional these days is precisely the work of egotistical modernists among whom she parcels out praise or blame according to her discovery that scientific research states that humans prefer gentler, “lilting forms” over “sharp, irregular, angled forms.”

Well, duh!

So it’s angular Daniel Libeskind – bad! Swoopy Frank Gehry – good! But most of the public rates both as equally at odds with the traditional buildings and streetscapes they love. The public is skeptical of modern architecture, and will be skeptical no matter how “informed” they are.

Goldhagen believes that modernist architects are like traditional architects in that they seek to build structures whose forms comfort the public. Some, perhaps, but since the early days of modernism, architects – or at least the founders of modern architecture – have been more concerned with creating buildings and cities that treat humans efficiently as cogs in the machine architecture supposedly demanded by a machine age.

In another revealing passage, Goldberger’s review states:

She also believes that [people] need community, a sense of accessibility, and visual variety and stimulation, although not to the point of confusion and chaos. People respond to patterns and to a human scale; soft forms are better than hard ones, refinement better than crudity. Goldhagen dislikes buildings that might be considered arbitrary or aggressive. But none of these are hard- and-fast rules, and creativity always overrides formulas.

Well, of course. But if by her word formulas she means traditions in building, her exaltation of creativity is wrongheaded. Creativity is great, but architects who find new ways to elevate old methods of achieving beauty are just as creative, perhaps more so, than architects who develop new building forms unlike any ever before developed. In fact, the latter, experimental design often leads to more of what Goldberger lists as forms Goldhagen dislikes.

Goldberger writes of Goldhagen’s argument, “Its hard to argue with any of this.” No it’s not. He writes, “She is an articulate and consistent advocate of the kind of civilized, humane built environment that most of our best critics and historians have long favored.” Huh? What existing built environment do all of these enlightened souls have in mind?

It’s hard to imagine Goldberger arguing with Goldhagen. She is preaching to the choir, and he is the choir. To anyone not in the choir Goldberger’s review reads like a string of gag lines. I’m sure that Goldhagen’s book offers an even greater trove of delights.

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Goldhagen dislikes Jean Nouvel’s Serpentine Gallery pavilion, in London. (EPSE)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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12 Responses to Goldberger & Goldhagen

  1. David: My negative review of Goldhagen’s book will appear soon in The Architect’s Newspaper. She has no credibility as a student of neuroscience and her book is a travesty. John Massengale and I have been working for more than a year on a research project that will offer urbanists and architects a real tool for proving the applicability of neuroscientific research to our discipline. Thanks for your excellent blogs.

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    • Again, Alan, thanks for your kind words. Can you give me a hint about the direction you and John are proceeding in? I assume you are familiar with Nikos Salingaros’s work as well as that of Alexander. Can’t wait to hear more!

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  2. Mark Alan Hewitt says:

    David I have written a negative review of Goldhagen in Architect’s Newspaper soon to be released. You are on target with your critique and of course Goldberger sold out long ago.

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    • Thanks very much, Alan. I look forward to reading your review. I am gratified that AN has chosen to publish it. Maybe it is shifting its stance to some sort of objectivity toward the major issues in architecture today. Or maybe it is already more objective than I give it credit for.

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  3. John Borden says:

    I bought and read this book over the summer (almost to the very end). I became increasingly disappointed as I made my way through it and eventually put it down. I hoped that this would be the book that could bring me up to speed on the current scientific understanding of neuroscience and the built environment, but what I found was shallow metaphors and a very limited analysis of scientific experiments. At its best it introduced me to some cognitive research and I went on to read some abstracts of the papers in her Notes section. At its worst she went for entire sections at a time writing meaningless, fluffy, artistic reviews of modern and traditional architecture.

    From what made sense of her thesis–that “it requires the same resources to construct a building that impairs our capabilities as it does to erect a structure that enhances them”–I fully agree and I’m inspired by that sentiment. But I don’t think she took nearly as rigorous an approach to this issue as is necessary. Given the research available in cognitive neuroscience and the work of Christopher Alexander (whom she mentions in only one single contained sentence in the entire book), I think she failed to make any difference in this debate.

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    • I’m glad to hear that your review will be in AR. I look forward to reading it. I do not think Goldhagen’s book is an objective look at the subject, and maybe that was not her intent. But to dispatch Aleander in a line shows her lack of seriousness even as a dedicated partisan. A credible partisan may lack objectivity but at least her readers deserve an objective assessment of the facts and theories involved.

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  4. David, this is a great point: “Recent scientific advances are meant not to CHANGE the way we humans experience buildings but to EXPLAIN the way we experience buildings.” Right. The science is just a lens on what is going on. How we choose to apply it, as always, is an ethical and philosophical act, not a scientific one. That explains a lot of the divergence in what people make of the science. n most cases, it’s not the science to blame. Cheers, m

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    • It’s like, say, Daniel Libeskind saying fractals play a role in the design of his buildings. He just wants to sound scientific but, as Nikos Salingaros points out, architects who make that claim have no idea what a fractal is.

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  5. Gerald Forsburg says:

    David, I love your writings. I also have enjoyed Ms. Goldhagen’s book, and writing from her blog.

    Perhaps much of what she is stating is not new. Is there anything new under the sun?! In fact, I am using her book, alongside writings by Vitrivius, Cicero, Spinoza and even Rowe, as part of my thesis to underscore the natural order of things as found in classical and traditional architecture, as well as how implementing these design ideals today can bring order to the chaotic world we’ve designed over for ourselves since the industrial revolution.

    The cognitive research is, however, “new” understanding to us. The human brain is a fascinating work of Nature that we are only just beginning to understand.

    My only real criticism I have is that the book seems to be less academic than i was hoping. But it’s an easy read and introduces less academic readers to the ideas that nature, the built environment and all of us are interconnected.

    I found the book informative, engaging and thought provoking.

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    • Gerald, she is a very good writer, and perceptive, but as delineated in Goldberger’s review her insights are either banal or idiotic. Maybe the book comes off better, but a lot of what science has discovered is a belaboring of the obvious. She accepts some of that but also refuses to accept the implications of much of it – because they might put her in the awkward position of admitting that the recent science explains why people prefer trad work.

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      • Gerald says:

        I didn’t read it as taking sides. I read it as there being room for both traditional and contemporary architecture, and that she was writing to a larget and diverse audience.

        Kind if feel she’s making a case for Beauty, which is a taboo word in the contemporary camp and an overwrought word in the trad camp, of which I generally tend to be.

        I respect her diplomacy.

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        • You are generous, Gerald. She’s an enabler of what ails our built environment. But I have not read the book. Still, I trust that Goldberger’s take, which applauds her worst instincts, is accurate. Nobody who could write of the research being done to explain the neurobiological role in public taste as “a pastiche of sociology and nostalgia” can have very much intellectual credibility.

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