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.”
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.