'Design is a quest to solve real-world problems'
Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker. He holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School in New York City and was formerly dean of Parsons, The New School for Design. In 1984, while at The New York Times, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. His most recent books are Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture (Monacelli Press), a collection of his essays, and Why Architecture Matters (Yale University Press). A graduate of Yale, he is a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
BD+C: You have said: “Design is not about design. It is about solving problems.” Could you expand on that thought?
Paul Goldberger: I certainly didn't mean to suggest that design doesn't have an aesthetic component, or is only about solving problems, only that it is not solely about aesthetics. Design is a quest to solve real problems in the real world, elegantly. Charles Eames said design is about the response to constraints, that without constraints there is no design. It's not pure blue sky thinking. The best design solves problems in ways that no one has thought of before.
BD+C: Who do you think is doing significant architectural work today?
PG: At this point, I have great admiration for Herzog and de Meuron. Their work fascinates me. It's challenging, smart, hard to categorize (which is fine), and it continues to be remarkably inventive and exciting, and yet responsive to the real world.
Frank Gehry continues to be somebody I admire hugely.
I've been very impressed with Diller Scofidio (and now Renfro), who were known for their theoretical work. They were the darlings of the academic world, and then they got real work—the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Lincoln Center—and it turned out to be remarkably intelligent, not as driven by academic ideas, with enormous finesse and practicality. Look at their work on the High Line. It's so rare in New York when something turns out so exactly right. It's hard to imagine it being done better.
BD+C: There are some architects—Andrés Duany is one—who say only architects are qualified to critique others' buildings. Are they right?
PG: That's nonsense. In fact, sometimes architects are the least insightful critics because they often look at things too narrowly. My job is to be a bridge between architects and the public, and I don't believe you need to be a practicing architect to do that.
BD+C: What single lesson could U.S. and Canadian designers learn from their counterparts in Europe and Asia?
PG: Even though architects are increasingly working across the globe, North America and Europe and Asia really are different worlds, so I'm not sure how much applies from one to the other. The most notable difference between Europe and this country is that in Europe it is very common for major public projects to be the subject of an architectural competition, and it is presumed that the building will be designed by a serious architect. That's not always the case here.
The other difference, I believe, is there's a greater commitment, in Europe in particular and to some extent in Asia as well, to the public realm and to building public places. Of course, it varies. For example, while China is doing some extraordinary things, they seem bound and determined to replicate our worst mistakes in urban planning.
BD+C: What have you been investigating recently?
PG: I was just in Dubai, to write about the Burj Khalifa, which I liked much better than I thought I would. As to the rest of Dubai, I was very disappointed in most of the architecture, and even more disappointed in the urbanism, since it's all organized around the automobile. If you listen to people here, Dubai would seem like a ghost town, but in fact the malls are crowded. However, things have slowed down hugely. A lot of the cranes are just sitting there, and nothing new is being initiated.
BD+C: Who's doing good architecture criticism these days?
PG: I've always liked and admired Blair Kamin, at the Chicago Tribune, and Jonathan Glancey at the Guardian, and an excellent younger critic, Christopher Hawthorne, at the Los Angeles Times. And Ada Louise Huxtable continues to amaze us all. She's close to 89 and still writing pieces for the Wall Street Journal that are sharp as a tack. Every time she does one of those pieces I'm reminded that it's hard to do better.
BD+C: Do you think the public is more aware of design today, perhaps due to TV—“This Old House,” HGTV, etc.?
PG:I do think there is a greater appreciation of architecture now. We're a more visually educated culture. When there's interesting stuff around, people tend to be more engaged. I don't think that's relegated entirely to the home. There's a significant degree of interest in more public design.