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Review: Why Architecture Matters, by Paul Goldberger

Daniel Libeskind's 'Crystal' at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto


To stand on Bloor Street at the top of Philosopher's Walk is to be in the middle of a heated argument between two of Toronto's new iconic architectural projects. To the east is Daniel Libeskind's Royal Ontario Museum; to the west is KPMB's Royal Conservatory of Music. Both were commissioned as part of the wonderful wave of new construction intended to advance the city's cultural and tourism status. Both are transformative additions to original structures of some distinction; both house venerable institutions in need of change.

But there the similarity ends. If the new front to the ROM is uncompromising, clashing, willful, then the approach to the Conservatory is by contrast restrained, harmonious, respectful. The one displays the new: steel, concrete, titanium. The other employs wood, stone and glass. And the argument? Which building works best, which building is more of its time, which better reflects the city and which the wider world? Which is art, which is beautiful? Which do you like?

In Why Architecture Matters, Paul Goldberger has written the book to help us better understand these questions. Architectural columnist for The New Yorker, Goldberger is the dean of U.S. critics, with a style accessible and academic, engaged and reflective. Intended for a general audience and helped by Goldberger's fluid, conversational prose, this is a nonetheless serious book. Architecture matters to him vitally; it has been his life. The book is an attempt to draw some conclusions about that relationship, to prove the point of his title.

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What makes great architecture? When does a building become architecture, become art? What kind of an art is it that you not only look at but also live in? Goldberger starts with these questions, as old as architecture itself, with a succinct history of architectural criticism. Vitruvius, writing in ancient Rome around 30 BC, set the agenda for all subsequent debate when he identified the three essential but often conflicting elements of great architecture; what he called "commodity, firmness and delight." They're what we might today call function, to meet the needs for which the building is being built; structure, to stay upright and keep out the rain; and beauty, to make an aesthetic contribution.

Architecture is an affair of the eye, and Goldberger is helping us look

For Goldberger, architecture becomes art when it finds resolution in those imperatives by creating passion in their tension. He cautions us against resting judgments outside that frame. A building is not art simply because it is virtuous, because it is sustainably green or in some way socially equitable. Not that he isn't fully supportive of such initiatives, but they are not in themselves sufficient for good architecture.

Good advice. If moral intent alone could build a city, Toronto would be the biggest, most beautiful metropolis in the world. It takes something more; great architecture will raise a thrill, a shock, a sense of contentment, delight. How does it do that?

The book comes most alive for those trying to make sense of what they see and feel in architecture when he takes us out on the street to look at buildings. Architecture is an affair of the eye, and Goldberger is helping us look. He contrasts three well-known U.S. office towers; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building and Edward Durell Stone's General Motors Building in New York, and I.M. Pei's John Hancock Tower in Boston. He takes us on a detailed inspection of their shapes, structures, materials and context, helping to explain why we react as we do.

By happy chance, Toronto has towers by all three architects at King and Bay streets downtown - respectively the very distinctive Toronto-Dominion Centre, First Canadian Place and Commerce Court West. Each performing the same function, yet with different structures and very differing degrees of delight. Like the best art criticism, the education of Goldberger's eye explains much of what one feels but had not fully understood in looking at them.

The most successful sections of the book are when Goldberger lets those eyes, and his heart, talk about the buildings he loves. There is a sweet essay on his architectural coming of age, when the kid from New Jersey first finds the concrete passion of Manhattan, taking the city whole, as if it were all one building. New York we probably all know, and who has not felt that same ecstatic excitement on entering that city?

But much of the book assumes a knowledge of architecture and architects, particularly of 20th-century U.S. buildings, probably not common outside that country. His intelligent commentary on suburban sprawl and its attendant privatization and segregation of public space is again more relevant to the United States. Not that we don't have sprawl, but we have our own distinct version, with much denser and increasingly more ethnically mixed suburbs, where the gated communities so characteristic of the U.S. edge city have, we may be thankful, not flourished.

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For a slim book, there is a lot in Why Architecture Matters; perhaps too much and too little. The section on architecture in literature, which barely gets beyond Henry James and Edith Wharton, is absurdly short. And while unlike most architectural critics, Goldberger is generously sympathetic to the "new urbanism" movement, it merits only a couple of paragraphs. This activism of the U.S. architectural community toward urban improvement could be viewed not just as a contemporary aesthetic movement, but as an expression of the endearing utopianism of architects from Vitruvius on.

Another gripe. The attendant photographs are small, black and white and often a less-than-perfect guide to the text. Architecture is nothing if not a visual art. Would an accompanying website, with full colour illustrations, and lots of them, have been too much to ask?

Back to that argument on Philosopher's Walk. In a brief, elegiac introduction, Goldberger answers his own question. "Architecture begins to matter when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe along with a roof over our heads." Why Architecture Matters is by parts a useful, inspiring, frustrating guide to the long history and complex content of the debate about the emotions buildings provoke in us.

Joe Berridge is an urban planner and partner in Urban Strategies, currently working in several Canadian, British and Asian cities.

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