Building Up and Tearing Down: A Review

Reading books is not something I do (or at least something I didn’t think I did- but I’ve now read three books in 2010- three more than I read last year, and the year before that, and…).  Reviewing books is something I do less.  So we’ll see how this goes.   Today’s book, Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture by Paul Goldberger.

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Paul Goldberger is the Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic for The New Yorker and Building Up is a collection of his pieces from that publication since he started in 1997.  Coincidently that year was the beginning of the last great architecture boom, which as of the Great Recession, is now a relic of the past.  In 1997 the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao by Frank O. Gehry opened to the public and it brought with it the Bilbao Effect.  The architecture landscape following the Bilbao Effect is dotted with works by Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaus, Steven Holl, Zaha Hadid to mention just a few of these so-called starchitects.  Fittingly the works of all these architects appear in the book.

The book does a great job categorizing the Age of Architecture through its chapters.  The books starts with Buildings that Matter.  And love ’em or hate ’em the buildings that show up in this chapter certainly had a lasting effect on the field of architecture.  From Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Koolhaus’ Seattle Public Library to the 2008 Beijing Olympics architecture of Herzog and de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” and PTW’s “Water Cube” these buildings epitomize the innovation and excess of the time.

From there we take a look at some of the movers and shakers in Places and People. The role of these people in various aspects of the built environment are evident even today.  The Eames.  Mies van der Rohe.  Louis Kahn.  Robert Moses.  Daniel Burnham.  Try to teach an architectural history lesson without those guys.  It would be impossible.  Goldberger does a great job of telling a story while weaving in a lot of lesser known information.

Then there’s a chapter on New York.  From fashion to finance to design, New York City is always a leader.  With so many buildings in the city that never sleeps there are a lot of good and a lot of bad.  Goldberger is fair in his kudos and criticism.  And maybe more than any point in the book, Goldberger has a lot of critical things to say about things going on in New York.  Considering its the place he calls home, one may be surprised with his assessment of the city’s built environment.

While I enjoyed the book, my favorite chapter may have been Past and Present. Being a historic preservationist I take great interest in not only the protection of historic structures but also the way the past is represented and how new construction interacts with the existing fabric.  With examples from China and how’s they are dressing up commercial enterprises as traditional Chinese buildings and the true genius of Washington’s Mount Vernon (which he thinks is at least equal to Jefferson’s Monticello) Goldberger gives the past a fair shake (which isn’t always the case in the always super progressive world of starchitecture).  Furthermore he looks at the World War II Memorial on the nation’s Mall and the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial and how we build to memorialize the past.

And finally he ends the book with two fitting chapters, Museums and Ways of Living.  If any building will come to stand as the icon of the Age of Architecture it will certainly be the museum.  The building that started it all is, in fact, a museum- Bilbao.  Plus, we have to look no further than the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, as case in point as to which building is the choice of architects.  This chapter includes, not surprisingly, pieces on: Bilbao, the British Museum (Norman Foster), Milwaukee Art Museum (Santiago Calatrava), Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth (Tado Ando), Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati (Zaha Hadid), Denver Art Museum (Daniel Libeskind) to name most of them.

The most poignant piece for me is the second to last entry.  And its seems about as far from architecture as a piece in an architecture book can be, but then again, maybe its as close to architecture as any other article comprised in this book.  This particular piece is actually from Metropolis and is titled, Disconnected Urbanism. The article is essentially about the cell phone.  But the heart of the matter is that with the cell phone there is now a “blurring of distinctions between different kinds of places.”  New York is Miami is Los Angles is Houston is Boise.  As much as we architects like to think buildings matter, we may be over selling ourselves.  To the general public there is little distinction between what is happening on the streets of New York versus what is happening on the streets of Seattle.  We’re oblivious to it.

So it looks like its time to engage the public.  And once the shine wears off, it’s not going to be the large swooping titanium curves that does it.

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