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'Qualities of Art'

April 29, 2010 By:
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Why Architecture Matters is the title of Paul Goldberger's entry in the Yale University Press series that asks a specialist to explain the importance of a particular field and why it should still matter to contemporary individuals. In this instance, if the title were a question -- Why Does Architecture Matter? or Why Should Architecture Matter? -- Judaism would once have had a clear answer, based solidly in the religious tradition. (Some 21st-century Jews would still provide the same response.) The response would be that architecture was of little consequence, at least religiously speaking.

Apart from the two temples in Jerusalem, the most important structure throughout Jewish history, right up to the present moment, has been, of course, the synagogue. But shul architecture, at least until well into the 20th century, was not really a concern of Judaism. A landless and perpetually persecuted people, Jews made certain that they could pray wherever they found themselves. So as long as there were 10 individuals gathered together, no matter where, Jews could have a service. Synagogue buildings were, for a considerable stretch time, beside the point.

That was one reason why Jews rarely sought out the profession of architecture (the prohibition against graven images might also have slowed people down and there was also the lack of educational possibilities for Jews until at least the late 19th century). But things changed rapidly after 1900, with many Jewish architects making names for themselves over the course of the last 100 years or so. And after World War II, synagogue architecture even experienced something of a vogue.

Practitioners and Critics

There have also been over the last century many distinguished architecture critics who were Jews, and one of them is without question Goldberger. Now ensconced at The New Yorker, where he writes the magazine's "Sky Line" column, he began his career at The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He also holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at the New School in Manhattan.

And Philadelphians may recall that he stopped here to help inaugurate the visitor center at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, a late work by the great Frank Lloyd Wright.

That's why he seems a good choice to do Yale's bidding, and tell us why architecture does indeed continue to matter to the world and its people. According to the critic, simply because we could not live without architecture is hardly the reason why he wrote his book. Nor is it that buildings keep us dry. In actuality, he has tried in this volume to show what buildings do beside shield us from the elements.

"Architecture begins to matter," he states, "when it goes beyond protecting us from the elements, when it begins to say something about the world -- when it begins to take on the qualities of art. You could say that architecture is what happens when people build with an awareness that they are doing something that reaches at least a little bit beyond the practical. It may be as tiny a gesture as painting the front door of a house red or as grand an undertaking as creating the rose window of a cathedral. It can be as casual as a sliver of decorative molding around a window or as carefully wrought as the ceil- ing of a Baroque church. A clapboard farmhouse with a columned porch is architecture; so is a house by Frank Lloyd Wright in which every inch of every wall, every window, and every door is part of an elaborately considered composition."

Heal and Teach

But Goldberger has no pretensions about architecture as occupying an exalted place in everyday life; he knows it can't save the world, and that its greatest works are not equivalent to bread on the table or justice in the courtroom. "It affects the quality of life, yes, and often with an astonishing degree of power. But it does not heal the sick, teach the ignorant, or in and of itself sustain life. At its best, it can help to heal and to teach by creating a comfortable and uplifting environment for these things to take place in. This is but one of the ways in which architecture, though it may not sustain life, can give the already sustained life meaning. When we talk about how architecture matters -- beyond, of course, the obvious fact of shelter -- is the same way in which any kind of art matters: it makes life better."

Goldberger looks at buildings through the lens of culture and analyzes whether comfort has anything to do with the great works in the field. He considers architecture as object, space and memory, and judges buildings and how they relate to time. One of his most wonderful insights, for example, is that architecture is one of the ways in which we can have a conversation with the past, one generations of human beings with another.

Goldberger also has some wonderful things to say about two of my favorite architects, Kahn and Frank Gehry, who also happen to be Jewish.

Here he is on the latter's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain. He calls it "a superb work of contextual architecture, not because it looks like anything around it -- it is a highly sculptural object of titanium sitting amid old buildings of masonry -- but because Gehry designed it with the neighboring buildings always in mind. It opens up magnificently to the river on one side, but when you see it from the other side, looking down one of the old city streets, there is an even more powerful view. The museum is a punctuation mark at the end of the vista, and it makes the city into a frame for its action. None of this is a happy accident; Gehry paid as much attention to the surroundings of the Guggenheim in Bilbao as John Nash did to his surroundings in London. Gehry wanted his building to stand out -- it was created specifically to stand out, to be a foreground building -- but his way of standing out came not from indifference to what was around him but from a deep understanding of what was there and how a different kind of building might play off against it." 

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