Paul Goldberger discusses design, projects, and people

Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker’s architectural critic, previously spent 25 years as the architecture critic for the New York Times. Goldberger received a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for distinguished criticism, and has authored several books, most recently Up From Zero, an examination of the process of developing the former World Trade Center site.

Originally an English student at Yale, Goldberger felt himself continually drawn to architecture, journeying all night to see le Corbusier buildings and cathedrals while spending a summer in Europe. After college he had been writing freelance articles on architecture, while working on the Times’ Sunday magazine, when reknowned critic Ada Louise Huxtable was promoted. Goldberger was given the opportunity to assume some of her critical duties, finally joining his “twin interests” of architecture and journalism.

Goldberger says New York is not such a great environment to build, but is “an incredible place to practice architecture,” because of its atmosphere which blends both the academic and the practical. Many of the City’s architects have done their best work abroad; he points out that Richard Meier has had an office in the City for 40 years but has only recently begun building substantial buildings here. Goldberger sees an increase in compelling architecture “as the market for architectural names has grown,” and developers have come to see the hiring of prominent architects as good business.

Goldberger cites the Landmarks Preservation Commission as one of the most potent influences on the City’s aesthetics, not just as a governmental agency, but as part of an awareness and tone guiding development. While he believes the Commission may have “stretched the definition of its mandate” in the creation of historic districts, at a time when City Planning was not proactive, “it was the right thing to do.” There are now architects who “know no other City” than one in which preservation is a factor.”

While he finds City Planning to have been more reactive in recent years, much of the “proactive energy” during the Bloomberg administration has come from the office of former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. Goldberger was among the voices calling for a reappraisal of Robert Moses in the past few years, and when asked if the EDC and Doctoroff were continuing the tradition of Moses’ best work, he responded that in “his ability to see the big picture” and in his “long-term, large-scale projects” he is “Moses-like and welcome.” Goldberger is somewhat cynical about the ongoing Hudson Yards project, however, having accurately predicted that “we would never see any of the plans presented.” Goldberger thinks the project will morph further, stating that “the challenges… are much greater than people have acknowledged.”

Goldberger waxes enthusiastic about another contemporary project, calling the High Line “one of the best things to happen to New York in a generation or more.” He finds the High Line remarkable not least because it grew out of a grass roots effort that prevailed against the odds. Goldberger believes the High Line’s actualization is due in part to a “growing sophistication” about design among a “visually literate generation.”

When asked about a 1982 essay of his, in which he decried contemporary zoning and development trends, Goldberger admits to having underestimated the City’s capacity to absorb development. While the City’s infrastructure was crumbling following the fiscal crisis in the 1970s, it has subsequently improved and been able to sustain growth. As the City once again became an attractive place for families to live, former industrial buildings were adaptively reused for residences. Illustrating his point, he states that when the World Trade Center was built, there was almost no residential life in that part of Manhattan, whereas now viable neighborhoods exist on all sides of the site.

Goldberger states that “the neighborhood Jane Jacobs idealized does not exist in quite the same way, which does not mean we can’t learn from it,” and that “the nature of the market in the City has made neighborhoods less and less diverse.” Goldberger finds irony in Jacob’s argument that organic growth served the City better than professional intervention, while now we need to actively intervene to promote those types of neighborhoods. Goldberger compares governmental schemes, such as restrictive zoning and historic district designation, to affirmative action, because they are needed to “yield neighborhoods that are much more diverse economically, socially, and physically.” — Jesse Denno

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