Book Report: Building Up And Tearing Down: Paul Goldberger

Tim GemperlineWritten by pulitzer prize winning, resident ‘New Yorker’ critic Paul Goldberger, ‘Building Up and Tearing Down’ left me with the ‘well, what d’ya know?’ reflection that I just learned more from these some 300 pages than from some college courses on modern era architecture.  And (here’s the kick) it was enjoyable the entire time.

Told through examples, from the roots of NYC’s naively bold, paradoxically wild Cartesian grid to the beautifully pragmatic, structural triangles of Foster’s Hearst Tower, this collection of essays is a textbook on specific moves, good and bad, in modern and contemporary architecture.  Highlights span a from-the-field look at Havana’s historical preservation to commentary on the layout and fast paced change of China’s built landscape (Did you know locals call Beijing ‘Tan Da Bing’, meaning spreading pancake?).

Goldberger links architectural precedents with the process and real effects of design, making it more salient than a history, and he does so in a purely readable way.  I called it a textbook earlier, but none that I have traversed presented lines similar to, “If someone came from the moon, they would think this [Beijing] is a newer country than America.”  Goldberger is not an absolutist critic (historian?), making statements about the building while standing in front of it; he is just as curious as the reader, and talks about the building from the street, looking at the building alongside the reader.  Lines like the one quoted invite exploration and leave room to draw conclusions outside of his.

The best viewpoint I gained from standing next to Goldberger on the street, involves, not a building, but the street itself. One essay entitled ‘A Helluva Town’ explores how the city’s main purpose is to create as many interactions as possible;  That urbanity is the “glorious shared experiences” and exchange of concepts among intermingling, disparate citizens. Superficially, that’s what the internet is; a world-wide metropolis.  This blog is a person in that city, trying to cross as many paths as possible, to create meaningful interactions.  But still the ethereal internet cannot supplant the real, building-and-boulevard city for real, bone-and-muscle people.  Physically existing in the “vaguely anarchic” mix of the city, forcibly taking in and interacting with all in it (simply by it being there), propagates culture, new ideas, and a vibrancy (including pride) shared by all in it.  Like the mind-body link, the connection between place and our individual and societal success is unmistakable.

The third of six sections is titled after one such city, New York, and it’s placement in the heart of the book is indicative of where the author’s heart lies.  Even beyond this section, there is perhaps more than enough New York-centricity. A focus on large, big name projects also detracts, at times. Inclusion of essays, such as one on early pre-fabbist Rocio Romero, born in Chile and working out of her Missouri farm, ballasts this to some extent.  An essay on George Washington’s (purposefully asymmetrical?) Virginia home serves as another unique selection.

Originally published between 1997 and 2009, there is also some shallowness of time’s lens to some essays, reactions that decades from now may not hold.  Mr. Goldberger acknowledges this nature of his profession when he points a finger to critic Lewis Mumford’s appraisal of the Chrysler Building as “a series of restless mistakes…inane romanticism.”  As a critique, there is unavoidably temporal and personal bias from the author, but Paul Goldberger is largely astute and even-handed in his observations.  There’s nothing radical and it’s not a manifesto.

As an object, Pentagram Design/Monacelli Press did a good job; bold black-and-white, jacket-less cover, silvery end pages, black title pages for the sections, and nice typography.  There are black and white photographs, and though most are good architectural shots, have your phone around with a browser set to image search.  Single pictures above the title of most essays don’t suffice for the details or the referenced designs.

Building Up And Tearing Down: Reflections On The Age Of Architecture by Paul Goldberger   ISBN:978-1-58093-264-6


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