Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here, back in this extraordinary institution that I feel closely connected with thanks to its association with the Driehaus Prize, which as all of you know has become increasingly important in the world of architecture with each passing year. And thanks to your great Dean and the wonderful work he does in association with it, the Driehaus Prize has now become almost as closely identified with the University of Notre Dame as with Richard Driehaus. I must say that among the many things that is impressive about Notre Dame, being able to get so much reflected glory from the Driehaus Prize without putting up the money for it is one of the better achievements.
Seriously, the prize, as you all surely know, is administered by this institution because Richard Driehaus, the prize’s donor, saw in Notre Dame the values he wanted to see more of all across the world of architecture—a willingness to look at the past not as distant and disconnected, but as a direct inspiration for work that we can do today, and a belief that a firm grounding in the architecture of the past is an essential part of an education, no matter what direction you ultimately choose to go in. Richard Driehaus wanted to see traditional architecture as a living thing, and if he rejected anything, it was not so much modernism as modernism’s rejection of the past. He argued against the false notion that modernism existed at a total remove from traditional architecture, against the notion that traditional architecture was irrelevant, and against the fallacy of believing that architecture was entirely re-invented in the twentieth century, and in favor of seeing it all as a continuum. These are the values that the Driehaus Prize was created to encourage, and these are the values that this unusual school was created to teach.
All of you know that, of course. That’s why you’re here, presumably. I’m not here to recite the basic facts of this institution, which you know so much better than I do, but to try and say a few words about how these ideas relate right now to some of the issues I have been thinking about in my own work. This talk has been entitled “Why Architecture Matters,” which just happens to be the title of a new book, as you’ve just heard, and I’ll say a little bit about it, and in particular try to think for a moment about how it may relate to the issues of traditional architecture that so many architectural critics, theorists, historians and practitioners struggle with. Why Architecture Matters is a short book, and not particularly aimed at architects, though I very much hope that they will like it, and respect it. Maybe it’s really a book that architects might want to give their clients so that they can figure out why they do what they do—or that you might want to give your parents, or girlfriends or boyfriends, who probably wonder about that, also—since its purpose is to try and take all the ideas that people like us, architects and critics and people to whom architecture is second nature, to take these ideas and explain what the point of them is, why we bother about them in the first place. Trying to articulate all the stuff you have always taken for granted is a hard task, which is why this book took a while, even though it’s short. Writing it made me think of the old clichÃ© about how if I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.
Anyway, the book starts with the statement that I know that architecture matters very much to me, but I have no desire to claim that it can save the world. Great architecture is not bread on the table, and it is not 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, it is important to understand that the way in which it matters—beyond, of course, the obvious fact of shelter—is the same way in which any kind of art matters: it makes life better.
Paradoxically, it is often the most mundane architecture that means the most to us—the roof over our heads, the random buildings that protect us from the rain and give us places to work and shop and sleep and be entertained. Buildings like these—the vernacular, the standard architectural language—are not the main focus of this book, but I will discuss them because I reject the view that a clear line can be drawn between serious architecture and ordinary buildings. “A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is architecture,” wrote Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, but what of it? Both are buildings, both are architecture. Lincoln Cathedral is a vastly more complex and profound work of architecture than the bicycle shed, and it was created with more noble aspirations. But each structure has something to say about the culture that built it, each structure is of at least some interest visually, and each structure evokes certain feelings and emotions. There is much more to say about a great cathedral than a generic shed, but each helps shape our environment, and has an effect on us that we should pay attention to. And so, too, with all kinds of other pieces of construction that are not cathedrals: the vernacular commercial and residential architecture of the mall and the highway strip and the suburban town of today.
Such buildings are not masterpieces, and I am not trying to be one of those politically correct critics who says they are. Yet we ignore such things at our peril. McDonald’s restaurants, Las Vegas casinos, mobile homes and suburban tract houses and strip malls and shopping centers and office parks? They can be banal or they can be joyful and witty, but they are rarely transcendent. Yet they tell us much about who we are and about the places we want to make. And often they work well, galling as this is for most architecture critics to admit. Much of the built world in the United States is ugly, but then again, most of nineteenth-century London seemed ugly to Londoners, too, before the patina of age settled upon it. Now, I’m not trying to say that time will make us love strip malls, or that it should, merely that the design of most of our built environment today probably reveals a lot about us, it is impossible to think seriously about architecture today and not think about the built environment as a whole. It is all connected and interdependent, from freeways to gardens, from shopping malls to churches and skyscrapers and gas stations. I have no desire to romanticize the landscape that surrounds us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but I know that Pevsner’s academic distinction no longer holds up.
Perhaps it never did, though there was surely a time when ordinary, everyday architecture seemed in many ways a simplified, scaled-down edition of great architecture, and the qualitative difference between the two was barely noticeable. While the Georgian row house in London was more modest than the great country estate, they were still two of a kind; they spoke the same language. Simple slum houses seemed like stripped-down versions of the great house, bargain-basement offerings from the same catalogue. It is striking that it was such a relatively coherent architectural culture as that of London and other Western European cities that moved Pevsner to make his arbitrary and cold-hearted distinction between Architecture with a capital “A” and mere buildings, since the mere buildings of his experience in the early decades of this century were far more ambitious as works of architecture than the mere buildings we see today. Ordinary buildings, in other words, were better then than they are now. This, by the way, connects to the real failure of modernism, in my view: not that it could not create great buildings, since it can, but that it cannot create good ordinary ones.
In eighteenth-century London, Georgian architecture created a language, and out of that language of architectural elements both ordinary buildings and masterpieces could be made. If you were an architect you understood the language well and could write in it; if you were an educated layman, you could recognize and appreciate its details. But if you lacked any knowledge at all, you could still take pleasure in the clarity and the rhythm of the buildings constructed in that language, and you could see the way it created a city of lively beauty.
Now, all of this is common knowledge here at Notre Dame, surely. You have been educated to think in these terms, and to understand the notion of architectural language we need not speak only of London or of Europe. In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century New York, for example, there was a quality to the brownstones that lined the side streets, and to the Georgian and Renaissance-inspired apartment buildings that later lined the avenues, and even to the cramped tenements, that also suggested a common architectural language, emerging from the belief that every building, no matter how private, showed a public presence—that it had an obligation to the street and to anyone who passed before it, whether or not they would ever walk through its doors. This common language reflected a respect for background, for the notion that even the most common buildings create an urban fabric, and from that comes the beginning of a civilized environment.
That intention, the way in which even the tenement was clearly intended to enrich the street and therefore the life of the city, is what makes Pevsner’s distinction less than useful today. Is the decorated tenement simply a fancy bicycle shed? Or is it an earthbound echo of Lincoln Cathedral? Should we think of it as an improved ape or as a damaged angel? The tenement is a practical construction designed to be more than merely practical, and—leaving value judgments aside—that, a practical thing designed to be more than merely practical, is as good a definition of architecture as I can imagine.
By that standard, of course, virtually every building is architecture, so long as its physical form reflects some degree of civilizing intent. The intent may reveal itself in something as modest as the crude curlicues of the tenement cornice or as intricate and profound as the stonework and stained glass of Chartres or the space of Borromini’s church of Sant’Ivo in Rome. Architectural intent is not merely a matter of decoration, though it can be; it can emerge from the conscious crafting of space, the deliberate shaping of form, or the juxtaposition of well-considered materials. If art is defined to a significant degree by intention, so is architecture.
Why Architecture Matters is by no means a book about classical or traditional architecture, but it deals a lot with it, sometimes in ways that you may agree with, sometimes not. I thought, since I am at Notre Dame, that I might talk about those aspects of this book that deal with traditional and classical architecture, and see what they add up to. While I believe in the importance of a viable architectural language, as you could see from what I said a moment ago about Georgian architecture in London, my favorite things have always been those that broke away somewhat, those works of architecture that used familiar languages but coaxed them into saying new things. My preferences are always for Hawksmoor, Soane, Lutyens, to stay in England for a moment—for those architects who see classicism not as an opportunity for replicating anything done before, but as an opportunity for creativity, for reinvention. So I will always take Lutyens over Sir Herbert Baker, or Hawksmoor over Christopher Wren, great architect though Wren undoubtedly was; or John Soane over John Nash, for all the gloriousness of the lessons in urban design that Nash taught us. (That one, I admit, is a harder call, because Nash may have more to tell us in the twenty-first century than Soane does, given how we are a time so urgently needful of good urban models of the sort that Nash provide in his great London terraces. But Soane’s breakfast room in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of the greatest rooms in all of Western architecture, and Nash never designed anything so powerful, or so intimate. )
My argument about great architecture always being new is an important one, I think, because this idea is so often misunderstood. New does not have to mean radical re-invention, and it most definitely does not have to mean that a building should not look like anything you have seen before. Let me explain by using an example you all know, and which I discuss in the book, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., a much more inventive, even radical, building than people give it credit for. It was loosely based on the Parthenon, as everybody knows, and of course it is constructed out of the same architectural language. But it is very different from the Parthenon. That marble box wrapped in thirty-six columns that sits at the end of the Mall in Washington, may be a Greek temple in one sense, but in another sense it is not a Greek temple at all. The architect Henry Bacon created a masterwork that in many ways is as inventive and original as the modernist buildings created in Europe at the same time—between 1915 and 1922—as the memorial was designed.
Bacon used the vocabulary of Greek architecture (actually, Greco-Roman architecture, since it possesses the shared characteristics of both of these classical styles), but he used it brilliantly to his own purpose, which was to create an immense, formal box to memorialize Abraham Lincoln and stand as a symbol of American certitude and conviction. The memorial closes off the vista that begins with the United States Capitol two miles to the east, and it sits at the end of a reflecting pool, from a distance appearing almost to float on the water like the Taj Mahal. This is one of the great scenographic buildings of all time, and if it is not sensual enough by day, look at it at night, when the soft lighting makes the marble box glow behind the Doric columns, which appear dark behind the white marble, jumping out visually like the image in a photographic negative. I’m sorry I chose not to bring slides tonight, but I’m sure you all know this and have an image in your heads.
Bacon started with the Parthenon, yet he all but turned it inside out. The Lincoln Memorial is not a structure supported by columns, like a Greek temple, but more of a marble box surrounded by a colonnade. The walls are set inside, behind the columns, and they shoot straight up beyond them. The effect is of a classical coating applied to a brooding, almost primal geometric form. There is no attempt, then, to mimic the appearance of a real Greek temple; it is hard not to think that Bacon’s real interest was to communicate the power of abstract form and the strength of silence.
Steen Eiler Rasmussen has written that architectural perception is intimately connected with feels of hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness, solid and void, a kind of visual dialectic or rhythm. The Lincoln Memorial demonstrates all of this clearly: the hardness of the sharply defined form plays off against the (relative) softness of Daniel Chester French’s statue of a seated Lincoln; we could say that the heaviness of the boxy structure is lightened by the columns, and the columns and the space behind them surely represent the dialectic between solid and void.
But there is more to say about the Lincoln Memorial that goes beyond Rasmussen’s criteria. To better balance the Capitol at the other end of the Mall, Bacon rotated his temple so that the long side served as the main facade and entrance, not the short end as at the Parthenon. He also eliminated the gabled attic present in real Greek temples, replacing it with a flat roof, rendering the building all the more abstract. If the Lincoln Memorial does nothing else, it can stand as a reminder that the mere presence of elements from classical architecture does not mean much when analyzing a building. The vocabulary of historical style can be used much more creatively than pure replication. In this case Bacon combined urbanistic concerns with scenographic ones to yield a building of startling grandeur and self-assurance—a building that, as I said, is more modern, and more inventive, than it is usually given credit for being. If you think classicism and inventiveness are mutually exclusive, you could not be more wrong, as this building proves so gloriously—though I assume that if you are Notre Dame students you would never make that mistake, that you see classicism as a living language that encourages creativity, and not as a fundamentalist gospel that is rigid and unchangeable and cannot evolve.
Still, the Lincoln Memorial has never been able to shake free, so to speak, of the old moralistic argument about the style-for-the-time, the argument that you could make architecture either in the true way that was faithful to the concerns of the moment or in the false way that was not. To build in the wrong way, the modernists said, was to do what the nineteenth century did, which was to make architecture that resembled some style of the past—Gothic, classical, Romanesque, Italian Renaissance, Georgian, and so forth, something that, no matter how well you did it, was bound to be false, they insisted. To build in the right way was to be inspired by the age of the machine and to turn away from the various historical styles that to the modernists were just so much clutter. There was a lot of rhetoric about a new age needing a new architecture. (In Frank Lloyd Wright’s American locution, it was American democracy needing a new architecture.)
Now, today those arguments sound awfully tired. And as I think you know, things were never so simple, in part because you can never measure a time solely by what its avant-garde is thinking and doing. Modernism created extraordinary works—only the most extreme classical fundamentalists would deny that—but it did not have sole possession of the early twentieth century. As we look back at the architecture that was produced in the years before World War II there is no greater representation of that time than, say, Carrere and Hastings’s New York Public Library, or Warren and Wetmore’s Grand Central Terminal, or James Gamble Rogers’s Memorial Quadrangle on the Yale campus, or Charles McKim’s Pennsylvania Station, or Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building. These are all traditional buildings—some Gothic, some classical, but every one of them heavily reliant on historical style rather the modernist architecture that, by the 1910s, was already becoming a part of the culture. And yet today we see them as being totally representative of their time. James Gamble Rogers’s Gothic-style buildings at Yale were no more truly of the Middle Ages than Charles McKim’s Pennsylvania Station was truly of the Roman period. They were buildings of the early twentieth century, and they represent that time to us now as well and as fully as any work of modernism. So they were the architecture of their time. They just weren’t the avant-garde architecture of their time.
Today I think we’ve come to we realize that modernism did not have sole possession of the right to define the time, as it claimed. That is really the point, that the defining architecture of the early twentieth century was not only that which was dramatically and powerfully different; that period could also be defined, as can ours, by architecture that is heavily and unambiguously reliant on historical style. If buildings like the great structures I mentioned a moment ago truly didn’t represent their time, they would not have the iconic status that they do for us today.
The moralistic argument—that the only way to be true to one’s time is to create something completely new and different from what has come before—is one of those axioms that sound impressive when you first hear them but turn out not to mean very much once you try to probe them deeply. The belief that there was indeed a style for the time, and that it was inherently superior to the reuse of a style from a previous time, affected the reception that one of the greatest museum buildings of the twentieth century, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, by John Russell Pope, received when it opened in 1941. By then, the building of the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan was already two years old. While modern architecture had not yet become the accepted standard for public buildings, by 1941 modernism was far beyond seeming strange, radical, and new. The decision to design the National Gallery in a classical style struck many people as consciously and deliberately rear-guard, which indeed it was. Yet Pope’s building is one of the most inviting, elegant, and functional art museums ever built, with sumptuous galleries arrayed in a straight line extending from either side of a grand marble rotunda. The building is huge, but its organization is clear and straightforward; unlike most traditional art museums, it is impossible to get lost in the National Gallery. The galleries are larger than the rooms in a house, but not so big that they feel institutional, and every one of them is lit by natural light from above. The detailing is cool and precise, almost severe; the opulence is always tempered by reserve. Pope had the rare ability to design buildings that were large and grand but not overbearing; for all its formality and dignity, nothing about this building is pompous. You sense that Pope was using classicism as a source of dignity and that he was distilling it down to its essence. That is the real brilliance of the National Gallery: it is classicism distilled to a pure, powerful, and spare, and everything within it is designed to show the paintings to their best advantage.
In this sense it worked far better than many modern museums, a fact that was not seen, or at least not acknowledged, by the critics of the building, who dismissed it as tired and fuddy-duddy, a sign that the United States could only look backward in its public buildings, not forward. The designers of the National Gallery were indeed looking backward, but it mattered less than people thought, since the quality of the building was so extraordinary that it transcended style. Like the Lincoln Memorial, it is highly inventive; it uses the classical language faithfully, but also creatively. The National Gallery follows no precise model, less even than the Lincoln Memorial. The Gallery was not only creative, it was so strong in its architectural fundamentals—in its scale, in its materials, in its organization, in its details, and above all in how it served the needs of both the paintings in the collection and the people who came to see them—that the rear-guard nature of its classical garb could be said, in one sense, to have been almost beside the point.
Indeed, the Pope building is considerably more honest, in some ways, than its modern addition, the East Building of the National Gallery by I. M. Pei, completed in 1978. Pei’s building is a powerful composition of diagonals, built out of the same Tennessee marble as the original National Gallery beside it, but almost nothing else is the same about the two buildings. The sharp diagonals say “modern” as clearly as Pope’s columns said “classical”; they are every bit as powerful an architectural signal. But as for honesty and clarity, those supposed modernist virtues, they are largely absent in the Pei building, which becomes somewhat confusing to understand and navigate your way around once you get past its spectacular, skylit atrium. The atrium is a splendid civic space, but the galleries, instead of flowing majestically out of the central space as they do from Pope’s rotunda, are largely huge loft spaces set in differing points around the building, and which need to be designed anew for each installation. There is no sense that the specific demands of displaying art were the driving force in determining the design, as they were for John Russell Pope. So which is more “functional”—the classical portion of the National Gallery or the modernist one?
Modernist theorists have tried to make the argument that to build in the latest style is to be true to one’s time, and to build in a style that resembles the architecture of the past is the thing that’s false—a betrayal of one’s time, you could almost say. But it has never been that simple. Styles, as we’ve said, are languages, and languages always continue to change and evolve. English today is different from the language of Shakespeare’s time or even George Bernard Shaw’s. The greatest architects who have worked in past styles, architects from Thomas Jefferson to Sir Edwin Lutyens to LÃ©on Krier and Jaquelin Robertson, see historical architecture as a chance to say new things in an existing language, not merely to copy what has been said before.
If I can make the issue even more complicated, by the time the East Building went up in the late 1970s, modernism was beginning to take on a different connotation in our culture, since it was coming itself to be a part of history. Since many of the most important modern buildings had been constructed in the 1920s or before, by then many of the buildings by the early modern masters such as Wright and Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were more than half a century old. Modernism was a mature, established style, not quite as established as the classicism John Russell Pope had used, but after a generation of modernist corporate headquarters and office towers and public buildings, you could hardly call it the daring and radical style it once had been. (You could almost say that by 1978, Pei was in some ways being just as conservative as Pope.)
And since then, modernism has receded still farther into history. In the twenty-first century, when an architect like Robert A. M. Stern designs a mansion in the Georgian style or a country house in the manner of the nineteenth-century Shingle Style, does it mean something all that different from what it means when an architect like Charles Gwathmey chooses to create a large and sumptuous modernist house inspired by the work of Le Corbusier? The architects themselves may feel it is quite different, but I’m not sure that we need to agree with them. Each architect is inspired by something he has admired from the past to design something new in the present that does not precisely resemble anything that has been built before. Each is being inventive within a particular design vocabulary, and the fact that the Georgian mansion traces its ancestry back to one century and the modernist Corbusian villa to another may not mean all that much to us, in the end. Today, both look back, just to different times. And our time, like every other, gets to reinterpret the historical languages of architecture on its own terms.
But since the era does matter, what is it, then, that defines a time? Why is Delano and Aldrich’s Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue in New York, which is one of the most beautiful Georgian-style buildings ever created, still a building of the twentieth century and not of the eighteenth, which its architects clearly wanted it to resemble? What makes the sprawling Houses of Parliament a Gothic building of the nineteenth century and not one of the sixteenth? Some of the answer lies in the technology of building materials—large buildings of the twentieth century are almost always built on steel or reinforced concrete skeletons, whatever stylistic surface is applied to them. The Gothic elements in Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, finished in 1913, were so striking that a prominent rector dubbed the tower “The Cathedral of Commerce.” But underneath all of Gilbert’s terra cotta Gothic ornament was a fully modern skyscraper. The same can be said of McKim, Mead and White’s old building for Tiffany and Company on Fifth Avenue in New York, of 1906, which was inspired by the Palazzo Grimani in Venice. But the building hardly resembled a sixteenth-century Venetian palace on the inside. Like the new Shingle Style house that is designed to look like a mansion from 1902 but has a huge, eat-in family kitchen, no butler’s pantry or maid’s room but a super-high-tech media room, the interior almost always reveals the time, whatever the outside is like.
But there is something else, more subtle perhaps, that marks buildings like these as being of the twentieth century and reveals them as contemporaries of the modernist architecture that was created in the hope of making them go away. Most late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings in historical styles have a certain softness and picturesque quality to them, as if their architects were interested in visual ease above all. They lack the toughness of the truly new. They are stage sets—wonderful stage sets to be sure, but rarely do they have the ability to do more than give us visual pleasure. In those years it was the modern buildings that had the awkward brilliance of the new.
What I mean to say is that there really is a zeitgeist, a spirit of the time; it is just not so narrow as Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius would have had us believe, and not so limited to the avant-garde. Every age has its sensibility, and architecture inevitably both reflects and reveals it: the grandiose classical buildings of the City Beautiful movement at the end of the nineteenth century went hand in hand with the growing imperial ambitions of the United States, just as the acceptance of modernist architecture by the corporate world after World War II was a natural expression of the widely held belief that a new postwar era was beginning, with America’s economic growth at its center. Within all of these large trends, of course, are smaller, briefer fashions. People tend to want buildings that look like other buildings, just so long as they are not identical, just as they like to dress almost, but not quite, the way other people dress. When an architect produces an appealing variation on a common style, it often spreads as any fashion does.
So for all that the old notion of “the style for the time” is a fallacy, time can still mean a lot, and often as much of more than place, in determining what kind of architecture gets built in almost any place that is not cut off from other places. Gothic architecture reached its most glorious heights in France, but it was hardly limited to France, just as the return to classicism represented by the Renaissance, for all we think of it as being centered in Italy, manifested itself in much of Europe. In our own time, think of the how the commercial districts of almost every American city in the late nineteenth century contained buildings of dark stone or red brick in vaguely Romanesque style, with elaborate arches and cornices—buildings that owed a debt to the great architecture of both Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Furness and could be found in Boston and Dallas and Denver and Minneapolis and New York and San Francisco. The same thing could be said of skyscraper designs from the 1920s or suburban colonial-style villas or postwar glass office towers. In each case, the time marks the buildings far more than the place. We might say the same about the form of cities. San Francisco and Los Angeles are both in California, but they could not be more different, less because of their geography than because San Francisco is a city of the nineteenth century and Los Angeles a city of the twentieth. And I was recently in Dubai, a city that, to its great detriment, bears the mark of its time, the twenty-first century, far more than the mark of its place, the Middle East.
Technology, of course, also plays an enormous role in determining the architecture of an era. People have always built what technology allowed them to build, whether it was the columns of Greek architecture, the arches and viaducts of Roman architecture, the flying buttresses that supported Gothic cathedrals, the high domes of the Renaissance, or the steel frames that made the first skyscrapers possible. The Metropolitan Life Tower in New York, which was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1909 until the Woolworth Building was finished four years later, is a close copy of the campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice. But it is vastly bigger, and it is not hard to tell that there is a modern skyscraper underneath that fancy garb, just as there is under the Gothic tracery of the Woolworth Building. Pushing technology to the limits defines the swooping concrete forms Eero Saarinen designed in the late 1950s, such as the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport and the Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale, both of which seem primitive beside the more flamboyant and sculptural buildings produced some forty years later by Frank Gehry. Gehry buildings like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which could not have been produced without the aid of computers, carry the invention of form far beyond what Saarinen and others could do a generation ago. More recently still, the computer has given us a whole genre of buildings known as “blob architecture,” with strange, amoeba-like shapes that clearly reflect the computerized origin of their designs. Now, that takes us a long way from buildings that look like Greek temples, obviously. But my point is to say that almost all architecture, whether or not it reflects technology in its form, takes advantage of it in its innards, further underscoring its connection to a time. Whatever else you can say about technology, it is often much more revealing of a building’s time than aesthetics is.
So we do build for a time, and of a time; we just don’t build in a “style for the time.” We cannot hide a building’s time, nor should we try. If the modernists were wrong in thinking of time as meaning only style, classicists are sometimes wrong in suggesting that time doesn’t mean much at all. Time means a huge amount. It affects the engineering and the technology of what we build, as I’ve said, but it also affects the cultural context. A classical building put up now isn’t the same as a classical building put up in the nineteen twenties. It may be using the same language, and it may even be trying to say a similar thing in that language, but it still feels a little different, just the way a romantic love poem written today, however earnest and well-meaning it may be, and however well done, is inevitably going to come off as different from a romantic love poem written in 1910.
One of the key points of Why Architecture Matters, I should say, is the argument it makes against style. I suppose if there is any key point to this book, other than it being a testament to the notion that architecture is experiential more than theoretical, it is to say that almost every way in which we might look at a building means more than the style we classify it as. To the extent that we perceive buildings as objects, the proportion and scale and materials in that object mean more than the style. So does light, and how it relates to the building. So does its relationship to its physical context. So does its way of fulfilling what practical function it may have. And so do things that are far less easy to measure and classify, like how it relates to our memories, what thoughts each of us brings to it that connect to the experiences we have had.
By now you’ve figured out, I think, that I am much more interested in what feelings a building evokes in us as we look at it or walk through it or live with it over time than I am about where that building fits into the history and theory of architecture. This book is arranged not chronologically, and not in terms of types of architecture, but in terms of ways in which architecture affects us, or ways in which we think about it. The chapter titles make the point: “Meaning, Culture and Symbol”; “Challenge and Comfort,” which is about the constant tension in architecture between challenging us as art should, and taking care of us, playing a kind of nurturing role that art does not have to do; “Architecture as Object,” which starts with the premise that we have to admit that whatever else a building is, it is also a thing, a physical object in the physical world, and how it looks still means a lot; and then “Architecture as Space,” since it is in the crafting of interior space, the shaping of rooms, that the greatest achievements of many architects lie; and “Architecture and Memory,” which is one of my favorite parts of this book, in part because it is the most personal—it talks about how each of us has our own formative memories of architecture, whether from childhood or adolescence or young adulthood—but how we also have a shared cultural memory of architecture, established through films and literature and art, and how the personal and the shared memories continually play off against each other. My first memories of architecture were of growing up in New Jersey, and I know that the town in which I grew up played a critical role in establishing my own sense of things. My family’s house did, but so did the entire town. So did the Yale campus and New Haven, and so, needless to say, did New York.
After that comes a chapter called “Buildings and Time,” which is not the same as “Architecture and Memory”; it is about how buildings themselves change over time, and so do our attitudes about them. In this section I talk a fair amount about historic preservation, and about how so many buildings aren’t understood in their own times, and even less in the times immediately after. It often takes a generation or more for a building to find its proper place, and even then, future generations will see things differently.
The book ends with a chapter called “Buildings and the Making of Place,” and that is maybe the most important, because it talks about foreground buildings and background buildings, and about how you can’t really look at a building outside of its context, how context sometimes defines architecture. And if I have learned anything in my years of looking at buildings, it is that in a town or city, or even a village, the street matters more than the building. You can have a wonderful, civilized place with a lot of decent but not great buildings, working together. But you can’t make a civilized town if the buildings do not work together, however great some of them may be. Buildings in a town or a village are a wonderful metaphor for the meaning of community, because they all depend on each other, and together they can create a whole that none of them can make on its own.
So that, in summary, is Why Architecture Matters. Architecture is about the making of place, and the making of memory. Architecture gives us joy if we are lucky, and it gives us satisfaction and comfort, but it also connects us to our neighbors, since the architecture of a town or a city is the physical expression of common ground. In an age when so many of our contacts are virtual, when we often live in the virtual world of computers, architecture is a constant reminder of the urgency, of the meaning, and of the value of the real. Buildings are not just inanimate objects; they are occasions for human contact, and shapers of human contact, which makes them a living part of our world.
One of the chapters in this book is called “Architecture and Memory,” which is a rumination on all of this, and on the way in which personal experience and memory, along with broader cultural memories of architecture from film and literature and art, all shape how we perceive buildings.