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Architecture and New Haven

International Festival of Arts and Ideas, New Haven
June 24th, 2010

Thank you. It is especially pleasing to be here, once again in this wonderful building by Louis Kahn—well, technically we are not in the building by Louis Kahn, but an appendage of it added underground much later, but for now let’s overlook that technicality, since the Yale Art Gallery, at least the Kahn sections of it, is one of those structures that in and of itself does seem to be an answer to the question of why architecture matters. In fact, we could say that architecture matters because it brings us buildings like this one, and leave the discussion at that. I’m not going to leave it at that, in part because it’s a little early to go home and I assume that you are expecting a slightly longer talk than two sentences, but also because I do have to confess to a slightly more complicated relationship to this building, and in fact to all of the Yale campus, which has a lot to do with the central ideas in Why Architecture Matters, the new book whose title I’ve appropriated as a title for this talk.

I was lucky enough to have been a student at Yale, and I came to New Haven, in part, because of buildings like this one, and the Art and Architecture building just up Chapel Street, and the Ingalls hockey rink, and so on, those modernist buildings that were known throughout the country, and had even gotten on the radar screen of a high school student in suburban New Jersey who had an irrationally extreme interest in architecture. I won’t say that the modernist postwar buildings of Yale were the sole reason I wanted very much to come here, but they were definitely a big part of the reason. Anyway, I was lucky enough to get my wish, and I came to New Haven, and there they were, and they were fine. Well, almost fine. It took me a while to get the hockey rink, which for a long time I thought was silly and self-indulgent, a funny shape that had nothing to do with what was around it. Well, it is a funny shape that has nothing to do with what is around it, but it is very good anyway, even though I will admit that I had to grow up a lot more before I understood how good it was. Anyway, the point is that in general, I liked these buildings that had attracted me to Yale.

But then I saw that there was a lot of other architecture on the Yale campus, and it was not the stuff architects talked about. It was the stuff that architects, at least back then, liked to pretend didn’t exist. They certainly didn’t consider it serious architecture. I’m referring, of course, to the buildings that were not modern—Harkness Tower and the colleges, all the Gothic and Georgian buildings that were, to a modernist, nothing but silly, pretentious, fatuous and hollow stage sets. But if they were so silly and pretentious and fatuous and hollow, I thought—well, then, how come I liked them so much? Was I silly, pretentious, fatuous and hollow?

I don’t think so—or at least I hope not—but in any event much of my time in New Haven was spent trying to come to terms with why, and how, I liked these buildings that architects were not supposed to like. I knew I didn’t like them because I believed that it was absolutely necessary to follow historical style, since I continued to like all the modern buildings that I had expected to like. I had no feeling, in other words, that following historical style was the right and moral thing to do, any more than I felt that modernism was the right and moral thing to do. The whole issue of architecture and morality was a sham, I came to realize: the two had nothing to do with each other, or at least they had nothing to do with the question of stylistic choice. If there are moral and ethical issues in architecture, they have to do with creating social benefit from buildings, not with choice of architectural style.

My grappling with this, and the conclusions I came to, led first to my senior thesis, which was on the work of James Gamble Rogers, the architect of so much that is wonderful in the Yale campus, including Harkness Tower, a great many of the colleges, and Sterling Library and the law school. It was written at a time when this architecture was still considered somewhat beneath contempt by many architects, although others were beginning to come around to recognize the critical fact, which was that Rogers, like so many of the eclectic American architects of the first half of the twentieth century, was very, very good. There may be innocence in buildings like Branford and Saybrook Colleges and the Harkness Tower and Berkeley and Trumbull and Jonathan Edwards College, but there is also an extraordinary sophistication. We might say that these are buildings in which innocence rises to a kind of heroic grandeur, and it has a very different quality from the self-indulgence that characterizes so much other purely historicist architecture. The historical replication in these Yale buildings isn’t like that of the pseudo-Mediterranean villas or shingled McMansions put up by real estate developers: these are truly heroic statements, more like the Woolworth Building or Grand Central Terminal or the New York Public Library, buildings that bespeak a potent civic presence, not to mention a visual magnificence.

James Gamble Rogers understood scale and proportion and light and mass and space and movement, and he knew that all of these things, in the end, were what mattered, not style per se. He saw architecture as experience, not theory: he was interested in how a building felt as we moved through it, and he brilliantly choreographed that experience. And that, I realized only many years later, formed the beginning of the way of looking at things that I have tried to pull together more recently in Why Architecture Matters.

I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but we’re not really here to talk about the Yale campus, but in a broader way about why architecture matters. Actually, I guess thinking about how architecture affects us is what I’ve been trying to do for most of my professional life, so the only difference now is that I have tried to put it between the covers of a book. Why Architecture Matters is an attempt to figure out what underlies a life spent thinking about and writing about architecture, to try and put into words all of the ideas that I have taken for granted for most of my life. It is, I might add, a relatively short book—shorter than the other book that I also published this past fall, Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture, which is a collection of my pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Since Why Architecture Matters is shorter, of course it took a lot longer to write—you remember that old line about how if I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter. Well, this book is my shorter letter, the summary, and an attempt to explain how I see things, how I look at buildings, and, I hope, to give readers some help in seeing and appreciating buildings for themselves.

I feel a certain need to explain this book, in part because it isn’t a book that fits into any normal category of architecture book. It isn’t a history, definitely—there are plenty of architecture histories around, and I didn’t feel like writing another one. It isn’t a fancy coffee table book with glossy color photographs, either, so while it may not be ornate or expensive enough to adorn your coffee table, it has a comfortable, manageable, attractive size, so it is my hope that unlike many architecture books, this one will actually get read. To continue with what Why Architecture Matters is not, it isn’t a guide to architectural styles, either—there are enough of those around, too, and some of them are pretty good. And by the same token it isn’t an architectural dictionary, though it does have a glossary in the back. My view is that if you want to know what constitutes Georgian or classical or Gothic architecture, or what a pilaster or a pediment is—well, you can always look it up. I don’t remember myself all the time what the difference is between an architrave and an entablature. That’s what those other kinds of books are for, or Google, for that matter.

What this book is for is the stuff you can’t look up—the feelings, the emotions, the personal connections we feel toward architecture, the way it affects us. I’m sure all of you have heard at one time or another that celebrated quote from Sir Winston Churchill to the effect that “we shape our buildings, and afterward, our buildings shape us.” I think that Why Architecture Matters is really, at bottom, an attempt to explain that Churchill quote, to figure out why and how it is so—how we shape our buildings, and how they, in turn, shape us, what makes one thing affect us one way and another affect us another way, why you may have liked the Knights of Columbus Building while I thought Harkness Tower did more for the New Haven skyline, why you responded more to Wooster Square than St. Ronan Street, why some things about your elementary school are more firmly etched into your consciousness than certain things about the office you work in every day as an adult; and how buildings are not always the same as we remember them, how they, like we, change over time; and finally, how buildings work together to create a larger sense of place.

Now, 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. I don’t focus entirely on buildings like these in this book, but I do talk about them because I don’t buy the notion that there is such a thing as a clear line that can be drawn between serious architecture and ordinary buildings. “A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is architecture,” wrote the art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, but so what? 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.

It is impossible to think seriously about architecture today and not think about the built environment as a whole. That’s really what I’m trying to say here. 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 of strip malls that surrounds us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but I don’t really think that Pevsner’s academic distinction is of much use to us any longer—if it ever was.

Many of the architectural things we love best, and care for the most, are not of course works of art at all. Vernacular architecture, the unself-conscious, ordinary architecture of the everyday landscape, hovers over this book, I confess, like an old aunt, unsophisticated but with great natural wisdom, and deeply beloved for it. It is difficult not to cherish the tile-roofed, white houses of the Mediterranean, the shingled cottages of New England, the brick commercial buildings of the main streets of Midwestern American cities. There is something in the way human beings are designed that reacts well to some shapes and not others, and these time-tested vernaculars reflect not only climactic and cultural conditions of their areas but also these inherently appealing shapes. Forget, for a moment, the vexing issue of McDonald’s and the highway strip. What eye does not love a red-painted barn in a sloping meadow? It is both intrinsically attractive as a form and soothing as a symbol of a comfortable, ordered life. So, too, is it with a row of Italianate brownstones or a small Cape Cod cottage.

It is from the ordinary that we build perceptions and establish a foundation on which to appreciate and understand more ambitious forms of art. These things–architectural memories, we can call them–are the subject of chapter 5. Such buildings ground us. But they are folk melodies, not symphonies, and it is the point of this chapter to look more carefully at what we mean when we elevate architecture to the highest realm of art, and how the experience of looking at architecture as art differs from the experience of looking at buildings constructed in any vernacular, whether it is the nearly sublime vernacular of the New England barn or the more problematic architecture of the contemporary landscape of strip and sprawl.

It is no easier to say what makes a work of architecture succeed as art than to say what makes a great painting or great music. We are innately conservative; we are most comfortable with what we already know, and the omnipresence of vernacular building makes this even more the case with architecture than with literature or music. Yet every so often come innovations so powerful that they force their way through and make us see the world differently. These changes may be small; the notion that art, even great art, creates epiphanies is more the stuff of overblown memoirs than real life. Rare is the life that is transformed by exposure to a single work of art. Yet art does change us, through exhilaration, shock, and a heightened sense of possibility. And once we have felt these, we are no longer the same.

Kahn, the greatest American architect since Frank Lloyd Wright, used to speak of great art not as the fulfillment of a need–“need is just so many bananas,” he liked to say–but of the fulfillment of desire. Desire, not need, leads to great art, Kahn said–but when the artistic achievement is great enough, it becomes a new need. The world didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Kahn said, until he wrote it. And after that, no one who ever heard it could conceive of living without it. We began to need Beethoven, not because of an innate need to do so, but because Beethoven’s own desire, manifested in his art, made it so.

And as with the Fifth Symphony, the world was never again the same after Michelangelo’s David, or Hamlet, or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or The Wasteland. And so, too, with the Pyramids and Chartres Cathedral and Wright’s Unity Temple and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Kahn’s own Salk Institute or a hundred other great buildings that have expanded our sense of human possibility.

Now, expanding a sense of human possibility is a lovely notion, but as a definition of great architecture it is vague and unsatisfying, and not only because there are disturbing as well as uplifting ways in which human possibility can be expanded–the discovery of germ warfare, for example, is not the same as the making of a work of art. Yet even left to its positive connotations, this phrase suggests a kind of well-meaning, New Age mission in which art provides a kind of warm bath, full of intellectual and spiritual uplift. Art–art of all kinds, not just architecture–exists to challenge, not to coddle. It often expands human possibility in ways that are hard to understand and are troubling, even shocking, to experience. Art, at its most important, is not merely a matter of looking at beautiful things. It can be difficult and disturbing. It forces us to see things differently, in part by breaking the mold of what has come before.

The new is often hard to accept; it can seem ugly or coarse. It is only seldom seen as beautiful. “I do not think of art as Consolation. I think of it as Creation. I think of it as an energetic space that begets energetic space,” wrote Jeanette Winterson, who in another context observed, “The most conservative and least interested person will probably tell you that he or she likes Constable. But would our stalwart have liked Constable in 1824 when he exhibited at the Paris Salon and caused a riot? . . . To the average eye, now, Constable is a pretty landscape painter, not a revolutionary who daubed bright color against bright color ungraded by chiaroscuro. We have had 150 years to get used to the man who turned his back on the studio picture, took his easel outdoors and painted in the rapture of light. It is easy to copy Constable. It was not easy to be Constable.”

Nor was it easy to be Joyce, or Stravinsky, or Juan Gris–or Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe or Louis Kahn or Robert Venturi or Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid. In each case, artists have broken through convention and changed our notions of what a culture can produce. Their breakthroughs now please us and, if they remain as potent as they should, thrill us. Yet they were almost always initially unpopular and vastly misunderstood. And now it is not possible to imagine our culture without the things their passions made possible.

When architecture is art, it does not escape the obligation to be practical, and its practical shortcomings should not be forgiven. At least not entirely. Yet neither should practical matters play the dominant role in making judgments. It is churlish to complain that Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses leak or that Le Corbusier’s weather badly or that Frank Gehry’s are difficult to construct, all of which may be more or less be true, but what of it? That leaky roof is not your problem or mine, and neither is the fact that we might not wish to live in such a building ourselves. Le Corbusier’s extraordinary Villa Savoye, completed in 1929 in Poissy, a suburban outside of Paris, was the subject of angry exchanges between the architect and Madame Savoye, who considered the house “uninhabitable,” though she lived in it for more than a decade. Her discomfort is understandable, as was the anger felt toward Mies van der Rohe by Edith Farnsworth, who like the Savoyes commissioned one of the greatest houses of the twentieth century and, once living in it, found it woefully impractical.

The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth were unlucky because they had to live with a work of art at every moment, a nearly impossible task. The rest of us have the luxury of looking at these houses only when we want to. Some people, of course, are capable only of looking at houses in practical terms. When Philip Johnson’s Glass House, completed in 1949, was new, a pretentious woman who visited this then-shocking piece of modern architecture turned to its owner and said, “Very nice, but I couldn’t live here.”

“I haven’t asked you to, Madam,” was Johnson’s reply.

Exactly. And if we are lucky enough to be able to appreciate Building X or Building Y as a purely aesthetic experience, regardless of its usefulness, so much the better. Yes, the roof leaked in the Villa Savoye, but it didn’t leak on you or me; and the glass walls of the Farnsworth House and its lack of screens did indeed make it exceedingly difficult to live in during the summer, but you and I were not trying to sleep there. As no man is a hero to his valet, few great houses are uplifting works of art to the people who live in them: these people are simply too close, and because they are there at every moment, they have no choice but to think of comfort. The rest of us can think of challenge, and of beauty, and treat them as works of genius, which are often incompatible with the demands of daily life. We enjoy the freedom of adventuring among masterpieces, to paraphrase Anatole France’s definition of a critic’s work, and keep in mind that the greatest joy of architecture is in the discovery of its ability to be art.

The point I am trying to make is that the notion of challenge that is so closely bound to the experience of art presents a particular dilemma so far as architecture is concerned, for architecture is necessarily ill at ease, if not incompatible, with it. If great art exists to challenge rather than coddle–or, in Jeanette Winterson’s terms, as creation rather than as consolation–then what of architecture’s obligation to provide shelter and comfort? Unlike art or literature, architecture must protect us from the elements, and it is omnipresent within our view. It must, in some way, console us, for its job is to protect us. We cannot live with architecture as constant challenge, any more than we can approach James Joyce as escape reading or treat John Cage as elevator music. Art demands attention, and architecture’s constant presence in our lives makes constant attention to it impossible. This is actually true of every kind of architecture, from buildings that are designed only for comfort to the ones designed mainly to challenge us. Everyday architecture gives us some license to ignore it, to think of it as a kind of background hum, to be noticed only when it is exceptionally big, exceptionally ugly or exceptionally beautiful. Most of the architecture that surrounds us we barely see; in architecture, familiarity often breeds not contempt but complacency.

The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth would have been happy to settle for complacency, I suspect. It is no wonder that they were not happy. Even without leaky roofs and too much hot sun, it is difficult to live within a work of art every day of your life. The Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth chose their architects and approved their plans, of course, but that is beside the point; it merely adds a level of irony to their distress. Owners of houses by Frank Lloyd Wright speak of feeling Wright’s presence at every moment, and they are not talking in spiritual or ghostly terms. They mean that every aspect of their houses is so powerfully shaped by Wright’s aesthetic that they feel he is directing their movements and their feelings as they try to go about their daily lives. Most Wright owners are fiercely loyal to their houses, but it is not surprising that they seek a break from time to time from his relentless presence in their lives.

Architecture that has been designed to be a constant presence in our lives can also raise expectations far too high; even if it does not create the anguish felt by the Savoyes and Edith Farnsworth or force itself unceasingly on us like Wright, it still seems to dangle before us a kind of ideal world, an aesthetic perfection that can all too easily be taken to feel like a salve for other wounds and a promise of perfection in other aspects of life. It is not, of course, so. Perfect architecture does not make our lives perfect. “The noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin,” the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in his book The Architecture of Happiness. “Even if we could spend the rest of our lives in the Villa Rotunda or the Glass House, we would still often be in a bad mood.”

Architecture is balanced, precisely and precariously, between art and practicality. These needs do not precede art and they do not follow it; they are not subservient to it and they are not superior to it. Each aspect of architecture coexists, and every work of architecture must to a greater or lesser degree take them all into account. Vitruvius, writing in ancient Rome around 30 BC, set out the three elements of architecture as “commodity, firmness, and delight,” and no one has done better than this tripartite definition, for it cogently sums up the architectural paradox: a building must be useful while at the same time it must be the opposite of useful, since art—delight, in Vitruvian parlance—by its very essence has no mundane function. And then, on top of all of that, a building must be constructed according to the laws of engineering, which is to say that it must be built to stand up.

Vitruvius presents these conflicting realities of architecture not as a paradox but as a matter of coexistence; the real message that Vitruvius conveys is that they are interdependent. They all need each other. The builders of the pyramids, the Greek temples, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals were all engineers as much as architects; to them these disciplines were one. So, too, with Brunelleschi and his Duomo in Florence, or Michelangelo at St. Peter’s. In our time, the disciplines have diverged, and engineers are not architects. But every great structure of modern times, from Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is a product of engineers as much as architects; without firmness, there will be no delight. All three elements of architecture are essential.

So architecture is art and it is not art; it is art and it is something more, or less, as the case may be. This is its paradox and its glory, and always has been: art and not art, at once. Architecture is not like a painting or a novel or a poem; its role is to provide shelter, and its reality in the physical world makes it unlike anything else that we commonly place in the realm of art. Unlike a symphony, a building must fulfill a certain practical function—giving us a place to work, or to live, or to shop or to worship or to be entertained—and it must stand up. But a building is not at all like other things that we place in the realm of the practical but that may have aesthetic aspirations, such as an airplane, an automobile, or a cooking pot. For we expect a work of architecture, when it succeeds in its aesthetic aims, to be capable of creating a more profound set of feelings than a well-designed toaster.

And because architecture is always there, presenting itself to us even when we do not seek it out or even choose to be conscious of it, it makes sense to think about it in slightly different terms from the way in which we might discuss, say, Baroque music or Renaissance sculpture, which is to say that it makes sense to consider it not only in terms of great masterpieces but also in terms of everyday experience. Architecture is a part of daily life for all of us, whether or not we want it to be. You may visit Chartres Cathedral as a conscious act of intention, just as you might choose to read Madame Bovary or decide to hear a performance of Beethoven’s late quartets, but you live your life within and around and beside dozens of other buildings, almost none of which you have chosen to be with. Some of them may be masterpieces and some of them may be the architectural equivalent of dime-store novels or elevator music. It is perfectly reasonable to talk about the meaning of literature without talking about Danielle Steel, but can you grapple with the impact of architecture without looking at Main Street?

I don’t think so, which is why I have spent a certain amount of time talking about the way architecture is a matter not only of masterpieces, but also of ordinary, everyday buildings. It is not wrong to say that the greatest buildings provide the greatest moments of architectural experience. Of course they do. They certainly have for me. But I prefer to see architecture not as a sequential story of masterpieces, a saga beginning with the Pyramids and the Parthenon and extending through Chartres and the Taj Mahal and the Duomo and the Laurentian Library and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and then maybe on to the work of Louis Sullivan and Wright and Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn. I’d rather think of it as a continuum of cultural expression. Buildings tell us what we are and what we want to be, and sometimes it is the average ones that tell us the most.

As I said a few minutes ago, 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. That’s the reason that the book Why Architecture Matters is arranged not chronologically, and not in terms of styles of architecture, or building types, 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” is the first; then “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, a sort of rambling, shingle style big gable and a round stone porch, certainly did, but so did the entire town—an unusual place, because it has the football field right in the center, as its symbolic heart, with the Town Hall and the library next to it. You couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the idea of civic symbols. And after that, as I’ve already said, the Yale campus affected me even more, and so did much of the city of New Haven, which as I suspect everyone in this room knows has always offered lessons in urban issues out of proportion to its size. And then, needless to say, came the greatest influence of all for me, which was, and is, New York, which only confirmed the lesson of Yale, which was that style didn’t really matter, and that there could be greatness of experience in all kinds of buildings.

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. You can’t doubt that I believe that given what I said earlier about my own change in attitude about this building, and how I have come to admire it far more than I once did. In this section I also 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. One of the best examples, and one that I use in the book, is the Art and Architecture Building, now Paul Rudolph Hall, just up the street from us here, which, when it was finished in 1963, was briefly the hottest building in the country—it was the Bilbao of its time, you might say—and then fell from favor, rejected as too harsh, too tough, too unforgiving. The building was accorded so little respect that it was repeatedly trashed, and altered badly, and those of you who have been in New Haven a long time will probably remember that it was the victim of a fire as well, now forty years ago. In any case it began to look less and less like the architect had intended it to look. And then, more recently, it was seen through the softer, more forgiving lens of history, and restored. When it reopened last year, it looked better than it ever had, and softer, and you realized it wasn’t quite as tough and mean as it was said to be.

The Yale architecture building is just one of many sagas of a building changing over time. Buildings change physically, and our attitudes toward them change. Think of how different a place like, say, Levittown is now from the way it appeared in the nineteen-fifties. It once looked new, and depressingly uniform. Now it has a patina of time—well, patina is maybe too elegant a word, but it shows the passage of time. And over the years people have altered and expanded and changed their houses every which way, so it no longer seems to bespeak the dull conformity that it once did. So you can see how our relationship to buildings and places is a continual, dynamic process, never-ending.

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. But of course architecture makes context, too. That’s a hard concept for some people to understand, although I think we get it more easily in New York than in most places, since anyone can see, on 69th Street or on Madison or on Park Avenue how buildings never exist in isolation, how interdependent they are, and how the whole is always more than the sum of the parts in a town or a village. Everything connects. 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. That may seem like heresy for an architecture critic to say, that the street matters more than the individual building. But you can have a wonderful, civilized place with a lot of decent but not great buildings, working together. And 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. It is what we share, if only because the architecture of a community is one of the few forms of experience that everyone partakes in: the sharing of place. And architecture is also an expression of time in an age when we are all too often bereft of a sense of time, bereft of the feeling that some things that surround us have been there for a long time and will be there for a long time to come. And, perhaps most important of all, 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 they are shapers of human contact, which makes them a living part of our world.

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