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Why Architecture Matters

Cleveland Museum of Art
September 15th, 2010

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here, back in this extraordinary institution, especially at a time when you are doing so much with it, or to it. The refurbished galleries of ancient art mark an important moment here in the larger saga of this museum, which is unlike any other art museum in the country, I think. There are several reasons for this. One, of course, is quality: Cleveland is one place that has always stood for artistic quality, and generally managed to put curatorial concerns ahead of many of the other things that museums these days seem so desperately to want. Cleveland has always seemed, to me, to be a place in which art has mattered most, in which the concerns of art, as opposed to the concerns of box office or the concerns of event planning or the concerns of shopping or the concerns of eating, all of which play a larger and larger role in the decisions made by museum boards of trustees today. At the same time, this has always seemed to be to be a museum that is firmly grounded in the real world. It is not a stuffy institution that naively, or disingenuously, pretends that it is still serving the world as it existed in 1916, when the first wing of this building opened.

The reality is that all of the things that I just mentioned, and appeared to dismiss—box office and shops and event spaces—are not entirely bad, however problematic they can sometimes be, and it is as foolish to reject them entirely as it is to give in to everything they represent. The reality is that today, art is more democratic than it has ever been, and we have to believe that this is a good thing. If we did not, I should be in another line of work, and probably so should a lot of other people in this room. The idea of the museum as a key public space in our culture, as a kind of interior version of Public Square, is a logical and in many ways positive outgrowth of the fact that more people pay attention to art, and more people want to see art, than ever before.

I would add, by the way, that the role the museum plays as a kind of town square, as a place where we see people and expect to have a social as well as a cultural experience, is all the more important today, in an age when so many of our social experiences are virtual, not real. We have so many of our social exchanges, as well as our business transactions, online now, and we experience so many images, including cultural ones, through the computer. There is a special meaning, then, even a special power, to the idea of real things in real space in real time that the museum represents. It is a temple of the authentic in an age of the virtual. If we have chosen to make it also a place in which we can engage in real social exchange as well as experience real objects, there is nothing wrong with that. In each case we are celebrating authenticity, and the pleasures of the real.

In any event, I spoke of a commitment to quality as one thing that makes this museum notable. I think it’s fair to say that architecture is another. The early chapters of this institution’s architectural history are not particularly unusual, although they are good: the original 1916 building by Hubbell and Benes, like so many museums of its time a serious, handsome Beaux Arts work intended to surround art with an aura of dignity, a feeling of protection, and the aura of the classical. The idea back then was clear and unambiguous: that the museum would be a sign of the community’s high level of cultivation. And most of society pretty much agreed on what represented cultivation: an appreciation of the classical in the form of the kind of architecture of the original wings of this museum.

In 1971, of course, when the addition by Marcel Breuer was completed, it was no longer so clear that you could equate classical architecture, or Beaux-Arts architecture, with being cultivated. Sometimes very different priorities took over: the striped building, as I have always tended to call the Breuer building, seemed to deny the original building as much as support it. Those were years when classical buildings were considered like your old aunt—you wouldn’t dare kill her off, but you did have a private view of her as rather tired and somewhat haughty, and so you made it your business to be as little engaged with her as you could possibly get away with. That seems to be how Breuer treated the original building here, flipping the museum around entirely so that it could accommodate to the automobile along with presenting an entirely different architectural face to the community.

Well, we all know that that was a mixed success at best, and that while the Breuer wing had a certain integrity as well as dignity to it, like his Whitney Museum in New York, it was never a particularly easy or endearing building, and it seemed to coexist with the old building mainly by ignoring it. As I think everyone in this room knows, the museum has been working for several years to find a more sophisticated, more subtle, and ultimately more lasting solution to the complex problem of growth and architectural coherence, two things that in the world of museums have too often seemed to contradict one another. Now that portions of the Rafael Vinoly expansion are complete, it is possible to see the beginnings of a return to viewing this complex as a single whole thing, although of course a vastly larger one than it was originally, and a vastly more complex one. The newer wings are lighter than Breuer’s was, and don’t try to match the masonry of the Beaux-Arts with modern stone, but instead respond with glass, letting the original building have the heft, the gravitas one might almost say. And the Vinoly sections offer an intriguing paradox: they seem to me to be more modern in many ways than the Breuer in that they are so light visually, and yet at the same time they seem more compatible, and more deferential, to the 1916 museum building. It is all a reminder that in the business of mixing new and old, few things are as they seem, nothing is easy, and architectural imitation is not by any stretch the sincerest form of flattery.

I spoke a moment ago about the special value of the museum as a place of authenticity, as a place in which real and treasured objects are put before us in what we hope will be a real and treasured environment that encourages not only the contemplation of these objects, but social connections among the contemplators, as it were. In other words, the museum is a treasure house of real things in a real place, very different from the virtual things in virtual places that we spend so much of our time dealing with today. This notion, of course, brings us right to the heart of “Why Architecture Matters,” which just happens to be the title not only of this talk, but also of a new book, as you’ve just heard. Let me say a little bit about that for the next moment or two, and in particular I’ll try to say something about how some of the ideas in the book may relate to the issues of classical architecture, the issues of our architectural inheritance from the time that created the ancient art that fills the galleries now so elegantly re-installed on the first floor of the original museum building.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but since we’re not really here to talk only about the Cleveland Museum, tempting though that might be, let me first try to talk in a broader way about all of this, 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, yes.

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 like the Municipal Stadium while I prefer Jacobs Field, why you responded more to Terminal Tower than to some of the newer skyscrapers downtown, 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.

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.
Now, 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, which sometimes feels 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. 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.

But these things alone, wonderful as they are, are not enough. Great architecture is something else, something that takes us beyond the vernacular. 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. 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 the Parthenon and the Pantheon and Chartres Cathedral and Jefferson’s University of Virginia and Frank Lloyd 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—you could say that the latest devices by which terrorists attack civilization are also forms of expanding human possibility also, but they are grotesque and horrible ones. Yet even if we stay with the 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. It’s important to remember that 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. After that extraordinary Cleveland native Philip Johnson finished his Glass House in Connecticut in 1949, a pretentious woman who visited this new and 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.

It’s impossible to deny, however, 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, then what of architecture’s obligation to provide shelter and comfort? Unlike art or literature, architecture must protect us from the elements. 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.” I love that observation because it reminds us that even the best architecture cannot fix everything.

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, and that talks a lot about the whole idea of architecture as a kind of language, a language largely given to us by the classical tradition, the same tradition out of which the ancient art in the new galleries comes, but also the Beaux-Arts museum building of 1916. In buildings like the original wing of the museum we can see how classical ideas have come down to our time, or to close to our time: through re-invention. The greatest gift the ancient period gave architecture was the creation of a language, a language we call, for want of a better word, classicism, and it is a language so familiar to all of us that we barely think of it, since it is to architecture as English is to our daily conversation. Classicism really is the basic language of western architectural culture. It has gone up and down in popularity, but it has never gone away. In many times in the past—let’s say, eighteenth-century London, to pick one, when classicism evolved into what we call Georgian architecture—it was a language of architectural elements out of which 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. That was its great gift—that everyone could somehow “read” this architectural language, even if they were not educated enough to write in it themselves, so to speak.

So, too, in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century downtown Cleveland, where there was a quality to the commercial buildings and the stores and the churches and the houses that also suggested a common architectural language. It was a language of masonry, redolent with ornament and detail, 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 had reason to walk through its doors. From this common language comes the notion that buildings create an urban fabric—and from that comes the beginning of a civilized environment.

Anyway, to go on, there is also a chapter “Challenge and Comfort,” which is about what I talked about a few minutes ago, 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; then “Architecture as Object,” which starts with the premise that we have to admit that whatever else a building is, it is still very much 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. That is where I talk a certain amount about religious buildings, since it is worth noting that religious buildings seem to fall more naturally into a discussion of space than anything else—after all, we talk a lot about sacred space, but we never talk about sacred facades, or sacred structure.

“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, shingled house with a 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—very different from growing up in a place where the center was a commercial strip with a Wal-Mart. And later, the Yale campus affected me at least as much, and then, of course, New York, probably the greatest influence of all.

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 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 on the Yale campus in New Haven: Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building, now renamed Paul Rudolph Hall in the architect’s honor, a building 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 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—by Charles Gwathmey, in fact, who had been a student of Paul Rudolph’s. When it reopened a year and a half ago, 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. That section also includes a lot of discussion about the whole question of traditional versus modern architecture, and what a false distinction, at least in my mind, it is.

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 Cleveland than in many places, since this city has always had what I consider the ideal downtown, almost a Platonic version of a traditional downtown with the perfectly named Public Square at the center. Public Square not only has a perfect name, it was, at least for a while, a nearly perfect place, both a necessary breathing space in a properly dense downtown, as well as a reminder of how urban public space is quite literally our best as well as our most literal expression of the idea of common ground. And with the great Terminal Tower complex presiding grandly over it, and the magnificent Euclid Avenue heading off beside it, Public Square marked the anchor of what was in many ways one of this country’s most fully developed examples of urbanism. And it remains, I think, for all that has befallen downtown Cleveland, still one of this nation’s most satisfying downtowns, all the more so with the addition of Jacobs Field, one of the best of the current generation of new ballparks, not least because it is one of the most connected to the urban fabric. A downtown with Public Square at one end and Jacobs Field at the other has to be worth saving, whatever else the problems of its city may be.

While we are talking about the idea of a downtown, I should say that 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 the second heretic statement an architecture critic can make, after saying that land sometimes matters more than buildings, to say that the streets often matter more than individual buildings, too. But you can have a wonderful, civilized place with a lot of decent but not great buildings, working together. And conversely, you can’t make a civilized town if the buildings do not work together, even if some of them truly are great. 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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