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Goldberger on Lopate: "Atlantic Yards was and is a mistake" (but might be re-thought over time)

Yesterday's Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC Radio, Why Architecture Matters, was a rebroadcast of an 11/17/09 interview with New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, keyed to his new book of the same name and his book titled Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture, an anthology of criticism, mostly from The New Yorker.

Goldberger, speaking before the eminent domain case had been decided in the Court of Appeals and before the bond sale--both of which have given AY significantly more momentum--said Atlantic Yards "was and is a mistake," given that megaprojects don't do much for street life, and suggested that the silver lining of the recession might give it time to be improved.

Goldberger talked more about the Chrysler Building (on the cover of Why Architecture Matters) and the World Trade Center ( "our first modern architectural martyrs"), making an intriguing point about the latter.

While he never felt good about the Twin Towers, he allowed, "I definitely came to accept them. It's just too hard to hate a building over time. It's just too much effort."

"I think we condition ourselves over time to be slightly numb over time, for certain buildings, because it's just too painful, over time to hate them every moment," he said.

Perhaps the same would be true of the Atlantic Yards arena, should it be built, as seems increasingly likely. In fact, Goldberger likes the redone facade of the arena, as he wrote in September 2009 (my comments), though in October 2006 he criticized the project as a whole (my comments).

Neighborhood issues

At about 13:45, Lopate quoted Goldberger quoting celebrated critic Lewis Mumford: "The great function of the city is to permit, indeed, to encourage and incite, the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges between all people, classes, groups, providing a stage upon which the drama of life may be enacted."

"I wonder whether city planners think in that way, ever," Lopate continued. "For example, the city's still behind the Atlantic Yards project, isn't it? The Municipal Art Society has said it would be a total disaster because it would cut people and neighborhoods off from each other."

"I think city planners do think in terms of streets and neighborhoods perhaps more than they did in the 60s, when the World Trade Center was designed," Goldberger responded. "But we have begun, in the last few years, to almost come full circle, and again fall under the spell--or into the thrall--of gargantuan mega-projects, which generally are in fact destructive of that very street life that Lewis Mumford was talking about, and I think you and I both agree is essential to the city."

They then moved into a discussion of Battery Park City, which does feature streets but is cut off by the West Side Highway, and at 15:42 Goldberger returned to the question.

"No, I think Atlantic Yards was and is a mistake and it's one of the reasons, I suppose--y'know, every silver lining has a cloud, every cloud has a silver lining--and the silver lining of the recession is that that is certainly not going to happen immediately and may give us some time to rethink some of the mistakes," he said.

Streets vs. buildings

At about 17:00, Goldberger made an important point. "Over the years, I've realized that streets are more important than buildings," he said. "The urban experience has to be had on foot."

That goes back to the MAS critique of AY.

Half-cheer for stadiums

Also, at about 31:00, Goldberger declared that neither of the city's two new baseball stadiums are great, but they're better than what they replaced, given that, for example, the predecessor Yankee Stadium was not the original but one regularly modified.

While Goldberger can certainly offer a savvy critique of buildings as buildings, that assessment leaves out the larger public policy questions concerning the process behind and financing of those stadiums--just as he did when assessing the latest design for the AY arena.

More from Goldberger

For those who don't have Golberger's books, his web site links to numerous writings and lectures. Here are a few excerpts.

At the American Planning Association's 100th National Planning Conference in 2008, he said:
This may be the only talk I have ever given on urbanism and cities in which I have not, I just realized, used the phrase “the public realm,” which most of the time when I talk about cities I am probably guilty of over-use, since to me it is the most important defining quality of cities – the sense that they consist mainly of a public realm, whether in the form of streets or squares or parks or civic buildings, and that the private buildings, however large and grand, defer to the public realm and fit into a pattern established by it. In a city, streets matter more than buildings, and the whole is more than the sum of the parts. In the suburbs, the opposite tends to be true, and private values take precedence over public ones.
Planner Alex Garvin has also used the term "public realm," saying that cities should invest in such thinks as streets and transportation systems, and not expect megaprojects to solve pressing needs for infrastructure improvements.

Historic preservation

On historic preservation, in a lecture titled Landmarks Preservation at Forty:
All of these are examples of what one distinguished preservationist, Otis Pratt Pearsall, recently called "preservation fundamentalism." It is a good phrase, because it tells us exactly the problem we are facing a replacement of common-sense, wise judgment with an absolutism, with a belief that the job of the landmarks process is to freeze a place in time. It is not, and fundamentalism has no more place in preservation than it does in religion or public life, where it also replaces balanced, liberal and judicious thinking.

As I said, there are no formulas, and there should not be. The commission should make judgments, and determine reasonable tradeoffs.

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