The Closing: Paul Goldberger

The Pulitzer-prize winning critic on battling with Shell,
buying at the Dakota in the ‘70s and celebrity architecture

May.May 01, 2015 12:58 PM

Paul Goldberger (Photo: STUDIO SCRIVO)

From two golden perches — at the New York Times and the New Yorker — the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic has taken on structures such as Frank Gehry’s tower at 8 Spruce Street, which he called “one of the most beautiful towers Downtown,” and Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome in London, which he referred to as a “Big Top.” He also took on two projects in Silicon Valley: Foster + Partners’ headquarters for Apple and Gehry’s nearby campus for Google, about which he asked: “The real question is whether, for all their ambition, they will do much to change the underlying suburban culture.” A former dean of the Parsons School of Design, Goldberger is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has written more than a dozen books, including “Why Architecture Matters” (2009), as well as a biography of Frank Gehry, titled “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry,” to be published in September 2015. He won his Pulitzer at the Times in 1984 for distinguished architecture criticism.

Name: Paul Goldberger
Born: December 4, 1950
Hometown: Nutley, New Jersey
Marital status: Married 35 years

What were you like as a kid?

Somewhat into books. Into cars, into buildings, into building things and into writing. I was editor of my high school newspaper.

What was your first job?

My first job ever was at a dye manufacturing plant in [Nutley] during the summer when I was 15. The following summer I got a job at the weekly paper in town, the Nutley Sun.

How did you end up writing about architecture?

I majored in art and architecture history at [Yale University] and when I had a chance to work for the New York Times after college, it seemed like a very good thing to do.

How did you get in at the Times?

[At the Nutley Sun], I wrote about this white militant vigilante leader who was trying to arm whites to fight back against blacks. A friend of my parents, who was an editor at Time, was visiting for dinner, and he encouraged me to send a letter to the New York Times Magazine, proposing this story. I did, and they said yes. They didn’t know I was 18.

How much did they pay you for the article?

$400, and let me tell you, in 1968-69 it was a fortune.

And the Times offered you a job after graduation?

It was actually not my first choice. My first choice was a fellowship to the University of Cambridge, but I didn’t get it. I’m not going to be falsely modest. I think I was a very good writer, especially for a kid, but there’s also a lot of luck that comes into it.

What was your first apartment in New York City?

It was a tiny apartment in a brownstone on West 69th. In the mid-’70s, I bought a one bedroom at the Dakota for $42,000.

How much did you ultimately sell it for?

$225,000. And then we bought an apartment in the San Remo. [Goldberger currently lives in another classic apartment on Central Park West.] I’ve been lucky about [living in] incredible buildings. In the mid-1970s people thought you were crazy to live in New York City. [Buying real estate] was like buying Microsoft or Apple stock at the very beginning.

How did you celebrate winning the Pulitzer?

We got the news on the first night of Passover. There was definitely a reason that night was different than all other nights.

What’s the strangest professional situation you’ve found yourself in?

A few years ago, I was asked to do an interview for a documentary film about Masdar, a new city in Abu Dhabi, which is being built as a model for sustainability and low energy. It appeared on the Discovery Channel and I forgot about it completely. A few months ago, I started getting calls from people saying, I didn’t know you were a spokesperson for Shell Oil. It turns out Shell had put the money up for the documentary and had taken my interview and just cut a clip out and put it into a commercial. It put me in an extremely awkward and embarrassing situation. I hired a lawyer and so far I have not succeeded in getting anywhere. But I will not ever sign a release without reading it again.

When you see a building, do you have an immediate reaction?

There’s an instant feeling of ‘this works, this doesn’t work.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever changed my mind 180 degrees, but it can certainly move on the scale once I really dig deeper.

Any examples?

I have a lot of concerns about the new supertall, super-thin towers. The more I dug into [Extell Development’s] One57, the less I liked it. The more I looked into [Macklowe Properties’] 432 Park Avenue, the more I liked it. I still have concerns about what it represents sociologically and culturally, but if you look at 432 Park individually, and you look at [JDS Development’s] 111 West 57th Street, those are actually very impressive and remarkable buildings.

Do you socialize with any architects or developers?

It’s impossible not to encounter people socially. Generally the ones I’m friendlier with are younger ones who I enjoy talking with and sharing stories with, not ones whose work I’m likely to write about. I try to keep those things apart.

What developer does consistently good work?

Gerry Hines. He is 90, he’s still around. The company, Hines, is still an international leader in developing serious and architecturally ambitious buildings.

How do you deal with criticism?

No one loves being critiqued. If it’s smart and respectful and teaches me something, I’m OK with it. If it’s nasty and personal, I’m not.

How do you feel about the term “starchitect”?

It’s an annoying term. Celebrity has permeated so much of our culture, including architecture. That said, it’s a reminder of greater public engagement in architecture. … The most exciting, intellectually engaging and culturally meaningful things still are generally works of individual creation.

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