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10.08.2012
A Call to Critical Arms
Paul Goldberger wins Scully Prize, speech to focus on the need for expertise in media.
Paul Goldberger.
Courtesy National Building Museum

It’s been a dizzying year for readers who follow architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Recently deposed as architecture critic at The New Yorker, he quickly rebounded as a Vanity Fair contributing editor, giving the glossy additional gravitas. Now the National Building Museum has added Goldberger to its illustrious roster of Vincent Scully Prize winners. The award carries a purse of $40,000. “I don’t know that I’ll ever be on another list that includes Prince Charles and Jane Jacobs,” Goldberger told AN.

The first Scully award went to its namesake, Vincent Scully, professor emeritus of art history at Yale. In a statement, Goldberger recalled the influence Scully had on him at Yale: “In a very real way I owe my career to the lessons I learned from him, which is why, for me, there could be no higher honor than to receive the prize that carries his name.”

The Scully jury seems to have taken a shining to many a Yalie. Though awarded fourteen times—on occasion to multiple partner firms like Venturi Scott Brown Associates—sixteen individuals have taken home the prize. Eleven have some had some affiliation with the university. They’ve either gone there, taught there, or, in the case of the Aga Khan, given part of his award money to the institution. It’s a clubby little group with Goldberger himself having served on the Scully jury from 1999–2005.

The speech Goldberger plans to deliver at the museum on November 15 will no doubt stir the kind of applause that famously followed his mentor’s lectures at Yale. The address will hit on themes that many in the profession have been mulling over for the course of this tumultuous year in the architectural press: the state of architecture criticism, the changing role of mainstream media in a digital world, and the rise of citizen journalists.

“It’s a paradox about the great degree of interest in architecture and yet a diminishing amount of outlets,” Goldberger said, wondering out loud whether the buzz in social media is the equivalent of what is being lost in the general media. He added that it’s a complex issue when a mass of voices drown out the opinion of the specialist. “There is a profound value to expert guidance,” he said.

The very heart of his career is based on sharing architecture with a mass audience in an unpretentious manner, and Goldberger, an avid Tweeter, said he wouldn’t consider reversing course. “My whole life has been trying to communicate to a broader general audience—that’s the most important thing of all to me,” he said. “But I feel that things have gone too far—crowdsourcing doesn’t always bring you where you want to be.”

He paraphrased literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn’s belief that the critic’s first allegiance is to his subject and not his readers. “Democracy is a great thing but it doesn’t always lead to the best architectural decisions,” he said. “Committees can make things happen, but they can’t create works of art.”

Tom Stoelker