There are two great thrones in American architectural criticism, that of The New Yorker and The New York Times. It was at these two journalistic institutions that the practice was born, at the hands of its king and queen: Lewis Mumford, that great champion of public works and technics, and Ada Louise Huxtable, still the dean of the design press.
Paul Goldberger has been in the fortunate, indeed unique, position of wearing both crowns. After graduating from Yale, he would find himself at The Times in 1973, a young buck roaming the city he loved, engaged to write just about whatever he thought of the buildings and street life therein. He was, quite literally, heir to Ms. Huxtable, who had not yet been pushed out of the paper for her obstreperous ways, and the two of them shared the job of architecture critic for nearly a decade. Two years after she left in 1982, Mr. Goldberger won the Pulitzer for his efforts.
Thirteen years later, in 1997, he would himself depart one side of Times Square for the other, joining The New Yorker, restoring the Sky Line column begun by Mumford half a century earlier at the behest of Tina Brown. “When I went there, I thought it was as perfect a life as you could have,” Mr. Goldberger told The Observer in an interview Sunday evening, “to spend half your career at The Times, half at The New Yorker.”
But like so many landmarks, from the Parthenon to Penn Station, few endure. Starting today, Mr. Goldberger will board the notorious Condé Nast elevator, but instead of getting off on the 20th floor, he will report to work two floors up, where Graydon Carter has finally poached Mr. Goldberger for Vanity Fair.
“I’ve known Graydon a long time, and this is something he has talked about for awhile,” Mr. Goldberger said. “When he heard I might be leaving the critic’s post at The New Yorker, he called again, and things sort of progressed from there.”
An unofficial announcement has been making the rounds, as first reported by The Architect’s Newspaper, and Mr. Carter praises his latest acquisition as unparalleled, according to a copy obtained by The Observer. “This is an appointment that thrills me profoundly,” Mr. Carter says in the release. “Paul is about as gifted a commentator on architecture, urban planning and design as anyone you’re going to find these days—in other words, he’s just a brilliant writer.” An interview request to Vanity Fair was not immediately returned.
While Mr. Goldberger acknowledged he will miss The New Yorker in some ways, he said it was his decision to leave the magazine, in part so that he would have more time to tackle a biography of Frank Gehry. He said he is very much looking forward to the new possibilities presented by his new publication, for which he has written in the past, “on a one-off basis” starting five years ago. His first effort was a profile of Ralph Lauren, followed by one of Robert A.M. Stern, who had just finished his magisterial 15 Central Park West. (Mr. Goldberger is quick to point out that he reviewed the building for The New Yorker before he wrote about it for the in-house rival.)
“Graydon’s eager to do a broad range of things on design and I’m excited to be doing that,” Mr. Goldberger said. “And I’m not being coy, we haven’t figured out exactly what the parameters are yet, but there will certainly be stories that are design-oriented, not strictly architecture.”
That eagerness is not a small reason for Mr. Goldberger decision to leave The New Yorker for Vanity Fair. “David has, I think it’s fair to say, mixed feelings about the architecture column,” Mr. Goldberger said of New Yorker editor David Remnick. It is a complaint he has aired before, most recently at a panel hosted by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Getting stories into a magazine, especially one that has shrunk considerably in size over the past decade, has become more and more difficult.
Indeed, there has not been a single Sky Line column since September 19 of last year, followed by two blog posts over the next week, and nothing since. Of the 14 pieces written last year, out of a total of 178 (according to The New Yorker‘s online archive) over a 15 year career, only six made it into the magazine—five columns and one Talk piece. Never mind that when you google either “architecture critic” or “architecture criticism,” Mr. Goldberger’s author page at The New Yorker is the second result, after Wikipedia.
Mr. Goldberger professes no animosity toward his former boss, and indeed said this has been one of his best and most productive working relationships. “David was great, just great,” Mr. Goldberger said. “But change is good, too. I love The New Yorker, I like Vanity Fair, and I like the possibilities, which seem a lot broader than at The New Yorker.”
Much of this is to do with the changing nature of publication, at Condé and beyond, the wealth of opinion online, the dearth of magazine pages, and so on. When was the last time you read a Joan Acocella review? And no, not one of those frivolous Critics Notebook pieces in the front of the book—which Ms. Acocella is at least fortunate enough to have to keep her busy every week or two. The answer is mid-January. Alex Ross is a little more lucky, managing a review of classical music at least once a month, plus regular blogging.
Mr. Goldberger is not alone in this, as his chief rival, The Times‘ newly coronated Michael Kimmelman, has been a less regular feature in the newspaper’s pages than many had hoped. But at least The Times, which was criticized for appointing a non-expert to this important post, has not given up on the beat entirely. The New Yorker just may have, as there is no apparent replacement lined up for Mr. Goldberger. Any design writing, be it on IKEA, America’s next top starchitect or tiny houses is likely to appear in the well of the magazine, not the back of the book. As of this publication, Mr. Remnick could not be reached for comment.
The absence of an architecture critic from the hallowed halls of Eustace Tilley Inc. is not actually as wretched as it sounds. Despite the prominence of Mr. Goldberger and Mumford before him, that is nearly the extent of architecture criticism at the magazine. Sure, New Yorker icon Brendan Gill took up the mantel near the end of his career, in the 1980s and ’90s, but like Mr. Kimmelman (and Mumford) he was more of an enthusiast than a professional, like Mr. Goldberger, who has also taught architecture for years and briefly served as the dean of Parsons.
For his part, Mr. Goldberger said he is looking forward to his new gig and the flexibility being a Vanity Fair contributing editor will afford him, particularly to work on that biography of Frank Gehry. “It’s a shitload of work,” Mr. Goldberger said. “I’ve never written anything like this before, and I’m quickly realizing that writing a biography is going to take up a lot of time and energy.”
That said, he still expects to write a number of things for Vanity Fair this year. But with the April issue already on newsstands, and production so many months in advance, how long will we actually have to wait for Mr. Goldberger to file his first piece?
In his first proper review for The Times, a piece on the then-new One Police Plaza published on October 27, 1973, Mr. Goldberger opened dramatically, as he often does: “Designing a building for the city of New York is the sort of nightmare that makes architects wonder why they didn’t go into some easier profession, like neurosurgery.”
The same might be said in some way about the business of architecture criticism these days.