Books for a rainy day: “Why Architecture Matters”

When it rains, read! A stormy Easter weekend in London had me reading  Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger (2009) Yale Press.

a review by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner Abroad | ©2016

Paul Goldberger covers a lot of ground on our most conspicuous art and his thoughts seem particularly relevant to Vancouver’s contemporary architectural and planning debates – from the City’s tall building review process;  to the tower proposal for 555 W Cordova next to the City’s old and much loved train station; the recent Vancouver Art Gallery proposal by Herzog & de Meuron ; to new forms of intensity and density on our arterials; and to new neighbourhood additions. Architecture does matter.

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1 / Meaning, Culture, Symbol

More than shelter, architecture is a conversation between generations that is impossible to tune out. Paul Goldberger is not precious about architecture – he sees all buildings and their context as architecture – from cathedrals to bike sheds. Together buildings and the public places they frame are “Structured-Structuring-Structures” in systems thinking. Sir Winston Churchill puts it plainer: “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.”

In evaluating the success of buildings, Goldberger turns to the famous 1st Century Roman Architect/Engineer Vitruvius who observes the three elements necessary for a well-designed building – all three are at play, in dynamic tension, all the time:

  • Firmness (Engineering – will it stand?)
  • Commodity (will it be useful to its occupants?)
  • Delight (is it also a piece of art for people inside and out?).

Goldberger notes that “to be in architecture is to be engaged with almost everything else as well: culture, society, politics, business, history, family, religion, education” (15). As a planner and developer who leads multidisciplinary teams, this broad generalist view resonates strongly – in this business, you have to know as much about sacrificial steel as you do about fenestration (or at least you have a mixture of curiosity and “intelligent ignorance” that allows you to raise your hand and ask the question!).

2 / Challenge & Comfort

Does Form follow Function?

Goldberger asks which functions are we forgetting or subsuming? The school  or hospital organized for operational efficiency without considering the outcomes for students or patients can be total failures if they do not meet the goals of educating or healing as the case may be. His challenge: “If great architecture exists to challenge rather than coddle [ ], then what of architecture’s obligation to provide shelter and comfort?” (p.52). He takes a humanistic tack and prefers “Evidence Based Design” that measures how a building connects directly to the needs of people who use it (p.55).

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Philip Johnston Glass House (1)

3 / Architecture as Object

No building is a object alone: it has a financial reality, a function, and they send social and political signals and – importantly – they exist in a physical context. Nonetheless, buildings are without a doubt physical objects with 5 facades (including the roof). Goldberger notes that basic geometric shapes and their arrangements are inherently compelling to humans (p.82).

He asks us to consider how the building as object is connected to the other things that surround it (p.71) and he uses I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre as an example of well executed design that addresses function and context with simple geometry and elegant use of materials (contrasted with the example of the more cluttered Las Vegas Luxor hotel with its Darth Vader glass treatment). He concludes“The building that works best is one that is different enough from what might be normally done as to awaken us” (p.107). This is the ‘order of convention combined with the magic of invention’. He notes that ‘ordered surprise’ is an important part of the experience – that feeling of turning a corner and finding something unexpected.


IM Pei’s Louvre Addition (2)


Luxor Las Vegas by Veldon Simpson (2a)

4 / Architecture as Space

Moving from exterior form, architecture also encloses. Windows pull you to the view. Lofted spaces provoke higher thinking. Compressed spaces build suspense (particularly when they open onto something spectacular). The sequence of experiences created by moving through spaces is important. As a designer or developer, you have have to think of the journey people take through your buildings from the approach outside, all the way into the building. Hotel design is the epitome of this – they think of EVERYTHING: volume, the sequence of experience, light, texture, sight, sound, touch, even fragrance …

I am fortunate to be living in London for the moment where I can often pick up a thread of an architecture  or urban design discussion and go and visit the actual place. Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of the places mentioned in Goldberger’s book specifically for Soan’s capacity to create rooms within rooms. The image below is Soan’s breakfast room where the weather and mood of the day is gently received through the windows in the ceiling.


Breakfast Room Soane House London *

5 / Architecture and Memory

Here Goldberger takes us back to the places of his childhood and implicitly invites us to contemplate our own. I am taken back to the architecture of the Caribbean where I spent my formative years, and later Toronto and London (Ontario), Vancouver my home for 25 years, and my last 3 years here in London.

My favourite place in London these days is Kings Cross  – a hub for my frequent travels to work on a mixed use rental development in Edinburgh. Kings Cross is a serious transportation node and an impressive wider piece of urban regeneration but it is also a meeting place with some cozy pubs and restaurants. Across the street, St. Pancras station was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s by committed heritage advocates and given a £800M renovation, completed in 2007.

Kings Cross

Kings Cross Station, London *

6 / Buildings and time

We change. Buildings change. Culture Changes. History happens. Materials and technology changes. Building codes change. Fashion is made over the short term; heritage over the long.

Goldberger observes that Europe generally handles heritage better because they have more old buildings: “great older buildings can take some pushing and pulling and can in fact be enriched by participating in a dialogue between their own time and ours”. That is my experience of London – my favourite places are those that have been stitched back together like the Japanese Wabi Sabi Cup below. Sir Norman Foster’s treatment of the Natural History Museum is similar to the Kings Cross retrofit.


Source: Foster & Partners – Natural History Museum (4)

wabi sabi

Japanese Wabi Sabi Cup (5)

I also appreciate better now after my years here in London the small intimate and sometimes gritty spaces and how beautifully they can be renovated – places like Carnaby Street with it’s retail and restaurants, and Shad Thames, with it’s grittier edge.


Carnaby Street, London *

Shad Thames

Shad Thames, London (6)

Speaking of the tough decision to tear something of value out of the urban fabric, he suggests that if something valued is to be lost, there should be an expectation that something equally valued will replace it.

7 / Buildings and the making of place

This chapter seems particularly relevant for Vancouver at this moment in its urban history. Goldberger suggests that  streets matter more than buildings for placemaking. He quotes the great modernist architect Louis Kahn, who observed “the Street is a room by agreement”.


The best streets have great background buildings 

  • Similar scale and form in relation to the human form
  • Similar use of materials
  • Sense of responsibility to the street
  • They face the street and are organized for the benefit of people
  • Still plenty of room by for architectural expression
  • The whole is more than the sum of its parts

Special locations offer opportunities for foreground buildings:

  • Reserved for special places
  • Stand out not through an indifference about what surrounds, but rather by a design rooted in a deep understanding of context

The bulk of coffee table marketing material  I see today seems increasingly to describe every new building as iconic. How can this be? I take from Goldberger’s book, the need to remember the basics of great performance for background buildings, and expect even more of iconic ones.

Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner

Photo Credits/Sources





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