The unusual candor of Paul Goldberger, outgoing ‘New Yorker’ architecture critic

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Paul Goldberger, being interviewed by Charlie Rose. ()
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The announcement that long-time New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger would be leaving the magazine and becoming a contributing editor at Vanity Fair has rightly led to more conclusions about The New Yorker and its changing interests under editor David Remnick than about Goldberger himself.

After all, Goldberger has been at this game for a long time. He succeeded The New York Times' pathbreaking Ada Louise Huxtable, and only moved to The New Yorker when the late Herbert Muschamp took over there.

And, Goldberger has in fact written quite often for Vanity Fair on the side in recent years. The Observer's Matt Chaban conducts an analysis of the uses to which Goldberger has been put in recent years, and what it means for the legacy of The New Yorker.

"There are two great thrones in American architectural criticism, that of The New Yorker and The New York Times," Chaban writes. "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."

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Goldberger is quite frank with Chaban about his reasons for leaving The New Yorker; at a panel discussion held at the Center for Architecture at the end of February, Goldberger was possibly already making this deal when he said a lot more about the topic. (You can read a full account of the evening here.)

Here is Goldberger, speaking at the panel, on the narrow range of topics that these days interest magazine and newspaper editors in general:

“I think most of us as critics, and I definitely include myself, but I think also everybody up here, were never exactly so completely in the thrall of the ‘object-building’ and the starchitect anyway,” Goldberger said. “I mean I—while we wrote about many of them because they were important moments in the culture, there is certainly a higher degree of broader urbanistic consciousness [now] and I think I, for example, would be much more interested today in writing about some of the stuff that Janette Sadik Khan is doing in the city as much as anything else, which we might not have done a few years ago.”

And in fact, Goldberger names about two years in which he felt he was really able to stretch out at The New Yorker as a critic:

“In the aftermath of 9/11 and for two years after, that was my only time at The New Yorker that I could have as much space as I wanted, and write as much as I wanted. Before, and since, it’s been a matter of ... fighting for adequate space.”

Goldberger specifically talked about the challenges of selling Remnick on the traditional Mumford-Huxtable axis of writing about architecture and planning:

“What’s new is an objective fact,” Goldberg said. “What matters is always subjective, so we can’t really compare them precisely.

“I know The New Yorker under David Remnick is particularly interested in the new,” Goldberger said. “And over the years I’ve been under pressure from time to time to write about some things before The New York Times had it. David’s level of interest rose in proportion to—in inverse proportion to the presence of something in The New York Times. If The New York Times had not covered it yet, and did not appear to be likely to cover it soon, he became more interested and more engaged.

“I like to be first; it feels good, but at the end of the day I think it’s more important to have confidence in your ability to say things better, or differently, or in your own way, than to be first—I don’t think readers keep score about that the way editors can keep score about that. Editors keep score about that, but I don’t think readers do.”

Graydon Carter seems to have a different idea about that from Remnick, too. Here is wishing Goldberger luck in his new role.