Goldberg and Goldberger

October 27, 2015

They obviously deserve each other. Last Sunday’s Times Book Review announced the publication of another book by the prolific Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the newspaper. His subject: Frank Gehry. Probably the world’s most honored architect, and the most recognizable name among non architects, Gehry isn’t really Gehry. He’s Goldberg.

The new biography announces that Frank Goldberg elected to change his name because, planning to become famous, he wanted something a bit more distinctive. With typical aplomb he constructed his new name from the old. Goldberger appreciates that kind of chutspah: he has made a career of jumping on opportunities to increase his own brand recognition. Though he didn’t change his name to get into Yale, he cozied up to powerful New Yorkers during his years at the New York Times and is now a regular A-lister in the Hamptons and on Park Avenue. He now writes for Vanity Fair, a perfect fit for his ambitions.

Though I haven’t yet read the book, the reviewer (author of a biography of Le Corbusier) finds its analysis tepid at best. That’s not the typical description of Gehry’s work. What interests Paul G. is that Frank G. was a clever public relations maven who crafted his fame by cultivating friendships in the art world and being in Los Angeles, among movie people. In many ways Mr. Goldberg became the prototypical “Starchitect,” today’s paltry substitute for a genius like LeCorbusier. Mr. Goldberger has his sights on “Starjournalist.” H. L. Mencken would not be impressed.

Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic of Vanity Fair (and previously not a few other New York media mainstays) has finally written something about the Central Library Plan. Never mind that he is too late to offer any relevant criticism, but his title says much about how little he has followed the controversy since 2008. He says that Tony Marx and the library board were “surprised” that the CLP would provoke controversy–perhaps it was Goldberger who found the project’s critics more determined and persuasive than he would have liked. His lengthy narrative about the CLP mainly covers old ground. He sheds some light on the inner workings of the library board, but skims over the real issues at hand. His own view of the plan, like many of his “critical” positions, is squarely on the side of the establishment, though he tries to convince the reader otherwise.

Goldberger, contrary to much that has been written about him, is a New York animal concerned almost exclusively with maintaining his status as a member of the A-List in society–a denizen of the Hamptons and the Upper East Side who delights in being seen with every kind of elite. Vanity Fair is just where he belongs, as The New Yorker found him lightweight and barely tolerable as a writer.

After reading his piece, I could barely believe that a man so deeply entrenched in New York’s cultural history could produce a story so full of contradictions and circular reasoning. After admitting that the library board backed into a public relations disaster, he seems content to accept Marx’s view that critics were silenced when he offered to put the books back under Bryant Park. Goldberger admits sheepishly that he helped put Norman Foster on a list of possible architects for the project in 2007, but insists that he had no position on whether such a “star” architect with “critically acclaimed” new insertions into old buildings should have been chosen from his list. Moreover, he describes features of the Foster design, which has yet to be shown to the public, as if they were already in place.
Further clouding the picture, he suggests that the New York Public Library was admired for its resistance to the a kind of cultural blackmail which billionaires foisted on the Guggenheim, Whitney, MOMA, and the Met when giving huge gifts for capital projects. When Steven Schwartzman’s $100 million gift broke the library’s will in 2006, it went for the same kind of “naming opportunity” as those museums had years earlier. Why then does he then treat Marshall Rose, Neil Rudenstine, and other board members as forward-thinking heroes only a few paragraphs later? Either there was something salutary and wise about its previous stance (and its longstanding commitment to scholarship), or there wasn’t. Go figure.

This long essay expends a good deal of clever prose on the library’s history, including stories of its opening after the death of John Carrere, but it fails to consider any relevant facts about the book stacks and the nature of the library’s design. The author admits that the building is probably the greatest and most beloved cultural institution in America’s cultural capital, but refuses to accord it special status as an icon worth preserving.

Goldberger is finally so taken by the charm and charisma of Tony Marx, to whom he defers repeatedly in the piece, that he cannot give Stan Katz and Joan Scott equal space to voice their negative opinions on the CLP. When all is said and done, this essay is merely a shill for the library board’s destructive plan, and a betrayal of the values that built it in 1912. Vanity Fair will get some points for weighing in on the controversy, but it has copped out on its opportunity to expose a sham.

Near the conclusion of the essay, Goldberger lays out his position clearly: “Even leaving the exterior of the library untouched, however, has not fully calmed some historic preservationists, who have argued that the bookstack should not be altered or dismantled, since it is a key part of the original Carrère and Hastings design. There is no doubt of its historical importance, but given the difficulties with bringing the bookstack up to present-day standards of temperature and humidity control, keeping it functioning is hard to justify.” I am proud to be one of those preservationists. Saving the stacks is not only justifiable, it is imperative.