In her new book, architecture critic Sarah Goldhagen sets out to quantify how the built environment affects our lives.
Interview By Chloe Foussianes
Photos by Tawni Bannister
April 12, 2017
Sarah Williams Goldhagen lives in a church. Well, a former teen-pregnancy center, in East Harlem, that was once a Pentecostal church. Either way, there is an ecclesiastical feeling inside.
The revered American architecture critic and former professor sits opposite me at the head of her dining room table. It’s the day after an early March blizzard hit the northeast, and as rays of morning sun filter through cathedral windows, their intensity is magnified by a carpet of snow on the ground outside. The natural light illuminates the entire double-height space, but Goldhagen anchors the room with her quiet poise—even as she picks at a gluten-free bundt cake. She’s bespectacled and dressed all in black, a look I’ve come to associate with austere Chelsea gallerists. Her warm smile, though, breaks through the seemingly hard-edged facade.
The reason for our meeting is to discuss her new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (Harper), the first major work of hers to be written for the lay reader—a departure from two academic tomes she penned in the early aughts, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism (Yale University Press) and Anxious Modernisms (The MIT Press). Welcome to Your World, which was published last month, pulls from new research in psychology and neuroscience to explain exactly what its subtitle suggests.
Goldhagen’s home, which she shares with her husband and children, is a perfect prototype for the design her book lobbies for: a tasteful mix of organic materials, natural light, and greenery. I pause my scanning of the room to take a sip of tea. Maybe it’s just because my feet are snug inside a pair of Goldhagen’s slippers, but I feel at ease. (At her home, guests are provided with sanctioned footwear.) She would contend, however, that my comfy toes aren’t the half of it.
In Welcome to Your World, Goldhagen manages to summarize a wealth of new research on the environment’s effects on the individual. What once seemed hopelessly nebulous—the importance of aesthetics, the impact of the arts, and so on—can now be scientifically proven. Patients convalescing in hospitals recover faster when they can see nature from the window. Test-taking in a room with a sky-blue ceiling leads to a higher score. Welcome to Your World gives designers the language to communicate the importance of their trade—a task they’ve been attempting for centuries, but with little success.
Having spent her whole life studying and analyzing architecture, Goldhagen is relieved to finally have proof of what she’s been saying all along. From her nine-year tenure as The New Republic’s architecture critic to the decade she spent teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Goldhagen has never ceased to advocate for the necessity of good design. And now, sitting in her ethereal home, holding a forkful of bundt, she is certainly not going to stop.
In this book, you’re pushing back against a culture that doesn’t value architecture. What do you think has contributed to this apathy?
Design isn’t highly valued in the United States, and there is a kind of self-perpetuating quality to that. Because it’s not highly valued, people think it’s not important. Another reason is that people tend to think of architecture as a fine art, which would mean it’s something very expensive and available only to the elite. That’s simply wrong. As a friend of mine said, “Thinking about architecture as an art is category mistake.” That doesn’t mean that an artistic sensibility isn’t important, but it’s not art—it’s apublic good.
Being an editor at a design magazine makes me biased, but I’d have to say I agree.
My sister once said to me that hiring an architect is just a way to waste money. Can you believe that? My sister!
My brother is studying engineering and thinks very little of my art history degree.
In part, it’s a failure of education. In most countries in Europe and Asia, people get a general education in the built environment. For example, in the Netherlands a lot more people are trained in the basics of the built environment than in the United States and more of them end up being architects. Here, you’re lucky if you get it in college.
What about architecture schools? Are they effectively teaching students what they need to know?
One of the principal targets of my book was architectural education. Having come out of teaching history and theory in architecture schools, I found a lot of people making assertions about what architecture should be that were pretty unsupportable. There’s a lot of stuff we can point to that designers need to know that they’re not being taught, and I don’t understand why. Well, I do understand why. Because until I wrote the book, no one had presented it as a body of knowledge.
What would you say to people who claim that it’s a monetary problem? That if everyone could afford it, we’d all invest in design?
I was once asked a question at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It’s a little politically conservative out there. Someone said, “Well, you know they’re building a post office in Bentonville. It’s a public building, so it has to be functional and inexpensive. What would you say about that?” And I said, “It costs just as much money to design a bad building as it does to design a good one.” I think that at any level of investment, you can make better decisions or worse decisions, and if you’re not making good decisions, you’re making bad ones.
One of the worries that I had when I was reading your book is that you rely heavily on data and hard evidence to prove your point. If there’s anything I’ve learned this past year, it’s that the truth isn’t always enough to convince people.
First of all, just because Donald Trump was elected doesn’t mean that data goes out the window. What I’ve realized is that people are susceptible to big paradigm shifts. For example, we used to think that the brain developed into your mid-twenties and it was kind of set. Now, we know none of that is true. That is an easily comprehensible idea that someone can get: “Oh, the brain is changing all the time.” Yes, there’s an ocean of studies that I’ve read and researched, but the central idea is really very simple and communicable, which is that we can know things about how people experience environments.
Was it different to write about scientific studies, rather than observations and interviews?
This is by far the most difficult project that I have ever done. That’s in part because I was crossing a lot of different disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to environmental psychology to all these branches of psychology that I didn’t even know of before. I had a long correspondence with a cognitive neuroanthropologist from Florida. He’s actually very interesting. Who knew?
How has the cognitive neuroanthropologist and everyone else reacted to the book?
The scientists love it. Terry Sejnowski, who blurbed the book—he’s the Francis Crick Professor at The Salk Institute—came up to me and said, “You’re right on target. This is exactly right.” He actually wanted to publish it in the Journal of Computational Neurology, which he edits. I said it didn’t sound like the right fit.
Do you think this is the future of the humanities? To integrate with the sciences?
It’s happening in other fields. It’s a big thing in the study of literature. Some people think this is a bad direction in the humanities because it drains away the humanism of the arts. But I’m a big believer in information—I think more information is better.
Are there any architects you believe are doing a good job now?
I do. One more general point is I think that technologies have been developed in the last fifteen years that allow for large-scale interpretations of mass customization. It makes it much easier for architects to inflect moments in their buildings in an experiential way.
That’s interesting, because many critics of architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry have credited those technological developments for their creations.
I think Zaha Hadid was a terrible architect. I haven’t been in every one of her buildings, but in the ones I have, the craftsmanship is awful. The moment-to-moment experience of these buildings is just nonexistent, because they’re these large-scale conceptualizations that end up getting built that way. But the technology’s not to blame—it’s how you use it.
If not the technology, what do you think has enabled the system that supports architects in that vein?
Constant self-promotion and the awards commissions coming to the same short list—this phenomenon happened within twenty to twenty-five years. I don’t see it changing that much because the market forces keeping the “starchitecture” system in place are so powerful that it’s going to be hard to contravene them.
What would have to change to alter that system?
I do think clients need to be better educated—they need to hold whoever they hire to a much higher standard. Part of the problem in the commissioning of architecture is that [the end product] is very difficult for people to visualize as clients so they don’t know what they’re buying a lot of the time. Architects need to be better at communicating what they’re thinking.
Funny. Architects will tell you the clients do too much talking as it is.
This is part of what I’m trying to break down. I ended up not putting this in the book, but there are studies that show how differently architects look at buildings than non-architects do.
Makes you think about how many bad buildings are under construction right now.
Exactly, and the amount of building that’s going to take place in the next fifty years is just staggering.
You see time lapses of cities being built in China and the pace is unbelievable.
Actually one of the things I’m pleased about is that the preeminent business publisher in China bought my book, and they’re expecting to sell a bazillion copies. Yes, China needs my book.
Hopefully they listen. If there’s one thing I gleaned from Welcome to Your World, it’s that architects have more power than they know.
You’re right, [my book] gives architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and everyone else involved in the built environment an awareness of their immense power. They can either make human experience or really fuck it up.