Then and Now: Paul Goldberger

Paul Goldberger – American architectural critic, writer, educator, and contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine

Paul Goldberger, who began as a high-achieving student and National Honor Society member, became the Pulitzer Prizing-winning writer that The Huffington Post has called “the leading figure in architecture criticism.”

He was a school newspaper editor with high expectations for himself, and was supported through his high school years by numerous teacher mentors who helped perpetuate his love of learning and the courage to observe and form his own perceptions. His membership in the NHS added a layer of status to his already impressive high school portfolio, and from there he went on to Yale University before launching his career with The New York Times. 

Goldberger went on to serve as the architecture critic for The New Yorker, where he wrote the magazine’s celebrated “Sky Line” column. He is now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and has authored numerous books dissecting and disseminating the topic of architecture and urban planning. His most recent, a full-length biography of the architect Frank Gehry titled Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, will be released September 15, 2015.

Spotlight on Education

Goldberger never lost his love of learning and later became dean of the Parsons School of Design, a division of The New School in New York City, and holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture. He lectures widely around the country on the subject of architecture, design, historic preservation and cities, and has taught at both the Yale School of Architecture and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, in addition to The New School. He has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the Pratt Institute, the University of Miami, Kenyon College, the College for Creative Studies, and the New York School of Interior Design for his work as a critic and cultural commentator on design.

Awards and Recognition

Goldberger’s writing has received numerous awards in addition to the Pulitzer, including the Presidents’ Medal of the Municipal Art Society of New York, the medal of The American Institute of Architects and the Medal of Honor of the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation, awarded in recognition of what the Foundation called “the nation’s most balanced, penetrating, and poetic analyses of architecture and design.”

In May 1996, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani presented him with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Preservation Achievement Award in recognition of the impact of his writing on historic preservation in New York. In 1993, he was named a Literary Lion, the New York Public Library’s tribute to distinguished writers. In 2007, he was presented with the Ed Bacon Foundation’s Award for Professional Excellence, named in honor of Philadelphia’s legendary planner, and in 2009 he received the Gene Burd Urban Journalism Award from the Urban Communication Foundation.

The Power of a Vision

As a student at New Jersey’s Nutley High School, when asked about his post-high school ambitions for purpose of a caption in the yearbook, Paul Goldberger responded, “I want to be an architecture critic for The New York Times.” As it turned out, the wry response of this National Honor Society alumnus was particularly foretelling-a testament to the power of setting goals and envisioning. Advise recently spoke with Goldberger about his formative years as a student, and how his educational experiences helped shape his accomplished career and exceptional achievements.

Advise: Which areas of study were you most passionate about during your high school years?

Paul Goldberger: English and writing interested me most, more so than science or math. Although contrary to what you would imagine, [chuckling] my math SAT scores were higher than my English scores.

Advise: How and when did architecture enter into focus for you?

PG: I was interested in architecture even in high school. I always thought it would be a vague interest, and I was thinking about how architecture and writing could intersect. During college, I took a trip to Europe and found myself looking at the buildings more than anything, just absorbed in them. And so, my major at Yale was art history, which at the time was the closest curriculum to architecture without actually becoming an architect. And I began taking courses with Vincent Scully (Sterling Professor Emeritus of History of Art in Architecture, Yale University), who is one of the leading architectural historians and critics. And from there, I just got more and more into it.

Advise: During your years at Nutley High School, was there a particular teacher or adviser who inspired or influenced you most directly?

PG: There were a number of them, actually. Maxine Hoffer, an English teacher, a serious intellectual, and someone who really helped me learn about the pleasure of knowing and understanding. Another was Marian Shivey. She also taught English. She was spirited and energetic, and we used to argue politically. I had a French teacher, and he was very cultured. I was not a good French student, but he taught me how to believe in the power to see things, and the power of my own perceptions.

Advise: If you were going to impart advice and guidance to the secondary-level students of today, what would you share?

PG: Well, start with “A-B-C”-Always Be Curious. Have faith in your own ideas, but without the arrogance of thinking you know everything. It’s a balance of trusting your own perception and thoughts, and knowing that you don’t know everything. I have always been curious, and always wanting to learn, but willing to change my ideas when needed.

Advise: Having been an ambitious student and now an educator, what guidance would you have for the educators working to inspire the secondary-level students of today?

PG: Some of my greatest memories of teachers were not necessarily in the traditional teaching moments, but in the one-on-one conversations that occurred. I remember the excitement of being treated intellectually as an adult. The teaching happens as mentoring, not only as instructing. It’s more of an exchange of ideas, and in that, there is learning. I do not think you can teach curiosity. I think you can awaken curiosity where it has lacked stimulation. You can enhance and strengthen it, but I don’t know if you can instill curiosity where it doesn’t exist. My most impactful teachers were those who were available to students, who made that connection.

Advise: What was one of your most memorable career highlights to date?

PG: One of my greatest honors was receiving the Vincent Scully Prize. It was an award established by the National Building Museum in recognition of those who have contributed to the architecture industry, in some manner other than as an architect. To be receiving the award that bears his name after being so impacted by him during my years at Yale, it was a great honor.—