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The art of yea and nay

Architecture is a complex art due to the factors it embraces, and to the difficulty of understanding it

Architects, and the fans and dilettantes of architecture, can be glad that Ivorypress has just published some collected writings of Paul Goldberger (Pulitzer 1984), the most influential architectural critic first of The New York Times and, since 1996, of The New Yorker.

Goldberger, who understands a great deal, also makes himself understood. Architecture is a complex art due to the factors it embraces, and to the difficulty of understanding it. Goldberger sings in none too exalted terms of the interiors of buildings, seeing in these emotional receptacles the chief raison d' être of architecture. His equation is this: everything that looks good from without, and causes malaise from within, is hurtful to our lives. Not to mention our mood.

In recent years showy façades have had the upper hand over user-friendly interiors. Famous architects have prospered by showing the outer faces of their works in glossy magazines. The old dictum of "form follows function" - so beloved of the moralist faction in architecture - is dismantled by Goldberger, who argues that there is no one single function that is holy: "There are too many kinds of function, and different forms that can do the same thing."

Whoever contemplates the buildings of Gehry or Rem Koolhaas will notice the truth of this. Or its inverse. Many architects in these years of spectacle have felt an irresistible hankering to create "fun" buildings. Play, like Promethean fire, seemed the primordial force of inspiration.

There is no painting, novel or edifice that neglects the dialectic between repetition and difference

To be fun in publicity, in costume, in music or in papal visits has been the common rule, until the hecatomb of crisis. Amusing Ourselves to Death was the title of Neil Postman's bestseller that in the mid-1980s set a trend in marketing jargon. The vogue for putting up fun buildings did not peter out for some time.

And now? Now it is worth looking at Paul Goldberger's considerations on difference and repetition. Not exactly as Deleuze (Différence et Répétition) treats the matter; but he does evoke common motifs in works of art and even in personal life.

There is no painting, novel or edifice that neglects the dialectic between repetition and difference. The powerful painting looks just as variegated and motley as it is coherent; the novel as boring as it is entertaining. The powerful building is lovable, and we don't know why. And the cause, as in classical symphonies, has much to do with the sequence of litany and its interruption.

The seductive effect of the BBVA tower by Sáenz de Oiza on the upper Castellana in Madrid rests on the protagonism of the projecting horizontal steel sunshades, and on judicious variation, or interruption of the vertical sequence of windows just at the point when their repetition grows monotonous.

The 28 floors of this famous tower are divided into three major eight-floor sequences by two service floors, walled outside not with glass as the rest, but with oxidizing Corten steel, the same material as the sunshades. These service floors are load-bearing, of pre- stressed concrete. Within each eight-floor sequence, the weight is passed down through minor columns; then the strong service floor transfers it to the tower's central load-bearing core. Moreover each eight-floor sequence is subdivided into two minor sequences of three and four, by the interruption of a floor with notably higher ceiling. The result is a sequence of "litany and its interruption" which reminds us of certain works of music.

Writers, and plastic artists too, perhaps possess a personal style, but the worst thing you can do is copy yourself. Every work that does not create a hiatus is dead; as dead as the works that Goldberger repudiates. Not like the Goldberg Variations, where what might be monotony is given life by Johann Sebastian Bach, who captivates the ear with sage esthetic proportion between yea and nay.

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