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Sarah Williams Goldhagen is on a crusade to fix architecture, now.

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Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is a notable architecture critic and author, known for her writing and lectures on how people interact with their built environments.

Goldhagen was born in Princeton, NJ, in 1959. Her father directed the New York City Department of City Planning. She studied at Brown University and Columbia University and taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Vassar College, and Harvard University. She resigned her faculty position in 2006 to write full time, and served as architecture critic at the New Republic until 2014.

Her first monograph, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism (2001), places the work of the famed architect within the major artistic, intellectual, and social currents of postwar American culture. Her acclaimed 2017 book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives draws from cognitive neuroscience and environmental psychology to suggest how architecture and urban design can be better suited to the needs of people.

Goldhagen is a contributing editor at Art in America and Architectural Record and a visiting scholar at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.



Though it’s been a century and a half since the world started standardizing how we make spaces safe, we’ve agreed on the ideal height for ceilings, the width of doors, the slope of stairs, we’ve given a lot less thought to the emotional and psychological impact of buildings.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: It costs just as much to build a bad building as it does to build a good building but you need to educate yourself about what a good building is.

Architecture critic and former Harvard professor Sarah Williams Goldhagen believes we need a paradigm shift in architecture, starting with its status as an art form.

Goldhagen: To call it an art, mistakenly casts it as a luxury good and it’s not. It’s more and more clear that the things that we experience in the built environment profoundly affect our mental health, our emotional health, our physical health, the way children learn, the way children develop and it’s grotesquely neglected.

AJC: It sounds like you’re talking about a civil right rather than an art form.

Goldhagen: I am, that’s the reconceptualization of the built environment that needs to happen. I analogize it sometimes to the change in the way people thought about the environment from the 50s to the 70s or 80s. In the 50s nature was nature it was trees and forests and rivers and mountains and so on so forth and then people began to become concerned about pollution and various other things that turned into concerns about global warming.

When you look at global temperatures July was the hottest month on average since reliable record-keeping started and July was not a freak occurrence. The past ten years have seen many high temperature records broken.

Goldhagen: People realize that it wasn’t all these disaggregated elements it was an ecosystem, it was one system that we all inhabited and instead of calling nature nature we tend to call it now the environment. And what we need to understand now is the kind of importance that we all accord now to the environment is the kind of importance that we need to accord to the built environment because the built environment is in fact what most of us inhabit most of the time and it’s having an impact on us in all sorts of ways that people don’t appreciate.

It may sound abstract but the subtle impacts of the built environment on humans are numerous, profound, and well documented. One study measured a spike in heart right and cortisol levels in people who walked through a featureless part of town, demonstrating the built environment’s ability to add subconscious stress to our lives. Other studies saw patients in hospital rooms with a garden view recover from surgery faster and with less pain than their counterparts in rooms without a view. But Goldhagen says that for architects to leverage all this knowledge they’ll need to radically and fundamentally change the way they approach their craft.

Goldhagen: One of the problems with the way that architecture is taught in schools and purchased by clients is really to put it simply from the outside. I mean you sort of look at these big renderings of these very very large scale forms well nobody experiences buildings that way so you need architectural education to flip the formulation where they start from the user. Small construction details, better materials versus worse materials, the sonic qualities of materials, the tactile qualities of materials. That’s what the people who walk in that building or walk past that building they’re gonna notice.

And Goldhagen herself has noticed many thoughtful designs abroad and at home. One example the Via Verde sustainable housing project in the Bronx that presents a strong model for responsible community conscious architecture. Further south in Philadelphia there’s Dilworth Plaza where in 2014 three different firms were tasked with transforming the space around city hall from a menacing series of dark alleyways to a vibrant, uplifting center square. James Timberlake, whose firm’s most recent accomplishments include the U.S. Embassy in London, was one of the architects who embraced the challenge of building joy into a previously dour public space.

James Timberlake: That’s been one of the great shifts in our country in the last you know 18 to 20 years is that recognition that we can’t gate everything we can’t wall up everything but we need to open up some of these spaces to not only public expression but public use. I think Sarah Goldhagen’s book somewhat refers to that and when she starts talking about the impact of our public realms on our psyches and our spirit and how we engage that and how use it and you can see it on a day to day basis in Dilworth Plaza.

Mean time, Goldhagen is in surprisingly good spirits about the future of architecture. Practically and aesthetically.

Goldhagen: I do think that some things that are initially difficult for people to comprehend and not beautiful can end up being appreciated as aesthetically powerful so beauty doesn’t always have to be something that’s just immediately pleasing.

AJC: Doesn’t have to be pretty?

Goldhagen: Right, pretty is the word that I, it doesn’t have to be pretty because one of the things we know we need from our environments is challenge. We want our expectations to be subverted, we want to go oh wait a minute, I didn’t know I could stand on a bridge made of glass and look down. So is it beautiful? I don’t know, it’s a little unsettling but it’s pretty cool too and it makes me think about my environment and my relationship to this city in a really different way.