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August 14, 2007

Flyover fan mail: Milwaukee's Whitney Gould

Jennifer A. Smith

I've never understood those music fans who have an obsessive need to know their idol's favorite color or birth date. I adore Rufus Wainwright and Andrew Bird, but I don't care much about their personal lives. Their music is what matters to me. Similarly, I seldom seek out information on the personal backgrounds of writers I admire, but this profile of Whitney Gould, from the current issue of Milwaukee Magazine, caught my attention.

Gould is the architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It feels good simply to type that because so few papers have architecture critics, and Gould is an especially fine one. A Wisconsin native, she writes with intelligence, passion and a clear point of view. First and foremost, I think of Gould as someone who demands authenticity and honesty in architecture. She doesn't despise faux-historical buildings out of some middlebrow sense that they're ticky-tacky; she objects because virtually all architecture worth its salt is, in some way, genuinely of the time and place in which it was built.

The Milwaukee Magazine profile, despite some odd word choices ("grandmotherly," anyone?), is well worth reading. Gould's family background and entry into journalism are intriguing.

And for a taste of Whitney Gould's own writing, a recent column called "We should care about good design" directly addresses why the public should be invested in the built environment surrounding them. Indirectly, it also makes a case for architecture criticism, since people in Gould's profession have a plum opportunity to raise issues and shape the debate. And through periodic online chats, Gould engages in real give-and-take with the public.

Gould closes her column with a quote from Winston Churchill ("We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us") and this observation of her own: "[Buildings] affect the quality of life in our neighborhoods; they establish the identity of our cities; they color our work days. If we don't make it our business to care about such things, we will deserve the awful results."

I'd argue that in smaller to mid-size cities (like Madison, where I live), good architecture is even more crucial since a single major project has a bigger impact on the overall look and feel of the city.

Since Flyover (namely, John) has been in a quotin' mood lately, I'll throw out a favorite of my own, something I've had tacked near my computer for ages:

"Our culture is first of all an urban one, the city the place of our history and our social life--factors that have impressed themselves inextricably upon the face of the houses, but also in the structures of the streets and plazas." (Christoph Schreier, from the exhibition catalog "Thomas Struth: Strassen--Fotografie 1976 bis 1995)

This idea of the city as the locus of our history in a very physical way, with that history literally written upon its face, has long affected me, and it's why I share Gould's view that good architecture matters--as does thoughtful writing about architecture.

(Note: The Schreier translation from the German is mine. Here's the original for my fellow Germanophiles: "Denn unsere Kultur ist zuallererst eine städtische, die Stadt der Ort unserer Geschichte, unseres soziales Leben, Faktoren, die sich unauslöslich in das Gesicht der Häuser, aber auch in die Strukturen der Strassen and Plätze eingeprägt haben.")

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at August 14, 2007 6:00 AM


Nicholas Oussouroff (sp.) is an architecture critic. Whitney Gould writes about urban design. There is a big difference. She's great, like John King at the SF Chronicle and Christopher Hume at the Toronto Star. Blair Kamin at the Chicago Tribune is an architecture critic, but he too writes about urban design just as much.

There is a big difference between architecture criticism and urban design criticism. A focus on contextless architecture does us no favors. Be careful to elucidate the difference...

Posted by: Richard Layman at August 15, 2007 6:21 AM