Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Even the “Genius” at your local Apple store admits that your dollar buys significantly more computing power in a PC. iTunes can be infuriatingly glitchy and difficult to navigate. The iPod is so delicate a flower that it breaks, seemingly, if you exhale in its vicinity. What, then, explains a world awash in longing, admiration, and loss in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death last week at the age of 56?

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Recently, the Pritzker Committee held the award ceremony for its annual prize, which this year went to Eduardo Souto de Moura, a Portuguese architect revered among architecture’s global, academic elite and virtually unknown to the public.

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“Notes from the Archive: James Frazer Stirling, Architect and Teacher”Exhibition runs until January 2, 2011 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, and will then travel to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Post-modernism in architecture came to the public eye when, in the late 1970s, The New York Times printed on its front page the astonishing image of Philip Johnson’s model for the proposed AT&T (now Sony) building in midtown Manhattan.

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Do we really know what the new Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero would look like? For weeks, we have heard and read that Park51 is in fact not a mosque, with its developers contending that it is modeled on two very American building types: the Jewish Community Center and the YMCA. Early sketches of the project suggest this much is true. Park51’s developers recently posted on their website three conceptual drawings of the center by the New York-based SOMA architects.

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Park Here

The High Line New York City Millennium Park Chicago Citygarden St. Louis A common plaint of contemporary social criticism is that American society has become more an archipelago than a nation, increasingly balkanized into ethnic, class, faith, and interest groups whose members rarely interact meaningfully with people whose affiliations they do not in large measure share. The pervasiveness of this phenomenon of American selfaggregation can be debated, but its existence is pretty plain.

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Europe’s cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and baptisteries cover the countryside like Veronica’s veil. They comprise the continent’s landmarks and focal attractions and, for centuries, have been integral to its culture. It is curious, then, that, in the history of art, architecture has been a relatively infrequent subject—in Western painting before 1900, only scattered examples come to mind, such as the Dutch seventeenth-century church interiors by Emanuel de Witte (pictured here) or the panoramas of Venice by Canaletto.

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Over a decade ago, I trundled my good-natured family across miles of southern Switzerland to see every building I could by Peter Zumthor, who is this year's winner of the Pritzker Prize. Then as now, most of Zumthor's work was off the beaten track, not only literally but metaphorically, little known to the general public although admired by professionals.

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Stick Stuck

ONE OF THE items in “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” the exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was a short film, made in 1930, called “Houses While You Wait.” A grainy black-and-white screen opens up with a view of a vacant suburban lot. A delivery truck rolls up, filled with wall-size metal panels and other materials. A retinue of somewhat scruffy white men in baggy pants unloads the cargo and deposits it on the site. They scurry around at that ridiculous, fast-forward silent-film speed.

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To accurately assess trends in architecture and urbanism one needs a time horizon longer than 365 days. Just to design a building often takes longer than that. Even so, 2008 may come to be seen as a watershed year for contemporary architecture. The electrifying campaign for the U.S. presidency, the sputtering housing market and the global economy's free fall, the ever-more chilling and urgent need to slow the pace of global warming: these developments and more awakened architects to the realization that they've more important things to design than monolithic, high-end goodie bags.

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To build a building is hard; to criticize a building is, by comparison, easy. For a serious critic, the impulse to write uncomplimentary things should always provoke a bout of preliminary introspection. Does one write from the lofty principle that truth must be spoken to power, or at least to fashion? Will the reader come away from this exercise in scorching criticism of buildings and urban spaces with a heightened appreciation for the built environment and its importance to our daily lives?

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