Looking back now, I can see that the seeds for my book, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, were planted during one of Prof. Joel Upton's enthralling lectures on the masterpieces of Gothic architecture. Having dazzled us with lantern slides of Chartres, Amiens and Rheims, and having explained how the great cathedrals could be understood as Rosetta Stones that revealed the values and visions of French medieval culture, Upton posed a provocative question: What type of building best represents modern American culture?
Hands shot up.
"The science laboratory."
"The airport," I ventured, adding that it symbolizes American mobility and the country’s limitless faith in technology.
While there are no “right answers” in an Amherst seminar, this, at least, was the answer that our charismatic professor was looking for to make a broader point. That point, which I took to heart, was that buildings could be analyzed on many levels: as aesthetic objects, as emblems of technological prowess, and as cultural artifacts. Such an approach guides “Terror and Wonder,” which collects 51 of my columns spanning the period from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to the Jan. 4, 2010 opening of the world’s tallest building in Dubai: We are what we build. We build what we are. Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright so succinctly put it, "There can be no separation between our architecture and our culture. Nor any separation of either from our happiness."
Accordingly, the book ranges widely in its subject matter, from such high style structures as Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to a bloated, showcase McDonald's in Chicago that symbolizes the age of swelling McMansions and gargantuan gas-guzzling SUVs. Throughout the book, I am as concerned with destruction as with construction, given the enormous impact that the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katina had on our cityscapes and the national conversation. And I am as focused on our crumbling infrastructure as I am on the new wave of “starchitect”-designed museums and Donald Trump’s awful initial plan for a Chicago skyscraper.
This seems to be an opportune time for such a retrospective, and not only because the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is approaching. With work on a new science center due to begin soon, Amherst will be embarking upon its most consequential act of construction in decades. While the science center’s design is full of promise, I’ll be holding my breath, knowing from bitter experience that there is often a vast gap between a two-dimensional set of architectural drawings and the three-dimensional reality of a finished building. For better and for worse, as I learned from Joel Upton’s great lectures on the Gothic cathedrals, our architecture reflects and affects everything we do.