Editor's note: James S. Russell will be participating in a webinar with the Security and Sustainability Forum next Thursday. Below, we repost with permission a recent piece from his blog.
Daniel Libeskind’s aggressively sculptural Denver Art Museum (right) shapes a pedestrian street with residential development by the same architect.“Here’s to the demise of Starchitecture!” wrote Beverly Willis, in The New York Times recently. Willis, through her foundation, has done much to promote the value of architecture. But like many critics of celebrity architecture, she gets it wrong: “In my 55-plus years of practice and involvement in architecture, I have witnessed the birth and — what I hope will soon be — the demise of the star architect.” The last few years has seen the rise of the snarky, patronizing term “starchitect,” (a term I refuse to use outside this context, much to the annoyance of editors seeking click-bait). But big-name architects creating spectacular, expensive buildings that from time to time prove to be white elephants have always been with us. Think Greek temples, Hindu Palaces, Chinese gardens, and monumental Washington, DC. The Times clearly struck a nerve by running a starchitecture story of utter laziness by author and emeritus professor Witold Rybczynski. That story led to a “Room for Debate” forum offering a variety of solicited points of view, and another more recent forum in which the Times asked readers to respond to a thoughtful letter by Peggy Deamer, an architect (and friend) who teaches at Yale.
Whining about celebrity architectureI have written a great deal about celebrity architects as well as practitioners of what Rybczynski calls “locatecture.” He names no architects that stick to their own city, however, which says to me he doesn’t really care about the kind of practitioner he claims to celebrate. He’d rather just complain about flashy architecture than deeply examine it. I find this typical of celebrity-architecture skepticism. Architecture, Rybczynski writes, “is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression. So it’s a problem when the prevailing trend is one of franchises, particularly those of the globe-trotters: Renzo, Rem, Zaha and Frank.” Wrong, wrong and wrong. Architecture is a public art. No architect can build a spectacular museum, concert hall, or skyscraper without a client willing to underwrite it, a city willing to permit it, and a public that wants it. It’s often a very complicated dance; the Disney Concert Hall Rybczynski admires (as do I) overcame 17 years of cost overruns, funding woes, political difficulties, and redesigns. In so-called progressive cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, unique architectural expression rarely survives an endless public process that tries (impossibly) to please everybody. These cities have mostly driven out homegrown talent because they are never hired.
Basking in the Brand-Name GlowCelebrity architecture is not a franchise (McDonalds is a franchise), but branding. Branding is repellently ubiquitous, and it is pure romanticism to think architecture can escape a trend that so powerfully guides spending. A friend became a museum director in part because building a new building was part of the job. I thought he would bring up an energetic young local talent, but he ended up with an international big name because, he said, only the stars would bring in the donors. That’s sad, but emblematic of an era when private wealth builds the cultural facilities the public won’t pay for. That’s why celebrity architects are brands—a title none of them sought, though all are adept at exploiting. Even wealthy, sophisticated trustees like to bask in the glow of a name that’s got cachet, rather than look hard for someone with obvious talent but who is not well known. Rybczynski writes that architecture should be “a reflection of a society and its values.” That’s inevitable. Ours is a society of great, concentrated wealth, and wealth will build what it wants. That wealth is sometimes devoted to creating great public buildings and places, like Millennium Park in Chicago, where international-standard art, architecture, and landscape architecture combine in a way that’s unique and invites everyone.
The bravura “umbrella” roof at the Western Concourse addition to Kings Cross Station, London, by John MacAslan + Partners, architectBut America builds little housing for those who can’t afford it—and expecting charity to do it is ignorant and naive. It largely fails to engage with architecture adapted to climate change. America builds investment-repelling highways instead of layered mobility infrastructure that is community friendly and meets today’s needs (like the London’s Kings Cross project that avoids a maze of passages below through bravura engineering).